Put on your feedback game face

With feedback, what we show matters more than what we say.

You’ve crafted the right message.  You’ve carefully prepared your points. You’ve chosen an appropriate time and place to have the conversation.

So how come your feedback fell flat?

Good managers know how to hone their message. They make sure it’s specific, timely, fair and driven by dialogue. These are important attributes of effective feedback, but they’re only part of the equation. Savvy managers understand the invisible truth about feedback:

What we show matters more than what we say.

Our face is a storefront.

It’s an important but often ignored element of feedback. Researchers have noted the role of “social cueing” in performance conversations. When critical feedback was expressed with inviting body language—such as smiles and nods—it left a surprisingly happy mark on the moods of the recipients. Framing tough feedback with positive facial expressions softened its blow and created a rosier overall impression. A simple tweak in affect made bad feedback seem better.

The opposite held just as true: When positive feedback was delivered with negative cues—like a scowl or frown—it was perceived by others to sound critical and unsupportive. People filtered what they heard with a sense of disappointment and failure, even though the actual words being spoken were complimentary.

More tellingly, the effects of negative social cueing tended to hit harder and last longer. While it’s natural to remember bad performance reviews from bosses or critical comments from friends, the residual impact is stronger when visual cues are used. In the same study, employees who were treated to positive reviews with scowls and frowns recalled these feedback encounters more intensely and in greater detail than those who received a brighter version of the bad news. Apparently, our “feedback face” leaves a very strong impression.

The force of our faces.

It comes down to a basic truth about communication: The mind believes what the eye sees. When people are talking to us, our brains are scanning their faces for tell-tale signs – something that lets us know what they really believe. A wince, perhaps, or maybe parsed lips. The slant of their eyes. The face is like a storefront that shows the interior goods. It offers public clues about private thoughts. Because our faces reflect our true feelings, most of us helplessly reveal ourselves long before we finish speaking.

Isn’t it interesting how this phenomenon has found its way into everyday expressions? We admire the people who manage to put on a “brave face,” maintain their composure with a “straight face,” or act so deceitfully they are nothing but “two-faced.” Unless you’re talking to someone with a “poker face,” it’s plain to see what’s simmering beneath the surface just by looking.

Prepare your feedback game face.

So how can we prepare our feedback game face? By taking a basic inventory of our non-verbal expressions:

Facial expression.  Smiling and frowning can actually activate the muscles in other people’s faces as well.   We internally register what another person is feeling by experiencing it in our own body. Smiling is so important to social interactions that we can discern whether someone is smiling even if we can’t see them. Make sure to smile appropriately when giving feedback that’s complimentary.

Eye contact. We can predictably tell someone’s emotions from their gaze. Eye contact is the crucial first step for resonance, a term psychologists use to describe a person’s ability to read someone else’s emotions. It’s also important for creating a feeling of connection. Make and maintain eye contact when you’re giving someone feedback.

Voice. From infancy, we are acutely aware of other people’s voices. The tone of our voice, more than the words themselves, can give away how we feel. Calibrate your voice when you’re speaking, especially when feedback is delicate.

Posture. The way we’re sitting — slumped or tall, arms open or crossed — transmits a message. If you’re giving feedback, you are probably in a position of power. Use your posture to telegraph support, not strength. Keep an open posture, hands at mid-section. Crossing your arms across your chest or folding your hands tightly on your lap may comes across unfavorably to another person.

Feedback can be revealing, but we need to be mindful of what and how we’re revealing when we’re giving it. What we show matters more than what we say.

Leave a Reply