Feedback: How to Give And Receive It Using NVC

When you were a kid, someone saying an unkind word to you could send you into a tailspin. Some of us used to burst into tears. Some of us would start swinging our fists. And some of us would stand utterly still, in total paralysis, working very hard to act as if it didn’t happen.

Now that you’re all grown up, you probably still have the same tendencies when it comes to your default reactions to criticism.

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Part of being an adult is being able to stand on your own two feet emotionally and take a few hits. Grown-ups don’t follow our first instincts; we get some space from our thoughts and feelings so we can observe them before making choices about what we do and say. We can never control what other people do and say, but we can always control what we do to with the hand that is dealt to us.

In the workplace, this opportunity comes in the form of feedback and constructive criticism. You either receive it and grow, or you avoid it and stagnate. Feedback is your very best friend, and only those who don’t know that fear it. But when feedback is tied into something as critical as your livelihood, it can be difficult to let go of some difficult feelings. Feedback can feel like a threat to your sense of security and worthiness; we all crave to feel accepted and safe in our positions.

But the only path to true security is to accept the feedback we all need to hear, and to integrate those changes so we can continue to be someone other people want to work with.

How can we learn to give and take feedback without judgement, fear, and erosion of workplace relationships?

The school of thought Nonviolent Communication has a lot to say about workplace feedback, and how to give it and receive it. This process works for both positive and negative feedback.

How to give feedback:

  1. Make a specific observation
    • “During lunch you made a joke about the Holocaust. A few people came to my office later to talk about it with me.”
  2. Assess whether the behavior meets a need (or not)
    • “This joke made people feel uncomfortable. We need to make sure our workplace is as professional as possible, so everyone can be equally happy and productive.”
  3. Make a request 
    • “Our general rule is no jokes about religion, politics, race or sex. If you could contain your humor to any other category, that would be great!”

How to receive feedback:

  1. If someone offers a judgment of your behavior but does not make a specific observation, ask for one.
    • “You said you were happy with how I’ve been doing documentation lately. Can you point me toward a specific article you were pleased with and let me know what you liked about it?”
  2. Ask questions to make sure you understand the needs that are or are not being met
    • “It sounds like our users have been complaining that our documentation is not very helpful. They’ve indicated that more visuals would improve things. Is this a priority for our team for the new few weeks?”
  3. Repeat back the request so they know you’ve heard them
    • “I’ll make sure to go through and add more screenshots, gifs, and videos to our documentation to make it more user friendly. Is there anything else I can do?”

Feedback doesn’t always come at you in this perfect form. Like I said before, you can’t control what others choose to do and say. But you can help steer the conversation in a direction so that when receiving or giving feedback, the communication is as clear and non-judgemental as possible. Keep this framework in mind as a guide, and use the specific words that feel natural for you.


This post is a part of the Spring 2017 Support Driven Writing Challenge.

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