The Simple, Effective Way to Give Constructive Feedback


When I was a newbie professional, in my first full-time magazine job after earning a bachelor’s degree, I discovered something that’s been instrumental in the career and relationship success I’ve experienced since.

I learned numerous other lessons in that role about writing, editing and competent professionalism that have served me well. But this one tops the list because of the widespread impact I’ve seen it have on people and outcomes.

It’s how to give constructive feedback effectively.

The Brilliance — And Power — of Simplicity

An editor modeled this method of providing feedback, and he did it without realizing it would be so impactful for anyone else. It was just part of his way of being.

After reviewing an article or something else I’d written for the magazine, he’d offer his thoughts by saying, essentially, Here’s where it’s good, and here’s where it can be better.

He’d always start with what was positive. That’s critical because the mind has a way of rapidly sifting and sorting through information in its search for what’s missing or potentially wrong. So, when it comes to offering “feedback,” those are the thoughts that tend to come out first.

And, quite often, what’s missing or wrong is all that’s communicated. That may not be a conscious act. The feedback provider may have some, several or even many positive thoughts about a person, project or situation — but if they remain thoughts, and they’re not communicated, the human on the receiving end has no way of knowing that. When the receiver hears only about what’s not good or incomplete, without the counterbalance of what they did well, they might feel that they can’t seem to get anything right.

That’s a sharp contrast with what I took away from interactions with my editor. I left his office feeling not just relieved that I didn’t screw up as I was learning the ropes, but also empowered, capable and valued.

How It Spreads

As a result of my editor’s way of being, I made a conscious effort to model his method of providing feedback in my subsequent professional interactions. What I noticed, time and again, was that colleagues, supervisors and clients alike were responsive. Interactions went smoothly. Rapport was built and maintained seamlessly. Eventually, I woke up to how smoothly things were going with people at work and started applying this approach in my personal life. The results were very much the same.

I credit a large part of that to my intentional effort to point out, first and foremost, what works. People are highly adaptive. They can deal with a lot — even not-so-good news. But they tend to respond far better when they consistently hear first about the positive aspects of their efforts, abilities and work products, and then they are given specifics (constructively) about what could be improved.

How It Works

If you’re ready to give this a try, the language involved is as simple as the concept. The main challenge I encountered in applying the method was slowing down, being present and consciously responding in this way even when deadlines were tight, the pressure was high and my internal resources felt low.

For the first part of the feedback equation — Here’s where it’s good — you can say things like:

I like that you did X, Y, and Z here.

This part is really good. I’m glad you mentioned these things.

Thanks for including this. It’s really important to mention.

Be sure to point out the specific things you think are good or you like. Otherwise, your words may ring hollow — and whomever you’re offering feedback to may not get a clear sense of direction based on what actually works. In other words, don’t leave them guessing.

Sometimes what you’re presented with may indeed be of low quality, leaving you hardpressed to find specifics that are “good.” In that case, find something positive to point out that’s both true and positive. For example:

I appreciate that you turned this in on time.

It seems like you put a lot of time and effort into this project. Thank you for that.

You offered a unique perspective that I hadn’t considered.

For the second part of the feedback equation — Here’s where it can be better — you can say things like:

If you adjust these three items, then run it by me again, I think we’ll be good.

I notice there’s no mention of the incident from last week. Would you please add that to the report?

It’s not clear to me what you were trying to say here. Would you tell me more about that?

Again, specifics help provide direction and significantly increase the chances that the next draft or round you see will be on point.

How It Turned Out

That editor I mentioned? A few years ago, I was reflecting on the many ways his approach to offering feedback had an impact on me, and probably many others by extension. I looked him up online and reached out via email.

His initial response: “I think I remember you.”

By the time we wrapped up our renewed conversation, I think he remembered me.

If you want to enhance your communication skills and discover how to connect more effectively with colleagues and loved ones, reach out to Kristen to learn more.

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