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How to give feedback like a Zen master

April 16, 2014

By Charley Morrow

Charley’s second “Zen master” post explains the art of giving feedback. Click here to read the first post, where he explains how to stay open and teachable when receiving feedback.—Ed.

Many think there’s a big difference between giving and getting feedback, but the reality is both can trigger emotions that are almost always counterproductive. And just as there is a right and wrong way to receive feedback, the art of giving skillful, productive feedback can be learned. In fact, there are volumes of business books written on the subject.

The best advice I’ve ever received on giving feedback touches on the same idea that applies to receiving feedback—the importance of having a “beginner’s mind” that Zen master Shunryu Suzuki illustrates with his well-known quote, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

Leadership and management jobs provide a challenging context to practice the beginners mind. The beginners mind is open, curious and non-judgmental. Being in a monastery and raking patterns in gravel is a more appropriate context for cultivating such a mindset. Giving good feedback is one of the most challenging leadership jobs!

The paradox of leaders providing feedback is that they must judge, but, to provide effective coaching feedback, they must also be open and curious.  Both are possible if you disentangle the pieces.  I’ve learned that giving feedback with the openness of a “beginner’s mind,” and the simple humanity of Zen, can alleviate many of these potential problems.

Here are some tips and techniques to improve the effectiveness of feedback you give.

  • Feedback is always best delivered as soon as you see it has become necessary. be in the moment, don’t let things fester.
  • The most effective feedback begins with an “observation” as opposed to a “judgment.” Here’s where the openness of a “beginner’s mind” is critical. You must be clear about what you have seen and why you’re providing the feedback. Be open to the response you receive. Feedback should always be a conversation rather than a condemnation.
  • Feedback should always talk about someone’s observable work behavior rather than who they are as people. Your most aggressive sales person may be acting like an ass; he is not an ass. Focusing on behavior minimizes defensiveness and gives an opportunity change (an ass is unlikely to become a horse. Your salesperson can change their behavior).
  • Don’t jump to conclusions. The best feedback separates the observation of behaviors from evaluation, and provides plenty of room for dialogue so both parties can come to a mutually beneficial solution.
  • Feedback should always talk about someone’s work behavior rather than who they are as people. This is critical to minimize any defensiveness your feedback may cause.
  • Do provide your judgment of the behaviors. Feedback should show the impact and consequences of behavior on the organization, team or the individual.  This is probably why you are providing the feedback.
  • You can grow as much as a person and as a leader from giving feedback as you can from receiving it. And probably the single most important lesson to learn about giving feedback is: Be as detailed and compassionate as possible.

I am not saying this is easy. Even a Zen master would be challenged. It’s common for people to feel afraid, defensive, and attacked when receiving feedback. It’s important to remember that giving feedback can be equally stressful. Most people commonly report that they often worry how the feedback they give will be received and if their viewpoints will be challenged or even listened to. It’s normal to worry what the other person thinks. It just doesn’t help. Take a breath, open your mind, and provide the feedback. It is the most compassionate thing to do for yourself and those who you lead.

So, let’s hear it. How do you give feedback? Do you say “This is what I see” or “This is what you should do”? 


Charley Morrow is Vice President of Assessments at Linkage. He has over 20 years of experience designing, implementing, and evaluating training, individual assessment, and organizational-transformation interventions. He’s an expert in developing assessments and methodologies for individual, team, and organizational motivation and performance. Follow him on Twitter @CharleyMorrow.


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