The art of giving feedback

A few weeks ago I was giving feedback to a group of managers from the Middle East. It goes without saying that in this situation, especially as a foreigner, one ought to be prepared. I soon realized that I should have done my homework a bit more thoroughly. The irony is that I should have known better. There are countless books on how to deal and communicate with people from other cultures and I’ve read my share of them. However, there is nothing better than personal experience when it comes to meeting people from other cultures face to face, and working with them.

That we should practice a presentation in front of others (friends, family, colleagues) before actually going on stage is not only basic knowledge, it’s common sense. I always preach that in my seminars, and of course I practice it myself. When it comes to giving feedback throughout a coaching session (in my case as a part of a presentation seminar), being prepared pays off as well. Pointing out at least two things the participant did well and at least two things he or she could do better, or improve upon, is a good rule of thumb that has worked very well for me so far. But, even a rock-solid method can be improved and fine tuned — as I learned in a presentation seminar I gave in Dubai.

What began as a “normal” feedback session ended up as a valuable lesson for me, the coach. Having grown up in a multicultural setting and living in Germany as an American, I consider myself very sensitive when it comes to intercultural differences and how to be diplomatic about them. However, to my dismay two of the participants took my feedback very personally and I got the distinct impression that my comments were taken as rather unfair. This made me feel very unprofessional and uncomfortable. It forced me to reevaluate what I did and how I did it, and to learn from it. So, what did I learn?

In some cultures, giving feedback demands a more subtle, indirect approach. Pointing out sensitive spots — even positive ones — carries the danger of offending the addressee. I had not taken that fact into consideration, and didn’t even find out from the individuals themselves, but rather from a third party. The way to deal with such delicate issues is face to face. Only after taking the two participants aside and talking with them I was able to understand why my feedback didn’t come across as smoothly as I had hoped, and remedy the situation. Without realizing it, I seem to have insulted them, and even gone so far as to put their competence in question. That was not my intention at all. But, as the receiver makes the message, I obviously didn't communicate my thoughts well enough.

Three golden rules for giving feedback in a coaching session

1. Know your listeners: Know their needs, and know their sensitivities. Be as constructive and helpful as possible. Always take into consideration their cultural make-up. That does not only apply to working with people from different countries or regions. Between companies or even between departments cultures (habits, communication styles, unwritten rules) can differ as well.

2. Identify strengths: Give two things that the person did well. Be specific and explain your reasons. By setting an objective tone you help the person to understand and at the same time lay the ground for accepting your suggestions.

3. Identify weaknesses: Touch on two things the person could do to improve understanding and involve, intrigue and assure the audience. Shifting the focus away from the addressee to his or her impact on others (listeners, customers, colleagues, etc.) makes criticism less personal and easier to take.

Every coach — as well as every leader — faces the challenging task of motivating people to improve and helping them in their personal development. That includes touching on sensitive points and taking them out of their comfort zone at times. In order to master that task without doing damage you need credibility and emotional intelligence. To get there is a constant process that never ends. I have been in the coaching business for 13 years now — and I'm still learning.

Paule Wendelberger