When Communication Is Incomplete

(or, The Art of Good Feedback)

First up, sorry for the break. Writing is hard and we’ve both been heads down at our jobs.

The past few months one of the projects occupying a lot of my time was TransferWise Mission Days. It’s our biannual company conference. For me, a huge part of getting ready for the event is spending time with speakers helping them hone their presentations. 

Reflecting after we finished, I remembered a lesson I had forgot. Knowing how to give (good) feedback is just as important as knowing how to communicate yourself. 

We’re on a mission to make you better business communicators, but that’s only part of the story. We all spend more time reading and listening to other people’s work than we do preparing and delivering our own. The truth is that communication is incomplete without feedback. Giving feedback is the first step to establishing trust and creating dialogue with your colleagues - and it’s just as likely to help us in our careers.

Unfortunately, most of us are terrible at delivering feedback (or avoid it entirely). If a topic is unengaging, it’s much easier to switch off our brain, reduce cognitive load, and do something else with our time (ahem, doomscroll Twitter). When we do bother to pull together notes, it’s usually not that useful because we aren’t practiced at the task. 

And so, even though most people give a perfunctory nod to the importance of receiving feedback, it’s often overlooked or ignored. 

But if you can get over the initial hump of writing down constructive thoughts and structure your notes well, your feedback can be just as powerful as your own communication. 

So, let’s break down what you need to do it well. 

Listen, then speak

The first reason feedback is hard is because it requires actually listening. Most of us don’t really do this. 

We’re all (hopefully) taught not to interrupt others, but that is really only the beginning. The tenets of active listening are prerequisites for giving good feedback and would not be out of place in a therapist’s office.

  1. Be present (this means not interrupting with your mouth but also your mind - there are some great tips on being work-present in this thread)

  2. Ignore the fear of being wrong when asking questions

  3. Don’t speak out of desire for validation or an urge to impress

  4. Practice genuine curiosity 

Make your words count

When you actively listen you hear what the person said, rather than what you interpret. This sets you up to summarise what you’ve heard (do this as close to real time as possible). 

Here’s a quick overview of the feedback framework I try to follow when sending notes to my colleagues.

  1. What did you hear?

    Let the speaker know the key messages you took from their speech, memo, or slide deck. If you had to summarise it to someone else in three sentences, what would you say? Ask the person if this is what they intended to communicate. Regardless of the answer, telling someone what part of their communication “landed” is a useful starting point for any feedback.

  2. What resonated?

    Tell them what about those same three messages resonated with you? Why did you remember those points over others? Was it because they provoked an emotional response? Was it because it was clearer (in relative terms) than the rest of the topic? Did they have a visual that drove the point home? The section above lets them know what worked; this part gives the speaker insight into what tactics they employed that were compelling.

  3. Where to cut?

    No one likes to see folks looking at their phones (or turning their cameras off on Zoom). Tell the speaker what parts of their narrative were extraneous. What sections didn’t add to the argument? What parts were confusing or unclear (and why)?

  4. What did you do next?

    All speakers have a reason for what they’re communicating. Almost always they want you to take some action - even if they can’t articulate it. Tell them what their words inspired you to do. If the answer is nothing, this is useful feedback. Knowing what their talk made you do - or not do - is a useful barometer for the overall effectiveness of the talk, clarity of message, and how clear and motivating their conclusion or call to action was.

It should go without saying that feedback should always be respectful and never personal. Constructive feedback is predicated on telling the truth without blame or judgment.

Once you start actively listening and build up your comfort in giving feedback, the process becomes easier. If your notes stays thoughtful and actionable, they will be well received. Anyone giving a talk is happy to hear that people were listening enough to take the time to pass on their reaction.