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The Role of Feedback and Active Listening in the Workplace

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Lately, the words “active listening” have made inroads where before “feedback” reigned alone. Combining active listening with feedback often leads to the best possible outcome for all the parties involved in problem-solving or decision making. Each approach alone has advantages and disadvantages.

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Feedback

Feedback is a reaction to a current situation or behavior: good, bad, or indifferent, comfortable or not. Feedback either supports the behavior or suggests changes. It can be as brief as a child saying, “I hate spinach,” or as complex as an analysis of a failed system. 

In business, feedback can come from customers, employees, peers, bosses—anyone internal or external to the company. Mechanisms for obtaining feedback include one-on-one meetings, surveys, reports, and checklists. 

One-to-one feedback goes directly from the person giving the feedback to the person receiving, usually boss to employee. In 360 degree feedback, everyone who interacts with an individual contributes to feedback, not just a superior; it is often presented as an anonymous compilation. 

When you give personal feedback to a team member, you should focus on a few core competencies, such as initiative, ability to handle interpersonal relations, and communication skills; covering too wide a field makes it difficult for the other person to absorb everything being said. The best personal feedback gives the reviewed person a clear path forward, including ways that the company can help (for example, through training or mentorship or opportunities for broader experience).

Feedback has these drawbacks: 

  • It may not be completely honest if the person giving the feedback shies away from difficult conversations, acts from favoritism, or bears a grudge. 
  • One-to-one feedback provides a limited perspective, but 360-degree feedback can be difficult to gather. 
  • Feedback is only as good as the measurement device; if the list or relative value of core competencies changes, the feedback changes.
  • Personal feedback without a chance for the other person to respond or collaborate on solutions and next actions is overwhelming and can lead to frustration and even rage. 

The Advantages and Disadvantages of Active Listening

Active listening is the process of drawing out someone else’s viewpoint with the goal of establishing mutual respect and a solution that works for everyone. Your role in active listening is to make sure that you have heard the other person correctly—usually by rephrasing what they have said—and to correct any misunderstanding by you or the other person.

In business, active listening can be used by any of the parties in a discussion and is always employed in person. You cannot actively listen to a survey, although you should definitely listen when discussing the survey results and actions to be taken.

In conflict resolution, active listening helps to defuse the situation between two individuals or groups because you are not taking sides. Every individual or spokesperson is given a chance to present their viewpoint and the goal is to reach an accommodation by first finding at least minimal areas of mutual agreement. 

Active listening has these drawbacks:

  • When done without self-awareness, it can come across as arrogant parroting.
  • It can descend into an interrogation, where you ask endless questions without any clear method or intention of moving forward.
  • It can be exhausting and stressful for both parties if it covers too wide an area or if emotions overwhelm.

Using Feedback from a Survey, Report, or Checklist

Written feedback has the advantage that you cannot mishear or mistake the information you are receiving. With any communication in writing, you also have the ability to look back and compare answers: did the situation get worse or better from one year to the next; is there a particular group with the greatest issues; and is there a particular area where you should concentrate your efforts on change?

However, as with any feedback, the data you gather is only as good as the questions you’ve asked. Also gathering data is meaningless unless you share and discuss the data so that you have enough information to make the right changes, are open to ideas for change or improvement, and create an action plan. If a survey comes back with low scores on training, for example, you need to ask the team what specific types of training they need or you will waste time and resources ineffectually.

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