Have you ever offered someone a piece of feedback that you thought was crystal clear only for them to completely misinterpret it?
There are a host of factors that can lead to misunderstandings. Being aware of them can help you take steps to ensure your feedback is received the way it is intended.
Let’s dig into the causes of misinterpreted feedback and how you can communicate it in a clear and actionable way.
Lack of Clarity and Specificity
When feedback is too broad, unclear or not properly targeted, the receiver must try to interpret it as best they can with the information available.
Feedback isn’t very helpful if it requires a follow-up explanation as to why or how it should be addressed. Similarly, if there is a very specific element in the work that wasn’t working but you didn’t indicate that clearly enough, the person might waste time redoing the wrong work.
This problem of being too vague also relates to positive feedback. Telling someone “Great job!” or “I love this!” is good for a boost of confidence but doesn’t give them any information about what exactly they’re doing well and should keep doing.
Being specific, both in terms of what you suggest and by linking your feedback to particular elements of the work, helps to make it clearer. Here are some simple ways to introduce more specificity into your feedback:
Make it Actionable
Think hard about a concrete action someone can take to try to achieve the result you want. “This needs to be punchier.” vs “This needs to be punchier – try breaking the introduction up into shorter sentences.”
Back Up Your Opinions
If you like or dislike something, spend time thinking about the details that contributed to those feelings. “I don’t like the typography.” vs “I think a simpler font would be more in keeping with the tone.”
Though it might feel like you’re being nitpicky, often a longer list of small changes is more helpful than one broad comment.
If you’re providing feedback on several areas at once, make sure you’re explicit about the weight someone should give to each one during their revision.
Focus on the Goal
If you’re asking the feedback recipient to come up with an idea for a challenging solution, remind them about the goal they’re trying to achieve. That will help them align any action they take with the overall purpose behind the work.
Once you know what you want to say, you have to decide how to deliver it in a way that’s unambiguous and informative.
Confusion often creeps in due to people’s tendency to soften the blow of constructive feedback with praise. You can see this with the “feedback sandwich” which brackets constructive feedback with positivity. The problem is that someone might decide the constructive feedback isn’t as important as the positive. Contrastingly, they may assume that the positive feedback isn’t genuine and is only there to sugarcoat the pill.
How feedback is delivered can also influence the recipient’s emotional state. For instance, delivering feedback in a way that causes someone to react defensively may cause them to overreact. In their flight response, they might be more concerned about their job security or saving face, rather than paying attention to the specific points you’re making about the work.
Here are some strategies for delivering feedback well and ensuring that someone is in the right frame of mind to properly accept it:
Give Advanced Warning and Share Intentions
Giving someone feedback when they aren’t expecting it could trigger their fight or flight response. Allowing and alerting them to prepare could mean they are better able to focus on what you’re saying.
A good strategy to help someone enter a receptive mindset is to explain your intention from the outset. Be clear that there’s (hopefully constructive) feedback coming but that you’re offering it because you want to find a solution.
Involve the Recipient
Turn it into a dialogue by asking someone for their thoughts, involving them as an equal and ensuring that you have a clear picture of what they’re taking from the process. That way, you can address any misunderstandings in real-time.
Present a Plan
People are more receptive when feedback is focused on future performance. A study on future-focused feedback sums it up like this: “When thinking about their past failures, people tend to focus on how things beyond their control could have been better … In contrast, when thinking about how their performance could be more successful in the future, people focus on features under their control, generating more goal-directed thoughts.”
So, you’ve provided specific feedback and delivered it in an unambiguous way… But the person still doesn’t get what you’re saying.
The reality is that you have different experiences and skill sets. You are presenting from a different place.
Your preexisting knowledge might lead you to believe that an issue should be obvious to someone else when it isn’t. You might be using language that seems concrete to you but is meaningless to them as they don’t have the information to contextualize it.
This could be, in part, due to a concept called “The Curse of Knowledge“, an academic term for the difficulty experienced when trying to imagine what it’s like to not know something you know.
In a Stanford University experiment, a group was asked to tap out the rhythm of a song on a table and another group was asked to guess the song. Out of 120 songs, only 3 were guessed correctly.
However, when asked to predict how well the guessers would do, the tappers predicted that they’d identify 50% of the songs. Their knowledge of the songs led them to believe that tapping was a much more effective way of communicating than it was.
To make sure your feedback is useful to someone with a different background:
Walk in Their Shoes
Examine your assumptions and try to engage from a place of empathy.
Go Easy on the Jargon
Simply put, trade specialist terms for plain language.
Add in analogies and examples to make abstract concepts more tangible.
Have a Conversation
Having an open conversation could help you find common ground. As academics Chip and Dan Heath put it in their 2006 book Made to Stick: “The answer is not to dumb things down (…) rather, the answer is to find a universal language, one that everyone speaks fluently.”
Dysfunctional Feedback Flows
A broken or suboptimal workflow can introduce massive amounts of uncertainty into the feedback process. If the feedback for a project is split across multiple email chains, annotated files, and hurried conversations in meetings, things are bound to be missed or misinterpreted.
This problem is particularly acute where multiple people are offering feedback. As well as making it even more fragmented, this can lead to comments or instructions that contradict each other.
Here are several ways you can structure your approach to feedback to remove these potential pitfalls:
Set Clear Expectations
Make sure everyone understands what helpful feedback looks like. You could consider creating a guide for your team with examples.
Use a Timeline
Ensure everyone knows their feedback responsibilities when they are due. Clear goals and deadlines provide accountability and cut down on confusion.
Use the Right Tools
Project management and online proofing tools make a massive difference. Consolidated feedback and discussions allow collaborators to see suggestions in context. Additionally, an intuitive platform for visually marking up work makes being specific far easier for everyone.
Reduce Uncertainty to Give Clear Feedback
From a lack of clarity to an overcomplicated workflow, many factors can introduce uncertainty into the feedback process. Remove potential sources of confusion by using clear examples, focusing on future action, and structuring your feedback process with specialized tools.