Enhance Your Communication Skills with Constructive Feedback

Sometimes, it’s hard for people to be honest with us even when we ask them to be.

Early on in my career, I was consulting for a major film and music studio in Los Angeles when a woman approached me to say, “Dr. Ron, I really love what you are teaching us, but would you like some feedback?” I had learned from Ram Dass that he always read letters and evaluations he got from his talks and teachings and what he listened most intently to was in reading negative feedback. And he would not only read and reread the more hostile and critical feedback forms but, when he could, he would either call the people up or write to them to better understand the feedback and where it was coming from. Some of those letters turned into long exchanges he kept going until he felt he had truly processed what they were telling him. I knew that even if it bruised my ego a little to be criticized, this woman who had approached me might offer me some helpful insights, so I said, “Fire away.”

She said that she loved what I was teaching—“but you’re teaching in the voice of an upper-crust white male.” I was taken aback but recognized that this woman had done me a favor in pointing out my bias. I took a deep breath and said, “Tell me more,” and she gave me at least five examples where I had offered case examples about work that were all about men—and white men at that. In my family, we had six sisters and four brothers, but it was obvious to me that I’d adopted some of my dad’s strongly embedded views that came from spending his career in a corporate world dominated by white men. My dad had always seemed to discuss men when he told his work-related stories. Rarely, if ever, had he brought up any stories about women. I hadn’t thought about how his limited experience working with women at his office back in an era when there were fewer women in the workplace might have influenced the types of anecdotes he shared.

I thanked the woman for sharing her perspective and promised I would change up my teaching stories. As a result of her feedback, I now think and teach with diversity in the foreground.

Fortunately, this woman’s criticism came from an open heart so it was easy not to take offense to her suggestion. If you’re asked to give feedback to someone in your life or at work, I find these four techniques from my book Core Creativity keeps the conversation positive and productive:

1. Give your undivided attention. When someone is telling you about their project or showing it to you, give them your undivided attention. Don’t scroll on your phone, don’t multitask, and don’t interrupt except to ask for clarification. Set the foundation for them to be honest and vulnerable.

2. Respond with positivity. If you think it’s an awful idea, you can say something like, “It sounds like you’ve put a lot of thought and work into this project so far.” Go ahead and compliment them for their efforts rather than the outcome.

3. Ask questions from a place of genuine curiosity. Use questions like, “I don’t think I’ve
heard that before. How did you come up with that idea?” and “What about this plan appeals to you the most?” Understanding where they’re coming from and what their aspirations were can help you to better encourage them and give them constructive feedback. You can share what you’ve done in similar situations and what the outcome was. In this way, you’re making yourself vulnerable and making them feel more comfortable with any criticism you offer because you’re showing that at times, you’ve been unsure or made wrong turns.

4. Offer feedback diplomatically. Finally, you can suggest something you think they might work on, but wait to see how they respond before you give them more feedback. Don’t overwhelm people with criticism and advice. You can ask whether they would like more feedback or if they would rather work with their project some more first. In both my Art of Leadership and Core Creativity workshops, I’ll often ask: Would you like feedback from me mild, medium, or severe like the hottest salsa?

If you want feedback on a project or issue you’re working on remember that you’ll want diversity among the people you consult with in your decision-making process. You might benefit from asking for feedback from someone with expertise in a particular area, someone who is good with alerting you to your emotions, someone with a different temperament—or someone who is very intuitive.

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