Three Guidelines for Giving Good Feedback

This is the final installment in a three-part series addressing the topic of criticism. The first installment discussed three reasons criticism can lead to ministry burnout. The second looked at four ways we can effectively deal with criticism. In this week’s post, Chad Hall will conclude by offering us  guidelines for giving good feedback.

Not only is it important that we guard against criticism in order to prevent burnout, it is also necessary to not criticize others and burn them out. One of the best ways to avoid becoming a critic is to instead become very good at giving feedback. By modeling the way, you not only make less of a criticism contribution, but you also train others in how to give constructive feedback instead of destructive criticism. When you try to give feedback, you realize it’s not as easy as it seems. Here are three basic rules that will keep your feedback from turning into criticism.

First, don’t “technique” people.

There are lots of “techniques” for giving feedback, but usually these involve a sort of manipulation of the other person— creating the conditions in which they will hear you, lower their defenses and take the feedback to heart. One of the most popular is the “sandwich method” that teaches you to sandwich the criticism between two compliments. That technique has always seemed less than authentic to me, and I think people can sense the disingenuous “compliments” whose only real purpose is to help them swallow the criticism. If you have positive feedback, certainly don’t hold back, but don’t pollute it by letting it come in contact with spoiled criticism.

Second, stay focused on behavior and impact, steering clear of talking about character, intent, or the meaning behind a behavior.

For example, consider a church leader who pulls the pastor aside and talks to him for several minutes after every church service. A critic might tell the person, “You’re selfish and seem to think you’re the only person in the church because you corner me every week and prevent others from being able to talk with me.” Giving the person constructive feedback will sound more like, “You might not realize it, but I have a fifteen-minute window each week after church when I need to talk with as many people as possible. During that time, I need to have a hundred or more brief conversations that are vital for helping people feel connected to the church. Talking with you for five minutes means I miss connecting with dozens of families and it’s hurting my relationship with them. So I’d like for you to find a different time for our five-minute conversations.” Of course there are plenty of other ways to express feedback, but a best practice is to describe the situation, then the person’s behavior, followed by the impact of the behavior and finally a proposal for different behavior that will have a better impact on the situation.

Third, create a safe space for feedback.

When we experience a threat, our immediate physical response is fight, flight or spit. An unsafe environment does not promote openness and the recipient of feedback will likely want to run away, argue, or reject the feedback. Be aware of your own emotions and how you present the issue. If you’re nervous, angry, hostile, etc., you create an unsafe condition for the other person. The more “okay” you are, the safer the situation is for the other person. You cannot control the other person’s response, but you can contribute to optimal conditions.

Finally, give feedback rarely and prayerfully. The truth is that most people don’t want feedback and are not all that open to it. Feedback is not about getting something off your chest, but about helping someone else improve their performance or avoid sin. In other words, it’s about them, not about you. Ask God for guidance and be open to God’s telling you to “get over it.”

James 3 reminds us that our words are powerful; they can light up a person or burn them down. The powerful beast that is the human tongue is only tamable by God, so be prayerful when considering what to say and how to say it. You are not going to be perfect, so also be quick to ask forgiveness should feedback morph into criticism.


About Chad Hall

Chad Hall is the Director of Coaching for Western Seminary and also serves as a leadership coach for ministry and corporate clients through his role as Partner with Coach Approach Ministries and iNTERNAL iMPACT.