Giving and Receiving Feedback

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If you look again at the handout on Johari’s Window, you can begin to think about how information might be moved into the Open pane from the other panes.  What needs to be in the open pane varies from context to context, but when we are trying to develop a skill, such as communicating, we are helped if all those aspects of us which relate to that skill are, as far as possible, in the Open Pane.  Some of it will be there naturally – what language we speak and our accent, for instance.  The challenge is to move relevant and appropriate information from the other panes into the Open Pane.

There may be information in the Hidden pane.  We may, for instance, be particularly nervous about communicating with a specific group of people, but be reluctant to say this for fear of looking silly or prejudiced.  However, if we can take the risk of admitting this, with a group in whom we have developed some trust, we increase the likelihood of finding effective ways of dealing with the issue – indeed, sometimes naming it in itself reduces a problem.  Sometimes, too, the effect of revealing something we have previously kept hidden is to make us aware of a source for the problem, that lies within the Unknown pane, again increasing the likelihood of dealing with it effectively.

Because communication is inescapably an interactive behaviour, and also one which for much of the time is habitual, there will probably be much about it which is in the Unseen pane- ie, others see and know things about our communicative skills of which we are unaware.    Feedback is therefore a vital tool for helping us move information from the Unseen pane to the Open pane, where we have more chance of adapting our behaviour – or indeed, of celebrating our achievements.  Feedback can be both positive and negative; it can be difficult to hear both equally, and we may tend to discount one or the other. 

Done well, feedback is an excellent tool for learning.  There is an art to both giving and receiving both types of feedback, and it is an art worth developing and refining, as you will be doing both throughout your career as a social worker.  Both situations can be emotionally arousing; in giving feedback it is therefore often tempting to take refuge in being nice and bland, or, if we are feeling very critical, to become hostile and aggressive.  In receiving feedback, we may become angry and defensive, or depressed; some people even have difficulty in accepting positive feedback, and become embarrassed or resistant.  Using techniques to lower your levels of emotion will help you stay balanced, and keep you honest and enabling in giving feedback, and open and receptive in receiving it.

In the rest of this handout you will find some tips for developing your skills in giving and receiving feedback.


Useful suggestions about giving effective feedback: 1

  1. Clarity -- Be clear about what you want to say.
  2. Emphasise the positive; remember that if  there is a mix of positive and negative comments, most people will screen out the positive, so it may need re-emphasising.  
  3. Be specific -- Avoid general comments and clarify pronouns such as “it,” “that,” etc.
  4. Be descriptive rather than evaluative
    (eg  “ Did you know you tapped your pen on the table all the time she spoke?” rather than “It was really irritating to hear you tapping on the table! “)
  5. Focus on behaviour rather than the person.
    (eg “On a number of occasions you started speaking before she had finished”  rather than “You are clearly a bully who is totally uninterested in other people’s points of view” !)
  6. Acknowledge that all behaviour can be changed.
  7. Own the feedback -- Use ‘I’ statements .
     (eg  “I noticed” “I saw” “I heard”)
  8. Use positive language that suggests that any problems are time-limited, situation specific, and  capable of solution.
    (eg Just at the moment you don’t………; in this instance you seemed;  you haven’t yet worked out a way of……..; next time you might want to…..)
  9. Be very careful with advice -- People rarely struggle with an issue because of the lack of some specific piece of information; often, the best help is helping the person to come to a better understanding of their issue, how it developed, and how they can identify actions to address the issue more effectively. 


Receiving Feedback

None of us gets everything right all the time, and so there are likely to be times when you yourself get negative feedback.

  1. Always try to separate out what is being said from how it is being said.  Do you understand the criticism?  Is it true?  Has this sort of thing been said to you before?   In your heart, did you know there was a problem, and were you just hoping no-one would notice?
  2. Sometimes criticism is simply not true, and you should always ask for the grounds on which it is being made.  Always remember that the other person may be making assumptions about you, or be operating from an unknown agenda.
  3. When it is true, however, it is always tempting to look for someone or something else to blame, and if we look hard enough we can nearly always find some sort of excuse. However, merely blaming someone else will not improve your situation.  At the end of the day, our own behaviour is the only thing we can control.  So your response to a problem should always be to think about what you can do to improve the situation - this may be to improve your skills, your attitude, your knowledge, or even just to take responsibility for feeding back to other people what they are doing to contribute to the problem.
  4. If you are feeling angry or upset about being criticised, always give yourself time to calm down before responding or taking action.  If possible, discuss the problem, and the way it could be improved, with the person who has given you the feedback.  If that is really difficult, you may want to talk to someone you trust.  
  5. However true and serious criticism is, remember that you as a person are more than just your behaviour in this particular context. You can always choose to change your behaviour, and you are more likely to do so if you can see negative feedback as an opportunity to improve.

When feedback is positive, it is helpful to try to be equally balanced about it.  Does it match other evidence you have of your effectiveness?  What assumptions and agendas might the other person have?  Have you been given specific information on which the feedback is based? 
However, if you find yourself constantly rejecting or downgrading positive feedback,  you need to consider whether there is something in your past experience  which makes it difficult to believe good things about yourself.  Accepted happily and gracefully, positive feedback is a powerful reinforcer of what we are getting right, and so is as important for our learning as negative feedback.


1 Adapted from McGill and Beatty Action learning: A practitioner’s guide London: Kogan Page, 1994, p. 159-163