As an engineering term, feedback refers to that part of the output of a system that is returned to the source. Applied to human speech, feedback would refer to that part of your own utterances that are returned to you; these are the sounds you hear when you speak or the marks on paper or a computer screen that you see if you’re writing. This is what we call self-feedback, the part of the message that is returned to the self or sender of the message. On the basis of this feedback you may alter your message output. For example, if you hear yourself making a mistake in grammar or pronunciation, you might repeat the phrase correctly. If you hear yourself saying something that may be too harsh or may be taken in the wrong way, you might offer some kind of qualification—“I don’t mean to imply that you would ever pad your expense account but . . .”
There is, however, another kind of feedback and that is the feedback that you get from the other people involved in the communication act. The verbal comments (I don’t understand. You’re crazy; that never happened. You’re absolutely right about that.) as well as nonverbal comments (a frown, a smile, a wink, a turning away, a defensive posture, applause) that you get from others are all examples of feedback (for consistency, let’s call this other-feedback). On the basis of this feedback—just like on the basis of self-feedback—you adjust your messages, explaining further if the feedback tells you there’s a lack of understanding or offering further evidence (or another excuse) if the feedback tells you the person is not convinced or doesn’t believe you.
As you can appreciate, the ability to respond appropriately and effectively to feedback will make an enormous difference in communication effectiveness—often the difference between success and failure. The college instructor who is responsive to student feedback will be a much better teacher than the one who ignores it. The manager who is responsive to employee feedback will be a much better manager. And both teacher and manager will be more effective communicators for reading this feedback; they’ll be better able to adjust their messages, policies, and procedures to better fit their specific students and employees.
The ability to respond to feedback is especially important in interpersonal conflict situations. If you’re open and attentive to it, feedback will tell you, for example, when your words are being hurtful, when the conflict is about to get out of hand, and the strength of the other person’s feelings. On the basis of this feedback you’ll be better able to manage conflict so that it strengthens rather than destroys your relationship.
People who are in intimate relationships or who know each other for a long time are probably better able to read the other person’s feedback and come to know, on the basis of relatively few cues, how the person is feeling, when the person is worried, or what the person is thinking.
Of course, it’s not always easy to read feedback. Some cues are subtle and may not reveal clearly what the other person is thinking or feeling. In intercultural communication situations, the people may give very different meanings to their feedback cues. A Japanese businessperson may smile and say “yes” to your proposal, to communicate that he or she respects you and understands what you are proposing. But you, if you’re American, may read this as agreement with your proposal.
So, when possible, it’s helpful to check on the accuracy of your reading of the feedback. Depending on the feedback and your initial interpretation of it, you might say “Was that clear?” or “Don’t you agree?” or “You think that was a mistake?” Very likely the more you know the person, the more accurate your readings of his or her feedback will be. However, and this is a big however, it’s also likely that in intimate relationships, misreading feedback cues will have more serious consequences. If you misread your partner’s feedback, he or she may become resentful, feel you “just don’t understand,” or worse, feel that you don’t care enough.
Trial lawyers need to be expert at reading feedback, from the witnesses they are questioning to the jurors who must be convinced. The lawyer needs to know when a witness is hiding something or has more to say and needs to know when the jurors are not convinced or when they feel a line of questioning is boring. On the basis of this feedback, the effective lawyer will adjust future messages.
A performance appraisal in which a senior member of an organization interviews new employees after set periods of time (every three months, every year) is a good example of feedback. From this appraisal interview, the new worker will get feedback on his or her performance, ideally to improve. At the same time, the interviewer/manager will get valuable feedback on the way the company is perceived by a new employee or the problems new employees face, ideally to improve.
Types of Feedback
Most textbooks distinguish between positive and negative feedback. Positive feedback tells the speaker that what he or she is saying is acceptable; the implied meaning of that is “continue”. For example, periodic applause during a political speech supports what the speaker is saying and in a sense asks for more. When a lover smiles and looks longingly into your eyes he or she is saying “tell me more.”
Negative feedback, on the other hand, tells the speaker that something is wrong and that some adjustment in the message is needed, perhaps to add clarification, offer another explanation, or simply repeat the message. When students look puzzled, the effective instructor recognizes this and provides further explanation or perhaps restates the idea in different terms.
In addition to the distinction between positive and negative, I also find it useful to distinguish feedback on the basis of being person-focused or message-focused, immediate or delayed, low-monitored or high-monitored, and supportive or critical. Of course, these are extremes and are best visualized as continua.
• Person-Focused–Message-Focused. Feedback may center on the person (“You’re sweet,” “You’ve got a great smile”) or on the message (“Can you repeat that phone number?” “Your argument is a good one”).
• Immediate–Delayed. In interpersonal situations feedback is most often conveyed immediately after the message is received. In other communication situations, however, the feedback may be delayed; for example, feedback from an interview may come weeks after the interview took place. In media situations some feedback comes immediately—for example, through Nielsen ratings; other feedback comes much later, through consumers’ viewing and buying patterns.
• Low-Monitored–High-Monitored. Feedback varies from a spontaneous and totally honest reaction (low-monitored feedback) to a 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 or when your grandmother asks what you think of her holiday fruitcake.
• Supportive–Critical. Supportive feedback confirms the worth of the person and what that person says; it occurs when, for example, you console another or when you encourage the other to talk; it often involves affirmation of the person’s self-definition. Critical feedback, on the other hand, is evaluative. When you give critical feedback you judge another’s performance—as in, for example, evaluating a speech or coaching someone learning a new skill.
I suspect that interpersonal relationships may be characterized by the types of feedback each person gives the other—a kind of “feedback theory of relationships.” Satisfying relationships seem to be those in which the feedback may be characterized as positive, person focused, immediate, low monitoring, and supportive. Unsatisfying relationships seem characterized by feedback that is negative, self-focused, nonimmediate, high monitoring, and critical.
Each feedback opportunity, then, presents you with choices along at least these five dimensions. To use feedback effectively you need to make educated choices along these dimensions. Of course, these categories are not exclusive. Feedback does not have to be either critical or supportive; it can be both. Thus, in teaching someone how to become a more effective interviewer, you might critically evaluate a specific interview but you might 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.
Suggestions for Effective Feedback
Generally—and there are always exceptions that we need to keep in mind—here are some suggestions for making feedback more effective in both giving and receiving.
Consider these more in the nature of questions to think about rather than as specific rules that you should follow always and everywhere.
• Be specific; overly general or abstract thoughts are usually not helpful and just cause confusion. In criticizing a speech, it’s more effective to say “I wasn’t convinced by your example of the ants” than “your examples didn’t work.”
• Be positive; especially when your comments need to include negative evaluations, try to find something positive and perhaps lead with that.
• Be clear. You might also check to see if the other person understands you. Ask: Am I being clear? Does this make sense? If your feedback is worth giving, assume that it’s worth it for the other person to understand it as you mean it.
• Be honest; don’t give feedback that you don’t feel. It will make your subsequent feedback count for little once people see that you’re not honest with your reactions. This, of course, is not a license to be cruel but just a suggestion not to use feedback to deceive (much as you’d be advised not to use public speaking, say, to deceive).
• Be behavior focused. Generally, when making evaluations focus on the behavior rather than imply any motivation on the part of the other person. When criticizing a speech, for example, it’s more effective to say “I would prefer if you looked at your audience more directly” rather than implying motivation and saying, for example, “You weren’t interested enough in your audience; you never looked at us.” You really don’t know the motivation; it may have been fear rather than a lack of interest that lead to the lack of eye contact.
Responding to Feedback
The other half of this feedback skill is responding to it effectively. As you review these suggestions, consider the types of situations you might be in where you’d be receiving feedback. On the job at an appraisal interview or in a public speaking class, say, the feedback is likely to be fairly direct. So, you may wish to visualize one of these situations as you read the suggestions below. Here are a few suggestions, again, more in the nature of questions to consider:
• Avoid blocking out feedback that may appear negative. Listen openly. Feedback is probably the easiest way to learn more effective patterns of communication.
• See the feedback from the other person’s point of view. Don’t make excuses or think of reasons why the feedback-giver’s comments are irrelevant. Ask yourself why this person sees what he or she sees in your communications.
• Welcome the feedback, even the negative. Thank the person. Encourage the person to continue by being attentive, maintaining eye contact and a direct posture, and, in general, looking interested. If you don’t, you’ll only lose out on the useful information that feedback gives you.
• Seek clarification. If the feedback is not clear to you, ask for clarification while being especially careful not to appear defensive. If you do appear defensive, the feedback-giver may be less honest or less complete and you’ll again lose out on useful information.
• Evaluate the feedback. Only after you’ve fully understood the feedback should you attempt to evaluate it. So, think about the feedback fairly before accepting or rejecting it. If you decide that the feedback is useful, consider ways in which you can incorporate the suggestions into your own communication.