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How to Give Negative Feedback | Gary Dumais | Select Human Resources

Gary Dumais giving feedback

What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when giving negative feedback?  Well, to fully experience and understand the tip I’m about to share with you, I invite you to think about a time when somebody really helped you out.  Maybe recall an instance when your car broke down and a friend picked you up, or a team member helped you meet a deadline, or someone gave you support during a difficult time.  Now think back to how you felt when that person helped you out.  Feelings of gratitude, appreciation, and even relief probably come to mind.

Feedback can have a similar impact, even if the feedback is “negative”.  Just like how you’d feel if a friend quietly let you know before attending a big meeting that you had a piece of salad stuck in your teeth; you might be slightly embarrassed initially, but overall, you’d be very thankful for the helpful feedback.

And that is the most important thing to keep in mind when giving negative feedback.  Our thoughts have a strong influence on how we behave.  For example, if you’re thinking about the happiest moment in your life, people will likely notice a smile on your face and a spring in your step.  Likewise, if you’re thinking about helping someone with feedback, your tone, choice of words, and mannerisms will reflect that, and the person you’re speaking with is more likely to be open to what you have to say.

It may sound simple, but it’s much easier said than done.  In my experience as an executive coach, I’ve noticed that many managers have difficulty giving negative feedback because they get caught-up in thinking about how others will become upset, disappointed, or even volatile.  Those thoughts are then unconsciously transmitted through the managers’ tone, mannerisms, and so on, and the people receiving the feedback sense it and become defensive.

With all that in mind, before giving negative feedback, I recommend you take a moment to get in the right frame of mind by recalling an instance when someone truly helped you, and remembering how good that felt.  Then, think through how your feedback will be helpful to the person you’re delivering it to (e.g., make them more effective, help them to advance, etc.) so you can be sure to explain and emphasize those points (e.g., by using the “What’s In It For You” principle).

Finally, if you ever find it difficult to identify how a piece of feedback would be helpful to a person, that’s a clear indication to reexamine if the feedback really has merit or is truly worthwhile to share.

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Communication Tip: “The Medium is the Message”

Gary Dumais Select Human Resources Paper and Pen

Surprisingly, the most important part of communication is NOT what you say or write.  For example, imagine you’re walking down a busy city street and see a disheveled man holding a sign saying, “The World Ends Today”.  Most likely, you wouldn’t be too concerned about the world ending.  In contrast, imagine you turned on your favorite news channel and saw the exact same words (“The World Ends Today”) on the screen.  You’d probably be extremely alarmed.  In both instances, the words are the same, yet the resulting message is very different.

This principle is described in the works of professor Marshall McLuhan, who coined the phrase, “The medium is the message”. “Medium” refers to how the message is conveyed, such as through TV, the internet, in a book, or a whisper in your ear from a friend.  And the medium by which a message is conveyed can carry greater meaning than the words the message is comprised of.  For example, imagine you receive a beautifully written poem about love…but it’s written on a used napkin from a public trash can.  It wouldn’t matter how well the poem was written, the resulting message is, well, trash and likely to be considered offensive.  Now imagine the same poem was written on rose petals.  The resulting message would be very different, and much better.  Moreover, the poem itself doesn’t even have to be very good; the fact that someone took the time to write it on rose petals (i.e., the medium) conveys a very positive and powerful message.

So how can you apply this principle at work and in everyday life?  Well, with your understanding of how the medium is the message, I recommend you take a moment to consciously consider and choose the best medium to convey your message (especially if it’s important).  For example, if you’d like to praise an employee for great work, I encourage you to consider what impact you’d like the message to have, and then choose how to convey it accordingly.  Saying, “Great job, I appreciate your effort” via email, or in-person, or through an announcement at a team meeting will have very different impacts.

Finally, I recommend you keep the “The medium is the message” principle in mind when evaluating communications and choosing sources of information.  For example, taking a moment to consider why certain mediums were chosen to convey a message (e.g., Twitter tweets vs. a press conference) can provide you with useful insights about who is communicating and what message they’re really sending.  Similarly, you’d be wise to place greater importance on information published in a credible medium (like Harvard Business Review) rather than to something posted on a questionable website.

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