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  • Jason R. Waller

Five-Step Approach to Giving Powerful Feedback

Updated: Feb 4, 2020



“Feedback is a gift”

I’ve only met four people who are truly amazing at giving feedback. Most of us find the process awkward and forced. Sometimes, it can feel pointless. Which is a damn shame, because feedback is more than just a “gift.” It’s one of the most powerful gifts you can give anyone.


I spent years in my last job deep in a feedback culture. Along the way, picked up a process that really helped me hone how I give feedback. I’ll share it below, with what I learned from the four people who are amazing at it. But first…


What not to do


I originally titled this article "You Suck at Feedback." Which is a tongue-in-cheek example of a really bad way to give feedback. Feedback is not accusations or allegations. It’s not something to defend against. At its core, feedback is aimed at increasing self-awareness and it comes from a place of kindness.


What does that mean? First, recognize that the whole point of feedback is to help people better understand themselves and their impact on others. It’s offering an outside perspective that they can add to their own. Yes, it can help people improve at a task or get better at a skill. But at its core, feedback is about growing self-awareness. Giving others more conscious access to choices they make and how they affect others.


And—this is important—feedback comes from a place of kindness. Feedback done right is wrapped in caring about and caring for someone. Even in performance reviews, even in tough conversations. Great feedback means helping someone. It’s in service of their growth, even if (especially if) it’s difficult.


Constantly check in on where your “feedback” is coming from. Is it to solve a problem or get something off your chest? If it’s not to help the other person grow, it’s not feedback.

The five-step LEARN approach for powerful feedback


Keeping that in mind, how can we be better at giving it? I use a five-step approach, loosely based on how I learned to give and receive feedback as a consultant. It was something we did several times a week! Unsurprisingly (for those of you that read my other articles), I’ve come up with a mnemonic to help with access and recall. I call it the LEARN approach.


I like LEARN as an acronym because the name ties back into the idea that feedback is for growth. It’s an opportunity to hear other perspectives and learn about yourself. The approach has five steps:


  • Lay out a foundation for feedback

  • Explain exactly what you observed

  • Assert its effect on you

  • Respond to any questions

  • Name what to keep and what to change


I find when I give feedback in this way, it’s more meaningful and better received. Try it on for size, see if it works for you. See which parts are really helpful.


Lay out a foundation for feedback


The very first step of giving great feedback is to make sure that both of you are in a place to hear and be heard. The first assumption here is “both of you.” Don’t give feedback in groups or in front of others. Feedback is personal and intimate, tailor made. Avoid anything that creates complexity. Encourage openness by being one-on-one.


Make sure the physical setting matches that goal of openness. A loud cafe might be awkward. A big, sterile conference room might be intimidating. Try somewhere quiet, near natural light. Try taking a walk, even if it’s just away from the desk. Check to see what they prefer.


Make sure the emotional setting is the right foundation for feedback, too. If tensions are high because of a recent event, wait for them to settle. If either one of you is significantly distracted, do what you need to do to be present. This is as true for on-the-spot feedback as it is for formal feedback.


Explain exactly what you observed


Are both of you ready to engage? Great. Now, think about the feedback you have for this person. If you have several topics, focus on the first one first.


As a first step, don’t jump to what you think or feel. Ground the feedback in a concrete observation. “I saw that you were using your laptop to take notes during the meeting.” Or “I noticed that when you were talking to Jane, your sentences started to trail off.


It’s not evaluative or judgmental. This is simply to set the scene. Avoid value judgments like telling someone they did a “good” or “bad” job. The feedback you’re building up to will be more meaningful in either case.


Just call out what you observed, as clearly and simply as possible.


Assert its effect on you


Once a foundation is built, it’s time to get personal. State how the how the situation affected you. It doesn’t have to be emotional, but it should be genuine. “I felt a little distracted by the laptop and was worried about others being distracted, too.”


This isn’t limited to situations where you were directly involved. It still had an effect on you! “I was honestly a bit disappointed because I know how much you have to say, and I want Jane to see that.” Remember that you’re sharing an effect on you. “I felt proud” is an effect. “I felt stressed” is an effect. “I felt like you could have done more” is just an opinion with more words upfront.


Why bring your own experience and feelings into the feedback? For two reasons. First, it shrinks power distance. If you share your own personal experience, you’re addressing the other person as a peer. You’re not leaning on your position or experience or opinion.


Second, it’s disarming—in a positive way. We get defensive in the face of facts. We fight back on evidence and present our own to the jury. But feelings and emotions? We listen more. We can’t argue with someone else being hurt or happy, it’s how they feel. And it’s a powerful way to force people out of their own head.


Respond to any questions


The next step in giving powerful feedback is not really a step at all. Once you explain a concrete observation and assert its effects on you, fight the urge to say more. Don’t jump into recommendations and next steps. Just pause. Embrace the awkward silence.


This is an opportunity not only for your words to settle in, but also for them to bring their voice to the conversation. Silence is an invitation. Address any questions that come up naturally and honestly.


More than answering questions, listen. Not just listening for their words, but actively listening. Pay attention to the person’s body language. Their energy.


How is what you’re saying affecting them? What do you sense about them? What’s not being said? Again, respond naturally and honestly. Ask questions yourself.

Name what to keep and what to change


The final step is calling out a suggestion or recommendation. Notice that by laying some groundwork first, your recommendation has much more weight. You’ve stated an observation, stated your own feelings, and paused and engaged the other person. Useful context has been shared and some openness established.


It’s from this place that you can offer what to do next. Don’t be afraid to be direct. But also don’t pretend that you know all the answers. Stay humble without being apologetic. Have strong views, loosely held.


Easier said than done, but practice makes perfect. “I suggest you take notes on paper whenever we have the clients in the room. I know that there are advantages to keeping it digital, but I don’t think they outweigh a potential distraction.” Or “I recommend you try writing down the three points you want to get across before talking to Jane. Rehearse them a bit. It may seem like overkill, but it’s something I find really helps me.


Again, be direct and concise. Don’t try to “rescue” the other person by diluting the message in any way! It can be instinctive to say “I’m working on this, too” or soften the message. Don’t water it down. This is their feedback and it’s important.


Lastly, remember the importance of positive reinforcement. Don’t jump to feedback only to guide someone back on course. Recognize people for a job well done! Encourage them. Your recommendation can be as simple as “I want you to run every meeting just like that!


Going from good to great


Taking the LEARN approach really helped me to create the dynamics that were effective in feedback. There were other things that I’ve found helpful over time, too.


One thing I noticed is that there are two great times to give feedback. The first is close to the time you observe it, when it’s fresh for both parties. The other is at a regular, dedicated time, something on the calendar. As I became more senior, I preferred the latter because it held more weight for me than ad hoc feedback. I liked the intentionality of sitting down for 30 minutes to focus on development. It felt special.


Another advantage dedicated feedback provides is the space to prepare. No matter how quickly you’re giving feedback, I’d recommend taking a few minutes to collect thoughts. What do you think would really be useful and helpful? What really matters?


Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying “If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I would spend four sharpening my axe.” I found that I gave my best feedback when I took time directly before a meeting to organize my points into some kind of structure. Often, it would map back to our leadership model or their performance metrics.


Finally, try to use positive, collaborative language. Avoid “should do” in favor of “could do.” Avoid “do this” in favor of “try this.” Avoid value judgments. And avoid doom and gloom.


Don’t give them something to run away from. Give them something to run to. Show them the possibilities and be their champion.

Parting thoughts


The five-step LEARN approach is just one way to structure feedback. But I’ve found it to be incredibly helpful, and I believe you could, too. To recap:


  • Lay out a foundation for feedback, make sure both people are ready to engage

  • Explain exactly what you observed, offer a concrete observation to ground the feedback

  • Assert its effect on you, bring yourself and your feelings into the conversation

  • Respond to any questions, pause and listen, really, really listen

  • Name what to keep and what to change, give the recommendation or praise directly


Remember, feedback is important! Prioritize it. Invest in your team. I promise it will pay dividends. And please, reinvest those dividends. Teach others how to give good feedback. Far too often it’s done without real thought or reflection. You can change that in your team.


One last point. This is all to help grow self-awareness. After you give your feedback, release the agenda. They get to choose to accept the feedback or not. They get the final say. Offer your recommendation with the conviction that it’s great, and with the humility that it might not be what they need.


Good luck, and let me know how it goes.


#feedback #leadership #growth


Later published in The Startup