How to Give Feedback Without Reducing Someone to Tears

Employees, performers, investors and inventors always say they want feedback on how they did. But do they really want to hear the bad along with the good?

Most people are hoping for positive feedback. But most of us also learn from our mistakes and benefit from constructive criticism. There is a right way and a wrong way, though, to give feedback after a presentation or media interview, without reducing someone to tears.

Accentuate the Positive

When critiquing a presentation with someone, ask her to watch herself as though she’s watching a stranger so she can be objective. Encourage her to say one or two positive things about the person she’s watching even if it’s “I like her smile” or “she doesn’t look as nervous as I thought she would.”

Too often during a debriefing session, I’ll hear, “I look so fat,” or “I wasn’t making eye contact.” We’re too quick to damn ourselves. All we see is our negative qualities. But think about it. . . how can you ask people to pay attention and listen to you if even you think you don’t come across with confidence?

If you’re responsible for giving feedback to your employees or clients, after their own self-critique, start with an affirmative comment like “You really nailed your key messages.” You can then go on to give constructive feedback about what they could have done better, such as “Do you think if you had answered the EVP’s first question, he would have been more receptive to your idea?”

We all know instinctively when we’ve done a good job – or blown a presentation or interview. The role of the person giving the feedback is to offer constructive suggestions in a way that empowers, rather than destroys, confidence.

What You Could Do Better

Instead of saying, “Here’s what you did right and wrong,” say, “Here’s where you really made a strong impression and my thoughts on what you could do better next time.”

In short, be kind.

Simon Cowell, the former host of American Idol was known for dishing out particularly insensitive, even cruel, feedback to contestants. He famously told singer Jennifer Hudson after her appearance that she resembled “something you should wrap a turkey in.”

We all know she went on to win Academy and Grammy Awards and enjoy a hugely successful career as a singer. She will portray a Broadway star in the next season of the TV series Smash. Take that, Simon.

In contrast, the celebrity judges on American Idol’s competitor, The Voice, go out of their way to give positive feedback to contestants, even the ones they don’t choose to move on to the next round. Ironically, in last week’s episode, Jennifer Hudson coached several finalists in the competition. What a turnaround!

How You Accept Feedback

It’s important to give constructive feedback. But how do you respond when you’re on the receiving end of a critique? You can’t let the feedback destroy your confidence.

Jennifer Hudson could have given up after the withering criticism and she was voted off American Idol. But she gave it all she had in her performance and attracted an agent who saw her potential.

The rest is history.

When you ask for feedback, you should accept it with grace and try not to be defensive by disagreeing with the critique. Listen. Really listen, to what’s being said. Don’t consider honest feedback to be a personal attack.

Ask questions, “How do you think I could improve in my next media interview?”  Or, “I didn’t realize that my dress detracted from my presentation. What would you advise that I wear in the future?”

Acknowledge your role in the critique. The person giving you feedback is in a difficult spot, too. It isn’t easy to point out someone’s deficiencies. If you disagree with his critique simply because it makes you uncomfortable, you may be missing the opportunity to receive and act on advice that will help you to improve.

Finally, remember to say “Thank you.” Take to heart the feedback you got. Don’t dwell on the bad parts. Focus on what you did well and how you can improve the next time you make a presentation or serve as the company spokesperson in a media interview.

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