Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

tin-can connection

How to Give Effective
Personal Feedback

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/cx/feedback.htm

Updated  12-29-2014

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      This is one of a series of Lesson-2 articles and worksheets outlining effective-communication basics, skills, and tools. Benefitting from these resources depends on concurrent progress with Lesson 1 - freeing your true Self to harmonize and lead your other personality subselves in all situations.

      This YouTube clip previews much of what you'll learn from this article:

      This article offers...

  • definitions of feedback and effective feedback,

  • an overview of unintentional feedback,

  • guidelines for providing effective intentional feedback, and...

  • options for responding to feedback from other people.

      This article assumes you're familiar with...


      People exchange verbal and nonverbal feedback all the time. Feedback is information about how the sender (a) thinks and feels now, and (b) is affected by the receiver's attitudes and behavior. It may be intentional (goal-oriented) or not, direct or indirect, and perceived accurately or not. The quality of every communication exchange (satisfying or not) is shaped by the feedback received and decoded by each person. Do you agree?

       Premise - effective communication (a) fills the current primary needs of all participants "well enough," (b) in a way that feels "good enough" to all involved. So effective feedback is (a) filling current primary (vs. surface) needs of the sender and receiver "well enough" as judged by each person, and (b) enhancing the relationship, vs. degrading it.

      Reflect: can you think of someone in your past or present life who offered you genuinely-useful information about themselves and/or about you or your behavior in a way that didn't upset or offend you? Now think of someone else who offered you such information in a way that left you feeling badly about yourself and/or them. What made the difference? Now wonder how others receive the unconscious and intentional feedback you've given them...

      Giving and receiving personal feedback are skills that can be intentionally developed over time. This article proposes guidelines for each of these, based on Lesson-2 basics and skills.

      On a scale of one (consistently ineffective) to ten (consistently effective) - how effective have you been recently at (a) giving ___ and (b) receiving ___ feedback to/from other people - specially children? Would people who know you agree with your ratings?  Option - ask them with an open mind!

      For perspective on designing intentional feedback, let's first review...

Unintentional Feedback

      Psychiatrist Milton Erickson was a master communicator. He observed that we all unconsciously broadcast "subliminal cues" (signals) about what we currently feel, think, and need, like subtle shifts in eye contact, skin color and tone, face and body language, and voice dynamics.

      This agrees with the ancient proverb "Words can lie - bodies can't." Our bodies automatically broadcast clues about our current thoughts, values, feelings, focus, and needs, whether we wish to or not. Do you agree?

      This is a major reason to develop personal awareness. Until we do, most of us (e.g. you?) are largely unconscious of the signals we send and decode all the time. That promotes personal and social confusion, misunderstandings, wrong assumptions, and ineffective communication.

      Our faces, bodies, voices, and words offer clear evidence of who's in charge of our personality at the moment and over time - a well-meaning false self, or our wise resident true Self and Manager subselves. A common symptom of false-self dominance is sending confusing double messages and denying or justifying them. Anyone can learn to decode this evidence and decide what to do with it.

      Implication - to raise the odds that your feedback is consistently useful, commit to having your Self (capital "S") consistently guide your other talented subselves. Lesson 1 in this nonprofit Web site offers a practical way to do this - "parts work," or inner-family therapy.

        Process awareness and parts work provide an effective way to judge who is controlling other people now and over time. Assessing this can help you to decide if, how, what, and when to offer intentional feedback to an adult or child.

      Now let's use the definition of effective feedback, and review...

  Guidelines for Giving Effective Feedback

      Feedback can be impulsive or planned. Until you become proficient, planned feedback usually has the best chance of benefiting everyone. Consciously using the guidelines below until they become automatic can raise the odds that your feedback will feel useful to you and your partners.

      These guidelines cover your relationship attitude, and your feedback motives, timing, style, and focus. Profiting from these guidelines requires that you (a) are guided by your Self and (a) are proficient at communication awareness. Are you yet?

1) Mutual Respect

      Before giving important feedback, get clear on your present attitude about you and your partner. If you honestly feel... 

"Your dignity, worth, rights, and needs are just as important as mine now."

(a mutual-respect attitude), go ahead with your feedback. With this attitude you'll probably (a) maintain a two-person awareness bubble, and (b) automatically ask if your partner is willing to receive some constructive feedback from you now.

      Giving unrequested feedback often feels disrespectful (right?). It implies "My need to tell you ___ is more important to me than whether you want (need) to hear me or not." This 1-up R-message will often hinder or block the receiver's hearing you. This can escalate if you feel offended at being discounted or ignored when you're "just trying to help."

      If you don't have a genuine mutual-respect attitude, defer your feedback - and focus on what's in the way of it, or lower your feedback expectations. The cause may be...

  • a well-meaning false self controlling you, causing...

  • significant shame and/or guilts, and/or...

  • unresolved hurt, resentment, anger, dislike, disinterest, and distrust.

If you and/or a partner pretend mutual respect in important situations, your faces (specially your eyes), words, and voice tones will subliminally signal otherwise, and shrink communication effectiveness.

      Avoid sending confusing double messages by practicing awareness of your and other people's Respect attitudes and messages. and using the communication skill of metatalk.

Guideline 2) Know Your Feedback Motives

      Before giving someone important or risky observations about them, know clearly why you're giving them. What needs are you trying to fill? Some possibilities...

To empower your partner via clearer understanding of the effects of their behavior. If this is your main motive, and they're open to receiving your information now, clear, respectful  feedback can be a priceless gift and a wonderful relationship nutrient! It leaves them free to react in any way they want;

      If they haven't asked for help, advising them without asking implies "Iím 1-up: I know more, and am better than you" or "Iím right, you're wrong." Such an R(espect)-message - specially if covert or denied - causes hurt, resentment, defensiveness and/or aggression (yes?)

      Condescending or righteous advice may plug your partner's mind and ears fast, raise their E(motion)-level, and dilute their trust in the intention and value of your feedback

      And/or your motive for giving feedback may be...

To solve a personal or mutual problem. Here, respetctful, concise feedback can lead to problem definition and mutual solution. Decide clearly if you want some action from your partner, or are offering observations they can use as they wish.

      Or your ruling subselves may want...

To punish, get revenge, shame, or cause guilt in your partner. Offering critical or scornful feedback (like name-calling and sarcasm) in the presence of others is a great way to do these. It's guaranteed to damage your and their self-esteems and erode your relationship.

      It can be specially inviting to do this to younger and shame-based people who won't or can't assert themselves. It can be verbal abuse if the receiver can't avoid it or protect themselves (like a dependent child). This feedback-motive is usually a symptom of significant psychological wounds.

      Or you may need to give feedback...

To distract your partner from a topic or activity you fear. This may work short term, but will leave them with unmet needs. It also risks causing her or him to feel manipulated or controlled, which breeds hurt, resentment, distrust, and defensiveness. Forget the feedback, and explore your fears - with or without their help. One option:

"Uh, I'm feeling really uncomfortable about __________________ now. 

I need _____________ (from you). Can you do that?"

            Other possible motives (payoffs) for your offering feedback can include...

To reduce your fear of rejection and abandonment by your partner by being a wonderful / supportive / nurturing / empathic friend. This is classic codependent behavior.

      If your partner is very needy and/or self-centered (wounded), s/he may enjoy your feedback for awhile. It may do no damage, but does nothing toward reducing your subselves' anxiety. You may have a stressful relationship mainly based on fears and/or shame. There are better options!

      Or sometimes you may offer feedback...

To ease discomforts in you vs. to empower your partner. If you focus mainly on your needs (have a 1-person awareness bubble), the other person will get an 'I'm 1-up'' R-message from you. Use the Lesson-2 communication skills to satisfy your and their needs - specially respectful ''I-message'' assertions and empathic listening.†

      If you offer comments and your partner gets defensive, angry, sullen, shuts down, or withdraws, it's likely (a) s/he doesn't trust your motive (why?), (b) you're tending your needs rather than both of yours, and/or (c) s/he's controlled by a false self. It can also mean (d) your timing is off...

Guideline 3)  Feedback Timing


Your partner has asked for feedback or seems receptive to getting it - i.e. you judge that his or her emotion-level is "below their ears," s/he's not distracted, and s/he can hear you now; or...

Your partner has not asked for feedback, and you're unsure if s/he wants it or can receive it.

      Either way, if you have any doubt about the other person's willingness or ability to receive - ask!  This can sound like:

 "I have some observations on what you just did (or said). Are you willing to hear them?" 

Or more concisely: "Are you open to some feedback now?" 

If you get some version of "No" and resent it, or if you're reluctant to ask first, check your motives and who's controlling your subselves!

      Also: The sooner you give feedback after your partner's behavior, the clearer and more helpful it's apt to be. "Here and now" is usually more helpful than "there and then." Is that your experience? 

      Another guideline for giving effective feedback has to do with your...

4) Feedback Style and Focus

Give factual, nonjudgmental descriptions that could be recorded on tape or video, rather than judgments (good/bad, right/ wrong, must/mustn't, ...). For example:

"I've noticed you've interrupted me three times in the last
 couple of minutes, and I'm getting distracted by it."

is easier to hear than...

"You get the gold medal for rudeness, you jerk. "

      Beware of "You need to...", which is a covert way of saying "I want you to..." Also: "You never..." and "You always..." tend to feel judgmental, overwhelming, and can spoil mutually- respectful feedback fast.

      Watch out for flooding. In your zeal to empower your partner and feel wonderful about yourself, you may give feedback too fast, or give too much at once. Typically, one partner is faster at thinking, speaking, and/or reacting than the other. Limiting your comments to a few sentences at most and then asking for any response can guard against flooding.

      Use "I" and "You" rather than "We." Trying to sugarcoat your feedback to avoid "hurt feelings" - e.g. "We really need to do better at staying focused on one topic at a time" - often breeds semi-conscious discomfort and distrust. A better way:

      "When you change subjects so quickly, I get confused and have a hard time staying with you." (A clear, respectful ''I''-message).

      Describe what you heard and saw, like an objective scientist or reporter. Be factual and brief, without interpreting, minimizing, or exaggerating.

"You're twisting your ring and jerking your hands around a lot.
 That distracts me from concentrating on what you're saying"

"You're talking very slowly, and my mind tends to wander."

are less apt to hook or confuse your partner than...

"You've been doing a lot of distracting stuff,"
 "I'm really having trouble following you."

      Focus objectively on the other person's behavior, not the person! Then summarize the impact of their behavior on your current feelings, sensations, thoughts, and needs:

"When you smoke in here, the smell (not 'you'!)
 really distracts me from listening to you..."

"I notice you're not looking at me now (vs. "You're avoiding my eyes,"
 which is a judgmental assumption), and I'm feeling uneasy."

      Avoid guessing your partner's behavioral effect on others ("You usually come across as egotistical.") unless the others are present to confirm it. it risks mis-assuming, misunderstanding, guilt, defensiveness, and reciprocal assumptions and judgments.

      Avoid guessing why your partner did what they did, unless they invite you to brainstorm. Otherwise, you miss the real target: alerting them to their behavior's impact, and reasons to change their attitudes and/or behavior. Second-guessing can imply you feel 1-up, which triggers defensiveness, hurt, resentment, dependency, withdrawal, and/or "deafness."

      Note that withholding feedback to avoid "hurting your partner's feelings" may deprive them of a chance to grow and fill important needs. If habitual, this kind of avoidance is called enabling. Ultimately, your partner is responsible for her or his reaction to your empowerment gift - not you. (Do you agree?) If you're unsure about offering observations - say so: for example...

"I'm nervous about telling you this. I'm scared it may
 hurt your feelings, and that you'll pull away from me."

      We just reviewed four options for giving effective feedback to another person. Now let's look at...

Options for Receiving Feedback Effectively

      You can ask for feedback from any communication partner - in general, and on your way of giving feedback. A useful variation of this in important conversations is to ask for brief hearing checks to see if your partner heard you accurately. Be prepared for some version of "No / Not now."

      Do you feel that some ways of receiving feedback are better than others? "Better" relates to filling each person's needs well enough in a satisfying way. You may have asked for feedback, agreed to receive it, or neither. In each case, your needs are probably...

  • to feel self and mutual respect and to...

  • empathically (vs. intellectually) understood, and to...

  • get clear, constructive information about the effects of your attitudes and behavior. And/or your ruling subselves need to...

  • to get helpful information about your partner and/or something else.

First affirm that your true Self is guiding you and your partner. If not, focus on that with metatalk. If so, then identify your current communication and primary needs.

      If your partner offers you uninvited or intrusive feedback, you can use a respectful I-message, like...

"(Name), when you offer me advice that I didn't ask for, I feel disrespected and irritated. You may wish to help me, and (not 'but') I need you to check with me first before offering feedback. Sometimes I just need you to hear me, not fix me."

      In receiving welcome feedback, you may repeat the essence of it back to test your understanding (do a hearing check). This can be specially useful in volatile situations involving sex; money; health; major relationship changes, decisions, and losses; and rage, terror, or great pain.

      You can help each other give more effective reporting by saying something like:

"I hear you best when you..."   or "It specially helps me when you..."

      Notice how you feel when you get clear, respectful, timely, constructive, empowering, information about yourself. How do you feel about the giver? What happens to your relationship? Your self and mutual esteem?

      What would it be like if they hadn't given it or if you hadn't asked? Your partners probably feel they same if your motive is to empower and/or co-operatively problem-solve.

      Option - if you get your needs met in receiving invited feedback, you may ask if your partner got her or his needs met well enough too. If you both did, then your exchange was effective!

      A final guideline: after you (a) confirm you understand your partner's feedback and (b) ask if there's more, you can...

  • thank them for their gift and intentions, and offer any...

  • information or explanations you think are relevant feedback on their feedback), and/or...

  • comment on the way s/he gave you feedback - e.g. "I really appreciate your being brief and factual, respectful, not making assumptions, and keeping comfortable eye contact with me, as you give me feedback." And you may...

  • comment on what you're going to do with your partner's information, and/or...

  • invite win-win problem-solving as appropriate, or..

  • something else.

+ + +

      We've just reviewed (a) what interpersonal feedback is, (b) typical needs that cause it, (c) four options that can improve the odds that your feedback will fill your and your partner's needs, and (d) options for receiving feedback effectively. Note the option of using these to improve giving yourself feedback!


      Use what you've read now by reflecting or jotting a few notes about...

  • My feedback strengths now are...

  • I can Improve my feedback style by...

  • I could receive your feedback better if...

  • I'd like to get clear, empowering feedback now from (whom?)

on (what?)

  • When I consider asking for such feedback, I...

  • What I appreciate about the way you give me feedback is...


For more communication success, keep studying and applying Lesson 2!

Option - expand your awareness by reviewing these ideas about giving and receiving personal advice.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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