Providing great technical feedback

Feedback can be a controversial term because opinions often differ as to just what it means to give good feedback.  Many of us have experienced negative feedback and appreciate that it does not necessarily lead to improvement.

So how do you create a good feedback culture, and why is it important to provide it? In a new instalment of the Technical Coaching track, José Enrique Rodríguez Huerta, MD and Technical Coach in Codurance Spain, offers us some great tools, reflections and tactics to create positive feedback, along with ways that you can implement it as a good practice within your teams.


"Giving bad feedback can hinder your ability to help other people," the coach explains, adding that it is essential to be clear about the purpose of what we are going to say. Usually, we are looking for a behaviour change, so we need to be clear about the intention behind what we are saying, and for this, we need a crucial concept; context.

So, if we have to list the 'components' of feedback, they can be summarised as follows:

  • Context - what I am giving feedback about.
  • Objective - what I am trying to achieve.
  • Tactics - how I am going to say it.
  • Target - Who the information is addressed to, whether a person or a project.

Creating a culture of feedback

In a team, it is essential to create a culture in which people ask for and give feedback; that's the first step. Each team member must learn to listen to the comments of others before knowing how to provide their own because this exercises the willingness to be open to new learnings and to ask for advice on what they want to improve.

Teach people to ask for feedback

Rodríguez Huerta argues that "all feedback is a gift"; even if it sometimes comes in unpleasant packaging; it can be a learning experience. Implementing a mindset where your team is willing to receive feedback is essential because it leads to an openness where the team will listen to new ideas and share their own.

So the first step is to work on creating the habit of asking for feedback from others.

Teach people to listen to feedback

The technical coach explains that it's not necessary to give immediate answers to the feedback received, i.e. to try to explain or justify oneself but to practice active listening and leave the door open to what can help us to improve. "Be open to what you are told, even if it is not what we want to hear," he says.

An interesting tool is Marshall Rosenberg's Nonviolent Communication scheme, which helps to communicate and listen while respecting the 'space' of the other without judging or criticising. The steps, and an example, are:
Observation (non-judgmental) - We agreed to meet at 8:00 and you arrived at 9:00.
Feeling (what I feel about the observation) - That makes me think you don't value my time.
Need (what I need to satisfy) - I want to have ownership over my time and feel valued.
Request (not a demand) - Next time you are late, please let me know or cancel the meeting so I can plan ahead.

Another tool is Chris Argyris' Ladder of Inference. This model helps us analyse how we make inferences from our observations and act on those conclusions without checking whether they are valid. Using this can help us understand whether we are reacting through our own assumptions rather than being objective and using empathy.

Ladder of inference by Chris Argyris

Teach people to deliver feedback

Once the team has adopted the practice of asking for feedback, we can then teach people to give it positively. To do this, prepare and offer some positive feedback, focusing on something that is straightforward, easy to deal with and is noncontroversial. It is important to focus on being specific and always talk about the issue and not the person, whether it is a presentation, a code review, etc.

Rodríguez Huerta recommends instilling a collaborative approach to problem management in which all ideas contribute to finding a solution, rather than a sandwich approach in which you say something positive only to say then what you really think. "It is better to say constructively what you think and be open to a conversation to arrive at a joint solution," he says. He also advises avoiding anonymous comments because they are not open to dialogue.

Tactics for giving feedback

  • Start with the objective: What do you want to achieve with this feedback? The conversation may get sidetracked if you don't have this in mind. 
  • Never be personal.  Make it clear that you are offering feedback on the issue or behaviour and not the person.
  • Understand your relationship with the person receiving the feedback.  If there are previous conflicts in your relationship, this can affect how you give or receive feedback. 
  • Make it timely. Feedback works best when it is given soon after the event.   
  • Be direct to avoid stress, get to the point, and don't tell others 'I need to talk to you' without giving them context about what you want the conversation to be about.
  • Be specific and concrete. Provide observations and examples of how things could be done differently.
  • Focus on the future. How can you do better next time? 
  • Avoid judging. Instead of saying things like 'good', 'bad' or 'late', you can say 'instead of', 'more than', 'less than', 'different', etc.
  • Be collaborative.  Work with the team to design the feedback process. Apply a collaborative and constructive approach: once you give feedback, talk about how you can help, whether the changes make sense to the other person, etc., so that it is a mutual decision.
  • Follow up with the person you gave the feedback to and see if they found it helpful.
  • Listen actively and stay curious.
  • Be aware that everyone is partly right, and recognise that there is some reality in everyone's eyes.
  • Be open to changing your mind.
  • Be consistent in what you say.
  • Be encouraging.  Encourage your interlocutors and offer positive feedback, both constructive and appreciative.

This session is part of a circuit on Technical Coaching.  You can find previous episodes in our youtube playlist.  You can also access Rodríguez's miro board  or register for future register for future events here.

Check also our related session on how to shape the culture of your team.