"Giving and Receiving Feedback: Building Constructive Communication (Revised Edition)"

Pros: Plenty of helpful ideas; specific suggestions and plans
Cons: Misses a couple of important elements; some information seemed suspect
Rating: 4 out of 5

First published 7/12/2002

Lately, thanks to some research into writing, I’ve been looking into the topic of constructive criticism. Constructive criticism – the process of making suggestions and giving feedback in a constructive, non-threatening manner – is an extremely helpful way of dealing with people. Unfortunately, even though plenty of people acknowledge this, it can be difficult to find much information about constructive criticism. This means that there are plenty of people who labor under odd misapprehensions about what constructive criticism is. The most common I’ve seen is the idea that being constructive with your criticism somehow means being less than honest – hiding problems instead of dealing with them. When in truth, honesty is the key to successful constructive criticism.

“Giving and Receiving Feedback: Building Constructive Communication (Revised Edition)” is a “Fifty-Minute Series Book.” It is a workbook, an exercise manual, not a straight text-book. The back of the book describes this format as “a friendly, easy-to-use self-paced format.” The chapters are short and quick to read, presented in large text with plenty of white space and various cartoonish pictures. In other words, it’s vaguely reminiscent of being in grade school. I imagine it’s meant to feel non-threatening to workers who are apprehensive about the idea of learning something they feel they don’t need to know.

In truth, I wasn’t particularly impressed by all of the exercises. Some of them are useful – mostly the ones that ask you to figure out ways to phrase and express something constructively and then give you an example of how you might have done it. Some of the others felt more like filler, or felt as though they were designed poorly. (For example, the “Self-Assessment in Responding to Critical Feedback,” in which you are supposed to put a plus next to those situations you tend to handle appropriately. But “appropriately” is never well-defined.)

The back of the book also mentions a “professionally designed assessment” to help you determine whether someone has internalized the lessons in this book. Be aware that it doesn’t actually come with the book – you have to call the company in order to obtain it.

Who Is This Book For?

Although the book does try to address non-work-related issues, such as using these techniques in your dealings with friends and family, it’s clear that the book is primarily aimed at workplace issues. So if your problem has to do with work – knowing how to gracefully take feedback from your boss or co-workers; knowing how to give good performance reviews; etc., then this book is definitely for you. The techniques can certainly be adapted for other purposes, but it might take a bit of thought.

Part I: How to Handle Receiving Critical Feedback

This is a subject that I think not enough people address – how to gracefully handle feedback of all kinds, both valid and invalid, constructive and non-constructive. First the book talks a bit about why we develop the poor skills we have when it comes to receiving feedback. It discusses the things we learn in childhood, self-image issues, and gender issues. The childhood and self-image topics seem right on track, but I felt that there really wasn’t enough space in the book for the topics to be adequately addressed. If you have deep-seated troubles dealing with criticism, then I’d suggest adding another book to your reading list, such as Marilyn Sorensen’s “Breaking the Chain of Low Self-Esteem” or Suzanne Harill’s “Empowering Teens to Build Self-Esteem.”

I’m no expert on the research, but personal experience made me a bit suspicious of the gender material. The author claimed that, in general, women will externalize their successes (say that their success is due to, for example, the ease of the problem) and internalize their failures (say that it’s their fault when they fail). Whereas men internalize their successes (say that it’s due to their talent) and externalize their failures (blame it on circumstances or the problem at hand). So far all right – I’m willing to believe this partially, even if I have seen plenty of men exhibit the behavior attributed here to women and vice versa.

Now, maybe I misunderstood the author’s message, but she seemed to be saying that the men’s way of handling things was better for their self-image and led to their being able to handle constructive criticism better. I guess that in the abstract this kind of makes sense, but it doesn’t match up with what I’ve seen in reality. Maybe the people I know are really unusual, or maybe the book over-simplifies due to lack of space. I don’t know which.

Specific Tactics: I do like the specific tactics for dealing with criticism that are dealt with here. The book discusses types of critical feedback (valid, unjustified or invalid, and vague) and gives criteria for evaluating which sort of feedback you’re receiving. It splits your responses to feedback into three stages: awareness, assessment, and action, discusses the importance of each, and some of the good and bad behaviors that tend to come out during these stages. Next the book devotes some time to assertive techniques for dealing with critical feedback of all types: “fogging,” admitting the truth, and asking for feedback. These are all handy methods, and I think they are very helpful. Finally the section ends with a ten-point list of helpful hints for handling feedback. These serve as good reminders.

Part II: How to Give Constructive Feedback

The largest part of the book focuses on giving constructive feedback. All of the very good reasons to spend the time it takes to phrase things constructively are discussed. Then the book starts at the very beginning – the setting of realistic goals, so that there’s a basis for giving constructive feedback later. A number of other helpful and related issues are discussed, such as when you want to give constructive feedback, whether feedback should be public or private, and so on.

The “DASR script” is discussed – it’s a template for expressing constructive criticism that involves several steps. The book does a good job of explaining what is helpful to the person you’re giving feedback to (and your interaction with them), and what isn’t. For example, when you acknowledge how the other person’s behavior made you feel, you use “I” statements instead of “you” statements – like saying “I feel frustrated” instead of “you make me angry.” It communicates the problem without being accusatory.

The author discusses typical traps that people fall into – ways in which they convince themselves not to give constructive feedback. She also goes into detail on various factors that hinder the process, such as people’s tendency to ignore problems and why this doesn’t help. Different situations are handled differently. For example, there’s a separate section on giving constructive feedback to a boss or colleague instead of a family member or subordinate. In this case the “DASS script” is presented and described in detail. A form is provided to help you turn complaints into proposals.

Another section also deals with providing positive feedback in specific – why so many people don’t bother to do it, and why they should, as well as how. For example, there’s a section entitled “The Dangers of Giving Positive Feedback in Public,” and there’s another section on how to give positive feedback to your boss. There’s even additional information on handling recurring problems. Plenty of example case studies and actual situations are provided to clarify the principles involved.

So What Else Is Missing?

The action plans and how-to’s and suggestions are prolific and useful. So what, then, is missing? Most (if not all) of the suggestions in this book rely on one important thing: your ability to control and set aside any emotional reaction that you have in the course of giving or receiving feedback. However, other than a short section on positive self-talk, there’s no real information on how to achieve this. Because of this I ended up feeling rather frustrated with the book afterward. I felt as though I had all this useful information, but no real idea of how to get to the point where I could use it.

Ah well, I guess it’s time to go hunting for another book.

I do think this is a very handy and useful book, even though it does have a couple of flaws. It isn’t the be-all and end-all of constructive communication, but it certainly will give you a strong grounding in the guiding principles. Oh, and if you’re wondering whether this helped me in my writing research – the answer is, partially. I do think that I can adapt some of this to work with writing critiques. But I’m still looking for more…

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