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Mentoring skill: Giving constructive feedback

Find out how to make your feedback positive, confidence-building and clear.

What is constructive feedback?

Feedback is constructive if it helps the person receiving it to improve their work, or to do better next time.

That means it needs to highlight any problems and help the person to tackle them, but also show their strengths and help to build their confidence.

How to make your feedback constructive

Point out positives

If you're trying to help someone to improve, it's easy to focus on negatives. Not only can this be discouraging, it also means missing out a vital part of giving feedback. Your mentee may not recognise the things they have done well, or may lack confidence in them. Highlighting these things can help them to understand and develop their strengths as well as tackling their weaknesses.

For many people, positive comments will make less of an impression than negative ones. You can counteract this by starting and ending with positives, since the first thing and the last thing you say will normally have the biggest impact.

Focus on the work, not the person

Try to frame your feedback in terms of the work you are giving feedback about, not the person you are giving feedback to. For example, you might say 'This paragraph has a few spelling errors' rather than 'Your spelling isn't very good'. The latter might make the person feel they are simply bad at spelling and there is nothing they can do about it. Focusing on the work instead of the person makes it easier to see the problem as one that can be solved, and to concentrate on finding ways to solve it.

Be specific

Vague feedback is rarely helpful. Make sure you identify:

  • Exactly which part of your mentee's work you are talking about
  • Exactly what the problem is: saying that something 'doesn't work' or 'isn't good enough' says nothing about how it can be improved, and is sometimes a sign that you haven't thought your feedback through properly
  • How the problem can be solved: as well as being useful for the mentee, thinking about this will help to ensure that you have identified the right problem

Being specific also helps you to avoid making a problem seem bigger than it is, since you won't make one-off problems seem like fundamental flaws.

Make the consequences clear

Feedback is likely to be more effective if the person receiving it understands how it will affect them. For example, if you are helping a person to improve their CV, they might not know exactly what employers will be looking for, so it is useful to explain any changes you suggest in these terms.

Don't do too much yourself

When giving feedback, it's not your job to make changes yourself. Doing this makes it more difficult for your mentee to learn or improve: even if you include a good explanation of what you've done, it's no substitute for your mentee doing it themselves.

That doesn't mean you can't include a couple of examples to help illustrate your points, as long as you are still giving your mentee the chance to try out your advice themselves.

Ask for feedback on your feedback

It's important that your mentee knows they can ask you questions about what you have said, or tell you if they disagree with anything you have suggested. This will help to make sure that everything you said has been understood - but it will also help you to improve your feedback skills.

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