4 min read

Giving constructive feedback is one of the most challenging things we have to do in our professional lives. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to give better constructive feedback and specifically how to give constructive, kind feedback. We all feel pressure to be nice (especially here in the Midwest!), but I think nice and kind are very different especially in the context of feedback.

ASK feedback

A common feedback model that I’ve been coached to use professionally, is ASK - Actionable, Specific, and Kind. I think this model has a lot of merit. When I give feedback, especially constructive feedback, instead of tossing my thoughts out there and expecting the other person to figure out what to do with them, I try to spend some time thinking about what action I want to see in order to achieve the goal in my feedback. Usually by thinking about a solution, my feedback automatically becomes more specific.

If I want someone to share their ideas more with the team, I try to provide examples such as “You stay pretty quiet during meetings. I’d love to hear your thoughts more, especially during retro when we’re discussing action items.”

Using the ASK feedback model, I find that Actionable and Specific are the easiest to understand, but knowing what Kind feedback is can be elusive. What makes kind feedback different from nice feedback?

Nice vs Kind feedback

While nice and kind sometimes feel like synonyms, I think they are more like cousins than twins. To me, nice feedback means surface level, complimentary feedback, and kind feedback is respectful feedback meant to help someone become a better person.

I think being nice means being polite, avoiding conflict, and making someone feel good. These aren’t necessarily bad things, but in the context of feedback I’m not sure they are valuable. Do I think that feedback should be the opposite—that it should cause conflict and make someone feel terrible? Absolutely not. But nice feedback can feel surface level and shallow.

When I use "nice feedback," I’m not talking about authentic compliments. Those are great and the world should be filled with more of them! Nice feedback is the comments we make when someone asks us for feedback and we don’t want to hurt their feelings. Nice feedback is focused on the immediate interaction; it does not consider long term consequences and takes less effort than kind feedback.

As a woman, there is a lot of pressure to be nice. I was once asked by a boss what I thought the company could be doing better, so I gave him a suggestion of where I thought we could be using employee time more efficiently. He promptly shut me down, told me I need to learn to be nicer, and ended the meeting.

After that interaction, I realized that he wasn’t interested in kind feedback. He wanted someone to say something nice so he could feel like he did his job asking for feedback but ultimately walk away feeling good about himself. Ever since that interaction, when I feel pressure to give nice feedback, it is usually driven by feelings to avoid conflict and to follow social expectations.

So what makes kind feedback different? I’d argue that the motivations and outcomes of kind feedback set it apart from nice feedback. Kind feedback is rooted in empathy and compassion. It’s focused on shared long-term goals and doesn’t shy away from conflict if it will ultimately lead to personal growth and a stronger team or product.

Kind feedback is harder than nice feedback

To be successful with kind feedback, the giver must start from a place of empathy. This takes work. I always like to start by assuming the best intentions of the person I’m going to give the feedback to. As someone once told me, 95% of people want to do a good job and are giving it their all. And I truly believe that, but we’re not all good at everything and we don’t share the same experiences. It can help to consider the challenge from the other person's perspective. This allows me to acknowledge the positives, the effort, and the improvements while providing suggestions for further growth.

To make kind feedback meaningful, it’s also important to to remember the goal of the feedback. What am I hoping will happen after giving the feedback? What goal do I want to help achieve? Frame the feedback around those goals. This can take some effort, but the feedback is more likely to be received and understood. If I want to provide feedback on a team member’s communication style, framing it from the perspective of the end goal—client understanding, teaching and mentorship, product clarity, etc—can be extremely helpful for contextualizing it and make it more impactful.

I love you, but I don’t like you right now

Someone in one of the Slack communities I’m part of recently said, “Feedback is love.” When a team member makes a mistake or is showing opportunity for growth, being able give them feedback and show them compassion is essential to becoming a stronger team. Giving kind feedback takes true care to build up the other person and help them improve. You have to put in work to be respectful, intentional, and committed to challenging your team members to grow. If that isn’t love, I don’t what is.


Published Aug 19 2018

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