9 Principles for Giving Feedback

June 4, 2018

Giving feedback in a church environment can feel really hard. Church staff culture often develops into a kind of extended family. For some, being “family” makes it harder to be fully honest and straightforward when you need or want to share something that may be hard to hear. It can feel like you have to choose between the truth or a relationship–and it’s all too easy to protect the relationship and bury the truth. But if we are honest, that’s not actually protecting the relationship or helping the other person hear the truth.

Every single person on a team has the opportunity and responsibility to help those around them get better. Personally, professionally, and certainly spiritually, we all need to be able to give and receive feedback. As a leader–and regardless of your title, you are one–you influence those around you. The success of any project, team, or ministry depends on everyone continuing to grow and improve. And one of the key ways you can do this is by providing feedback in a way that helps people want to grow and get better. If self-awareness is the foundation of all growth, giving and receiving feedback is the road that leads us there.

Source > Message > Recipient

The three main components of any feedback loop — the source, message, and recipient — are dynamic variables, requiring flexibility and adaptation as you communicate. Misjudge any of the three elements and your feedback could run into a brick wall.

Who delivers a message, how they deliver it, what the message relates to, the confidence of the person receiving it….all of these factors (and more) make giving feedback an art just as much as a science. The nine principles below will help you make the process of giving feedback valuable and effective.

  1. It’s complicated. Be aware and attentive to the inherent, complex factors involved with any relationship and communication. There is no “one size fits all” solution. Tailor your approach to the circumstances and person in front of you.
  2. Communicate for connection. Trust and credibility are key. Relate to the person you are talking with. Be empathetic. Relational communication–rather than transactional– increases the chance feedback will be received positively.
  3. Timing matters. Provide feedback on a short-term loop, as close to the circumstances you’re talking about as possible. Long gaps in time decrease how willing a person is to hear you, believe you, or respond to feedback. Your own memory and perception may be distorted the longer you wait, too.
  4. Consider the environmental factors. Be aware that many other factors impact how feedback is received or acted upon. Time of day, frequency of feedback, time of the week, current workload, hunger or fatigue levels... all of these can impact the receiver of feedback. There may not be a perfect time for feedback, but circumstances can make things more challenging than they need to be.
  5. Direct feedback at the behavior, not the person. Causing someone to react defensively doesn’t help anyone want to change or grow. “When you raise your voice, it’s hard for me to feel safe” is better than “You’re just an angry person so I avoid you.” Steer clear of blanket statements and generalizations at all cost.  
  6. Connect feedback to future-oriented goals. Feedback is the beginning of the process, not the end. Always connect feedback to goal-setting, strategies, and practice. And make sure change and any new goals are within the person’s control.
  7. Strive to be clear and specific. General feedback doesn’t lead to specific action. “I need your help completing the TPS reports by 3pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays” is much better than “I need you to pick up the slack and get more work done around here.” Clear, specific feedback makes it easier to set clear, specific goals and create accountability. 
  8. Feedback alone isn’t enough. Take it back to reality and process the feedback in the context of real life. Account for the messiness and imperfections every person brings to the table. Connect the feedback to actionable steps for growth and success in light of the day-to-day realities, not ignoring the learning curve or existing challenges. Growth and change won’t come from feedback alone and people aren’t equations or robots. Extend grace and practice patience. 
  9. Reality is always your friend. Negative or unexpected feedback can be hard to hear, but it is an opportunity to gain awareness, learn, and grow. Another way we say this at Fishhook is “facts are friends.” Addressing reality is an important first step in learning and growth. 
Adam Bouse

Communications Strategist