Sometimes our words lack power. We often fail to engage others or invite them into a conversation that moves the topic at hand forward. Additionally, the words we speak, our tone of voice, even what we don’t say can often say so much. Effective communication has as its goal mutual understanding.
One way to improve the feedback process is to cultivate self-awareness, or how our words, manner, and tone affect others. If we channel those towards a single, cohesive message, we are far more likely to achieve clarity and a common purpose.
Choose Our Words.
Our word choices can set the tone for the entire feedback process. For example, sending invites to an ‘Art Critique’ meeting can set recipients on the defensive. Such an invitation can cause Creatives to come prepared to defend their choices passionately. Using more neutral terms, such as ‘Design Sync,’ can lessen this effect.
Selectively using pronouns like you and we allow us to focus praise and dissipate negatives. As a general guideline, if it is something good, use you, such as ‘you did a great job.’ If it is an opportunity to improve, use we, as in ‘we could explore this.’ Suppose you need an antagonist. Use they. Overall, our choices should express to a Creative that they are supported and valued.
Finally, as any decent marriage counselor will tell you, avoid broad terms such as always and never. Even if such terms feel accurate, they rarely improve a situation. Moreover, this approach often shuts off one side of the conversation rather than fostering understanding.
Choose our Communication Cues.
In my case, I discovered communication cues during my first stint as a Level Design Lead. The project was in a tight spot. I soon realized a large vein above my right eyebrow visibly pulsed anytime someone would suggest increasing scope.
While it became a running gag that ‘The Vein’ turned the project around, this not-so-subtle communication cue often limited my ability to communicate. In addition, it limited the effectiveness of my feedback by betraying my otherwise calm demeanor.
Other cues can include eye rolls, head shakes, frowns, distracted glances, and so on. Becoming aware of our tendencies can arrest them before they communicate more than we want in a particular moment.
As mastering these communication cues can take time, it might be helpful to find ways to limit their impact. For example, choosing a seat that looks away from high traffic areas, or in the case of an attention-seeking vein-like my own, try wearing a hat.
Choose our Emotional State.
Emotions can inspire us to make choices in a moment that will impact a lifetime, getting married, making a baby, or raising a frustrated voice at an intern.
If we just came out of a particularly tense meeting with corporate, now is not the time to roll up on a Creative to review their latest efforts.
Feedback is so valuable that it is worth delaying ensuring we are in the proper frame of mind to give it effectively.
If it absolutely can’t wait, we need to be aware of our current emotional state. This strategy will help us not inadvertently transfer these emotions into the next situation, negatively impacting the feedback process.
What if it all goes wrong?
In a perfect world, feedback would always leave recipients feeling excited to improve their work, reaffirmed as the best person for this task, and fully supported.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t always go so smoothly.
Most of these techniques I learned by doing the exact opposite so often it felt normal. That is until the process would grind to a screeching halt, killing progress and momentum.
Those moments of breakdown and subsequent rebuilding taught me much of what it takes to foster a creative community.
The overall goal here is to intentionally work towards improving the experience and results of everyone involved.
In the meantime, I found proactively encouraging Creatives while owning my mistakes would help insulate the team from the adverse effects of poorly delivered feedback.
I base these techniques on my own experience; use what works, toss what doesn’t, and share your discoveries with others.