Throughout the communication process, you exchange feedback—messages sent back to the speaker concerning reactions to what is said. Feedback tells the speaker what effect she or he is having on listeners. On the basis of this feedback, the speaker may adjust, modify, strengthen, de-emphasize, or change the content or form of the messages.
Feedback may come from you or from others. When you send a message—say, in speaking to another person—you also hear yourself. As you type in an email or text message, you also see what you’ve typed. That is, you get feedback from your own messages: you hear what you say, you feel the way you move, and you see what you write.
In addition to this self-feedback, you get feedback from others. This feedback can take many forms. A frown or a smile, a yea or a nay, a pat on the back or a punch in the mouth are all types of feedback. Sometimes feedback is easy to identify, but sometimes it isn’t. Part of the art of effective communication is to discern feedback and adjust your messages on the basis of that feedback.
Each feedback opportunity presents you with choices along at least the following five dimensions: positive–negative, person focused–message focused, immediate–delayed, low monitored–high monitored, and supportive–critical. To use feedback effectively, you need to make educated choices along these dimensions.
< Positive–Negative. Feedback may be positive (you pay a compliment or pat someone on the back) or negative (you criticize someone or scowl). Positive feedback tells the speaker that he or she is on the right track and should continue communicating in essentially the same way. Negative feedback tells the speaker that something is wrong and that some adjustment should be made.
< Person Focused–Message Focused. Feedback may center on the person (“You’re sweet” or “You have a great smile”). Or it may center on the message (“Can you repeat that number?” or “Your argument is a good one”).
< Immediate–Delayed. In interpersonal situations, feedback is often sent immediately after the message is received; you smile or say something in response almost simultaneously with your receiving the message. In other communication situations, however, the feedback may be delayed. Instructor evaluation questionnaires completed at the end of a course provide feedback long after the class began.
< Low-Monitoring–High-Monitoring Feedback. Feedback varies from the spontaneous and totally honest reaction (low-monitored feedback) to the carefully constructed response designed to serve a specific purpose (high-monitored feedback). In most interpersonal situations, you probably give feedback spontaneously; you allow your responses to show without any monitoring. At other times, however, you may be more guarded, as when your boss asks you how you like your job.
< Supportive–Critical. Supportive feedback accepts the speaker and what the speaker says. It occurs, for example, when you console another, encourage him or her to talk, or otherwise confirm the person’s definition of self. Critical feedback, on the other hand, is evaluative; it’s judgmental. When you give critical feedback (whether positive or negative), you judge another’s performance—as in, for example, coaching someone learning a new skill.
Of course, these categories are not exclusive. Feedback does not have to be either critical or supportive; it can be both. For example, in talking with someone who is trying to become a more effective interviewer, you might critically evaluate a practice interview but also express support for the effort. Similarly, you might respond to a friend’s question immediately and then after a day or two elaborate on your response. Because each situation is unique, it’s difficult to offer specific suggestions for making your feedback more effective. But, with some adjustments for the specifics of the situation, the following guides might prove helpful:
< Focus on the behavior or the message rather than the motives behind the message or behavior. Say, for example, “You forgot my birthday” rather than “You don’t love me.”
< If your feedback is largely negative, try to begin with something positive. There are always positives if you look hard enough. The negatives will be much easier to take, after hearing some positives.
< Ask for feedback on your feedback, for example, say “Does this make sense?” “Do you understand what I want our relationship to be?”
< When you’re the recipient of feedback, be sure to show your interest in feedback. This is vital information that will help you improve whatever you’re doing. Encourage the feedback giver. Be open to hearing this feedback. Don’t argue; don’t be defensive.
< Check your perceptions. Do you understand the feedback? Ask questions. Not all feedback is easy to understand; after all, a wink, a backward head nod, or a smile can each signal a variety of different messages. When you don’t understand the meaning of the feedback, ask for clarification (nondefensively, of course). Paraphrase the feedback you’ve just received to make sure you both understand it: “You’d be comfortable taking over the added responsibilities if I went back to school?”