How to give Feedback or Feedforward that is Helpful and Kind

In Converation with the Safety Collaborators Podcast

Episode 031

Jun 14, 2023

I opened my Mouth to Give Feedback

[Listen at approximately 00:12]

And that's how the fight started! Giving feedback is not giving a piece of your mind. So how do you give feedback or feedforward that is helpful, improves how you communicate and do things, and is kind?

There is a 13th-century Sufi saying:

Before you speak, let your words pass these three gates - at the first gate, ask yourself, 'Is it true'? At the second gate, ask yourself, 'Is it necessary'? And at the third gate, ask yourself, 'Is it kind?

How you give feedback makes a difference.

When you focus on the person, you make it too fuzzy; you make it about you. But when you focus on the behaviour, it's about something that can be changed, looked at, or investigated. Because it's not about you fundamentally as a person, it's about the behaviour at that moment.

For example, when you give feedback and say, 'You know what, you don't respect me, you don't love me, or you don't listen to me because you always do this'. Look at those three gates.

Is it true?
Does the person always do that? Or do they do it sometimes?

Is it necessary?
Is this a one-off thing that you're having an awful day, and this was the cherry on the top, the stick that broke the camel's back?

Is it kind?
Is it helpful? Is it something that the person can do to change?

How do you reframe that?

Instead of blaming someone by saying they don't care about the team because they are always late for meetings, reframe it by explaining how their being late makes everyone feel disrespected and suggesting they arrive a little earlier.

This demonstrates a more constructive approach to addressing the issue without attacking their character.

Finding the Underlying Cause

[Listen at approximately 02:48]

Depending on the situation, you may need to have another conversation with the person (privately) and dig deeper into why they're always late. You can often assume things about communication and feedback without truly understanding what's happening in others' lives. There could be underlying reasons, or they're just someone who will always run late. Conversely, some individuals arrive five minutes early and give you that look of "you're late."

Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always. ~ Robin Williams

It's essential to have a broader conversation and consider other factors, especially in high-risk industries where these discussions hold extra significance. There are certain expectations in a work setting, so how can you give the most effective feedback considering the circumstances?

A shared story:

This guy was sitting on a train, and next to him was a father with three children. Those kids were wild, running around and causing chaos. Naturally, the guy sitting there couldn't help but think, "Can't this father control his children? What's the matter with him? What's going on here?" I think we've all had those kinds of thoughts at some point.

But then, something unexpected happened. The guy finally had enough and said, "Hey, I've noticed that your children are running all over the place." It was a tricky thing to bring up, not exactly feedback, but a difficult conversation nonetheless.

The father, visibly overwhelmed, put his head in his hands and confessed, "You're right. They're completely out of control. We just came from the funeral. Their mother passed away, and I just don't know how to handle it all."

Culture of Care, Inclusion and Contribution

[Listen at approximately 05:26]

And just like that, the conversation shifts from criticising to reflecting on how to show care and kindness.

Was what the guy thought true? Maybe not. The kids were running around, but let's consider the evidence. Was it necessary to label someone as a bad parent? Probably not. Let's reframe it. The family recently lost their mother, and their behaviour might be a coping mechanism. You can imagine they were overwhelmed and unsure.

So, the conversation changes to "How can I help?"

Another important point raised is care. You might think it's all warm and fuzzy, especially in our industry. But we're moving towards a culture of care, away from ego and power, towards inclusion, learning, and contribution. Feedback plays a crucial role in every step, and it's not just about giving feedback; it's also about helping others receive feedback.

When it's not working, you should feel comfortable saying, "You gave me feedback, but let's talk about how it was delivered because a different approach would have made it easier for me to receive and take action."

When giving feedback, you often believe it's necessary for the other person's progress. But it would help if you questioned the momentary purpose. For what sake are you providing this feedback? The Sufi saying's three gates are thought-provoking. Is it necessary? Is it for the sake of what? As the person giving feedback, take a moment and ask, "For what sake am I providing this feedback?" The second question is, "For whose benefit?"

It's about the behaviour, not the person.

It's like saying, "I don't like the colour of your eyes." - its feedback, but:

  • Is it helpful?
  • Can anything be done to change it?
  • Is it necessary? Is it kind?

Probably not.

Two Ears and One Mouth

[Listen at approximately 08:30]

Nuala's mother always says, "Never miss a good opportunity to shush [quiet] your mouth."

In our previous Episode 030, we discussed the importance of listening and believe that listening plays a role here too. Listening first, using your two ears and one mouth in that order, is a good rule of thumb when giving or receiving feedback.

How do you receive feedback?

So, you want to have a safety conversation with someone and may need to interrupt what they're doing [remember it's crucial to determine whether it's safe to do so—for them and you, considering any critical danger involved] and regardless of whether the feedback is positive or not, it's common for human beings to automatically be defensive when interrupted: "Why are you disturbing me? What's this about?"

This defensiveness is especially pronounced when it comes to safety discussions, with a tendency to think, "Of course, I know what I'm doing. It's my job. What would you know?"

So, practice the art of saying "Thank you," regardless of how you feel.

Even if it has to be through gritted teeth, saying thank you immediately triggers positive hormones in your system, making receiving feedback easier. Many people find it awkward and embarrassing to receive positive feedback as well. It's not just about constructive feedback or improvement; there's also feedback that rewards the behaviours you want to see. Knowing that your actions align with expectations makes you more likely to continue doing them because you feel recognised. However, it can still be uncomfortable, especially if you're not used to giving or receiving feedback.

And this comes back to the topic discussed last week—interpretation.

You may give me feedback, thinking it's a fantastic compliment, but my interpretation might immediately jump to, "Oh no, what have I done wrong? Why are you stopping me?" So it's important to consider that everyone has different interpretations, even when feedback is well-intended.

Ask for Permission to Give Feedback

[Listen at approximately 11:21]

Another tip is to ask for permission before you give feedback.

You can say, "Hey, I've got something I'd like to share with you. Is now a good time? Can we have a short conversation?" and this opens up a space where you're not coming in as the boss, expert, or teacher, but rather seeking to engage in a two-way conversation instead of just dumping your thoughts on the other person.

In classic feedback situations, women tend to struggle with this. For example, when someone says, "That looks nice on you," the typical response is, "Oh, it's nothing, just something I threw on," while silently thinking, "Why? What was wrong with what I wore yesterday?"

Sometimes, feedback can sting a bit, and you may not know how to handle it. It's natural to become defensive. However, there's often a reason behind the feedback, and it may contain some truth you don't want to face at the moment.

Having the ability to take the conversation further requires a significant amount of trust.

Having straightforward conversations and giving each other hard feedback can be challenging. It can go one of two ways: the start of a fight or an in-depth conversation. Remember to take a deep breath in those moments and ask, "Could you tell me more? When have you seen that yourself?"

This brings us back to the question: Is it true?

It's usually not true when someone shares difficult feedback or advice through the rumour mill. However, suppose they can provide specific examples of an interaction where you exhibited that behaviour. In that case, it allows you to reflect on the information and decide what to do with it.

Focusing on the behaviour, situation, or event is important rather than targeting the individual or yourself.

Give Feedback based on Observation and Reality

[Listen at approximately 15:09]

Be cautious when giving feedback, ensuring it's based on actual observation and reality rather than your worldview, interpretation, or judgment. Whenever something is said, always ask yourself,

"What is the evidence of this situation?" That's what you need to tap into.

During one of our [Safety Collaborations] bite-size learning sessions, we conduct an exercise where we demonstrate something and then ask the group, "What did you observe?"

We specifically focus on the word "observe."

However, what we often receive are judgments and interpretations. Participants share their feelings and emotions, but we still inquire, "What did you observe?" and take it back to the reality level.

For example, you observed me walking through the door and speaking to someone. But initially, you mentioned that I looked angry, appeared cross, and was talking about somebody.

This is where the O.R.J.I. model comes into play: Observation, Reality, Judgment, and Interpretation.

It highlights how quickly we jump to interpretation and judgment rather than stating objective observations. Instead of assuming that the person slammed the door, the reality and observations show that the wind closed the door. Slamming it is an interpretation and judgment.

Now going back to when you receive feedback that stings.

After taking a breath and asking for concrete examples, take the time to reflect on it. It's not the moment to self-judge, berate yourself, or replay the scene in your head a million times. Instead, ask yourself if there's a basis of evidence in the feedback. Would it be helpful for you to make a change?

It's your choice whether you want to use it or lose it; however, if you decide to lose it, then Let It Go. Avoid replaying it continuously because then there may well be some truth in there that you're not yet ready to face.

And if you will use it, decide what you want to do with it. How might you want to grow? And who can help you with that growth? And what will it look like when you start doing things differently? And how might others react differently to you?

There is a responsibility, both sides, both ways.

Feedback / Feedforward

[Listen at approximately 17:37]

Feedback is often discussed, both positive and negative. Marshall Goldsmith, a renowned coach, introduced the concept of feedforward as a distinct process. Feedforward differs from feedback, which tends to focus on past events. While feedback can be useful, our primary goal is to improve situations, enhance safety, foster better conversations, or show care. Therefore, feedforward emphasises moving forward and adopting a solution-oriented approach in our feedback.

Feedforward is a positive and uplifting approach that enables you to support individuals in their self-improvement journey and assist others in their growth.

In the feedforward process, you take on two roles:

  • learning as much as possible; and
  • offering as much help as possible.

FeedForward - Rule 1

Refrain from giving feedback solely about the past, as dwelling on it is unproductive since it cannot be changed. This is particularly important to consider when something has happened.

However, you must exercise caution in operational tasks where a conversation about past occurrences may be necessary. This retrospective discussion focuses on what happened, what went well, what didn't, and what can be done differently next time. It aims to ensure that the system doesn't fail you in the future.

Once you have a clear understanding as a team, you can transition into feedforward, focusing on the future and how you can move forward as a cohesive unit.

Feedforward - Rule 2

[Listen at approximately 20:06]

Rule number two is often the most challenging: refraining from judging or critiquing ideas. The focus is solely on giving ideas. This approach differs from traditional group idea-sharing sessions as it involves one-on-one interactions.

Here's how it works:

I come to you, you give me two ideas, we shake hands, say thank you, and then move on to the next person. Similarly, you receive two ideas from each person, express thanks, and move on to the next individual. By the end of the process, numerous ideas have been generated without any judgment or digging into the past.

Contrast this with the standard approach where I share my first idea and spend 45 minutes explaining it, then move on to my next idea and by the time I'm done, you only remember a lousy idea, forgetting the two good ones from the beginning.

While continuous idea generation[brainstorming] has merits, giving ideas individually is highly valuable. Rather than gathering everyone for a brainstorming session, it's more effective to approach individuals, collect their ideas, and then bring them together.

People found it positive and engaging. Imagine getting feedback and finding it fun.

When did you last get feedback that you thought was fun or give feedback that you think was fun?

Expressing Gratitude / Constructive Feedback

[Listen at approximately 22:23]

Any of these things are ideas; these are gifts; express your gratitude to them. If you're the one receiving feedback, say thank you, if you're giving feedback, be focused on what you want to resolve, encourage new behaviours, or get repeat behaviours. And say thank you for listening to the feedback or receiving the gift.


  • Use small steps
  • Make it timely – right here and right now
  • Focus on specific performance (Behaviour), not the individual
  • No personal put-downs
  • It is usable – something I can do as a result of ….
  • Be clear and precise
  • Don't blame
  • Avoid overload – too many points at once
  • Ensure clear understanding through the use of questioning
  • Be generous – give feedback or feedforward often

In Summary

[Listen at approximately 24:20]

This approach focuses on specific performances or behaviours rather than targeting the individual. It's important to note that feedback or feedforward, regardless of the type, should never be delivered while feeling emotional, angry, or frustrated. It's crucial to wait until you've calmed down before providing feedback.

A point that holds great importance is to avoid personal put-downs.

Feedback should never be about breaking someone; it should always be about growth and building them up. While recipients may only sometimes appreciate the feedback initially, it's their choice whether to use it. However, in most cases, individuals tend to be dismissive initially but later realise that the feedback struck a nerve.

Both the giver and receiver of feedback need to bear the responsibility.

Ask yourself, "Is this feedback usable? Can I take action based on what was said?" Be clear and precise, refraining from adding interpretations. Stick to what you have observed, as mentioned earlier. Avoid letting your mind create stories, assumptions, or conclusions without evidence. Focus on the evidence you have to support the conversation you feel is necessary.

Remember, this is not a blame game.

Moving away from blame is crucial to foster a culture of care. Mistakes are part of being human, and rarely do people make mistakes intentionally. Individuals believe they are making the best decision based on the available information at any given moment.

To prevent overload:

  • Avoid providing too many points at once.
  • Ensure clear understanding through questioning.
  • Listen not only to the feedback but also to the response it elicits.

You can ask open-ended questions such as "What else would you like to know?"

Be generous.

Giving feedback or feedforward can be a beautiful gift when done correctly.

Remember, before speaking, let your words pass through the three gates:
Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?

About the Show

Our purpose in sharing this podcast is to have a chinwag (conversation) to help people change how they think and behave about safety. 

We do this by engaging in dialogue and testing the levels of trust and psychological safety, which are core to organisational culture. Making safety part of your DNA so that your people speak up, show up, do right, and become safer every day for yourself, your team, and your business.

We will explore topics related to organisational and safety culture, leadership, the language of risk, emotional literacy, psychological safety, conversational agility, intercultural intelligence, and whatever else pops up during our conversations—sharing our experiences and learnings. 

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