Good Feedback is a Volley, Not a Match

When feedback is a two-way conversation, both sides win.

Good feedback should look a lot like a volley. With a “serve and return” approach, these two-way conversations change the feedback dynamic from debate to dialogue, power to partnership, and seething to sharing. It’s the moment when feedback becomes fearless.

Rather than look to score points, go on the defensive, or engage in foul play, both giver and receiver work in tandem to produce a back-and-forth rhythm that leaves both sides feeling energized, not worn down.

To reach top form, feedback volleys need a mix of clear communication, strong teamwork and effective follow-up. And while this approach may take a bit of work up front, individuals stand to gain much more from feedback that’s driven by listening and learning, not telling and selling.

Set ground rules

Before you put the ball in play, make sure to clarify the purpose and practice of the feedback volley. The goal is to make room for meaningful discussion, powerful insights and shared understanding. Each person gets a chance to “serve” a reflection (more on that in a bit) and “return” their reactions. As one person talks, the other listens — creating the right conditions for discovery and dialogue.

Here are some guidelines for creating the field of play:

  • Make contact with the ball: No dodging, deflecting or ducking hard truths
  • Stay inside the lines: Be reasonable and respectful at all times
  • Play like teammates, not opponents: Act like you’re on the same side

Unlike traditional feedback, which can feel like a power struggle, the volley uses curiosity and collaboration to bring people closer together, making sure they get to have the conversations that really matter.

Plan the pre-game

A good volley needs both sides to come prepared. Instead of leaving feedback to chance, each individual should gather reflections that will frame the conversation. This pre-game workout challenges both giver and receiver to think about moments seized and missed and to discuss challenges and opportunities with candor and care.

These are useful reflection points for both sides to consider:

  • Highlight reel: Where did you find your greatest success? What made this possible?
  • Bloopers: What mistakes did you make? What did you learn?
  • Comebacks: Where did you improve most? What can you still improve?

Both sides should come ready with their reflections. I recommend that managers open the conversation by sharing their own bloopers and comebacks. Not only does this signal psychological safety, but it strikes a growth chord right from the start — no one is perfect, and everyone can improve.

From there, employees can share their highlights, bloopers and comebacks. Managers can weigh in with their own impressions of times when employees succeeded or struggled. If these accounts differ, even better — it will lead to a more robust and revealing exchange all around.

The point isn’t to debate, but to dialogue. The give-and-take of these conversations naturally leads to thoughtful questions, deeper discussion and stronger insights for both sides.

Focus on follow-up

At some point, every volley comes to an end. But that’s when the real promise and potential of feedback begins. Both giver and receiver should leave these conversations with commitments to one another — what employees will do to demonstrate progress and how managers will support their continuous improvement.

These questions make sure no one is left sitting on the sidelines:

  • Which goals should we focus on most?
  • How can we support each other during this process?
  • When one of us feels stuck, what will we do to get things back on track?

Write down these commitments and refer to them periodically. It’s important that each individual partner knows the other will remain engaged in the process even after the conversation is over. Having a strong follow-up plan ensures that feedback leads to concrete actions.

When feedback feels like a volley and not a match, both sides can claim victory. These two-way conversations deliver better results and relationships. They focus on future possibilities, not past failures. And they promote a stronger sense of curiosity, learning and partnership. Feedback volleys keep everyone in the game — and eager for what comes next.

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