In my everyday life, I’ve noticed that the most usable model for giving feedback is a simple observation + impact model. It has similar elements to the FBI model (feeling + behaviour + impact); especially the impact part is exactly the same. It has also been influenced by the longer observation + feeling + need + request model used in nonviolent communication (NVC).
Observation + impact is relatively easy to remember. It’s simple enough to be understandable and still demanding enough that I don’t end up giving just any type of feedback. Observation + impact is also the easiest to put into action first, and after that you can expand your own tool selection with the FBI or NVC model.
Begin with a neutral observation
The observation + impact model begins with a neutral observation. The observation is a description of the situation that is as objective as possible, without interpretation or judgement. Both parties should still remember this specific situation. An observation is not a generalisation, so there’s no “always” or “never”.
So, for example:
- 🚫 ”You never say anything in our retrospectives.” [generalisation: ”never”, ”anything”]
- ✅ “Last Monday, you did not offer any comments during the retrospective.”
Or for example:
- 🚫 ”You’ve ignored my last five emails.” [interpretation: ”ignored”]
- ✅ ”I’ve sent you five emails and haven’t received a response.”
Or for example:
- 🚫 ”Your behaviour in the client meeting was inappropriate.” [judgement: “inappropriate”]
- ✅ ”During the client meeting, you raised your voice and said, ‘This is really dumb.’”
If the observation isn’t neutral, we get stuck in the details
The most important job of the neutral observation is to get the conversation off on the right foot. We can spend a long time arguing about which was the latest retrospective where someone offered a comment, have the emails been ignored on purpose or not, or what is inappropriate behaviour. If our observation is not objective, we won’t get far but end up in a pointless argument.
And in any case, we don’t want to discuss the observation itself, but its impact. That’s why the first part of the feedback should be so objective that we both can easily agree with it, so that we get to the discussion on impact as soon as possible.
Additionally, thinking about the neutral observation forces us to let go of our own prejudices and preconceived notions, our own interpretations. After all, we don’t really know what really happened, so it’s pointless to guess and get angry before the conversation even begins. It’s easier to start off with neutral facts.
Impact improves influence
A neutral observation needs to be paired with a meaningful impact. Without impact, we would have no reason to talk about the whole thing.
The impact of what was done is what we would like to avoid in the future, and that is why we are giving feedback. So: what was the impact of the other person’s actions? What does it matter if they do the same thing again?
The impact can be concrete: it can relate, for example, to the project schedule or budget, service accessibility or security, the reputation of the company or the workload of the person giving feedback. The impact can also be less concrete: it can relate to the mood at the workplace, co-operation, relationships within the workplace or with clients.
The impact can also be a mix of concrete and not concrete. For example, the behaviour of the person receiving feedback can make it so that people don’t like to work with them (not concrete), and as a consequence they are no longer considered for lead roles (concrete).
Understanding impact motivates people to change
The impact is what the person receiving feedback probably didn’t mean to happen. There can be many good or mediocre explanations for the action itself, but it’s rare that anyone wants to harm others – concretely or not. We find the motivation to change when we look at the impact of our actions.
On the other hand, when the person giving feedback has to consider the impact of the action, sometimes they notice that there aren’t really any. In that case, it’s more a matter of opinion or preference, and not a behaviour that impacts things and needs to be changed. Then the feedback turns into a discussion on preferences, and can be approached differently from giving feedback.
Practice doesn’t always follow models
Naturally, all models feel a bit stiff in the beginning and don’t work perfectly. It can be difficult to form a natural-sounding sentence using the observation + feedback model. Or it can be that sometimes, we don’t even get to say what the impact was, as the other person already cuts in with their own perspective on the observation. Sometimes, you have a neutral observation, but when you say it out loud, an interpretation slips out, and the whole situation goes in a totally different direction from what you planned.
It’s less important to use any model perfectly than it is to build a connection with the person you’re having a conversation with. We can always trust that if we genuinely want to give feedback to improve co-operation and develop the relationship, it weighs more than choosing the exact right words.
Nevertheless, it feels easier to approach a situation when we have thought in advance what we really want to say and why. The observation helps us to get rid of our prejudices and the impact teaches us to talk about what the problem really was. In the end, feedback is always a dialogue. The most important thing is to get it started.
TL;DR: First a neutral observation, then an impact to give the conversation meaning
- An observation is a description of the situation that is as objective as possible, without interpretation or judgement. Both parties should agree with the observation.
- The point is not to discuss the observation; it is the common ground to begin a conversation from.
- The impact of the action is a reason to give feedback. It can be concrete or not.
- What impact did the other person’s action have? What does it matter if they do it again?
- It is less important to use any model perfectly than it is to build a connection with the person you’re talking to.