Valuable feedback is specific feedback

The very same pastors who feel sceptical when people say, “that was a lovely sermon”, are often guilty of offering the same vague feedback to others.

Valuable feedback is specific feedback. Whether it’s positive feedback or negative is be site the point. Feedback that helps people correct or continue what they’re doing must be clear in a few ways;

  1. Clear behaviour noticed.
    There must be an action, or behavior (think “something that could be caught on video”) that is being addressed. It can’t be a vibe, or a feeling, and certainly not a motivation or intention!! (E.g. “when you looked away while I was talking” is fine, “when you tried to hurt my feelings”… is not fine)
  2. Clear implications of the behaviour
    there needs to be clear consequences that happened because of the behaviour. These don’t have to be observable, they can be feelings. I felt encouraged, I felt excited, the mood in the room changed, everyone looked at their bibles, etc.

In an ideal world, those consequences would be clear to the point of a resulting behaviour… I was excited to talk to my friends, I was scared to raise it again, I was encouraged to pray bigger prayers.

Good feedback helps people be gooder.


The best feedback you can get… “it seemed a bit weird”

Like the tip of an ice-berg, the feedback that you (or something you did) seemed a “bit weird” is some of the best feedback you can get. Why? Because it reveals that you and your listener were on a very different worldview. Here is a person who sees the world in a very different way to you… so different that the thing you did din’t make sense to them. Gold!!

So what’s under that tip of the ice-berg?

Is it their peculiarity? Or is it yours?
Is it their attention span? Or is it your idea of what’s engaging?
Is it the structure they couldn’t follow? Or the content within the structure?
Is it the tone they felt your used? Or was it the tone you tried to use?
Was there something going on you didn’t know about? Or were you assuming they knew the context better than they did?
Did they hear what you actually said? Or did you say something you didn’t mean?

The feedback that it was a “bit weird” is — if you can upturn that ice-berg — a gold mine of self-understanding!

Ignore anonymous feedback

Feedback is good. Even when its critical, hard to hear, ill-informed, or just wrong.

But feedback is bad when its anonymous because feedback – no matter how critical it may be – is relational. Its my opinion about you, but “voiced”. I’m not keeping it to myself, (and I’m not telling others ‘cause that’s “gossip”) but instead I’m making my opinion known to you.

But what happens when I tell you my opinion, but I don’t tell you it came from me?

All of a sudden you know what “someone” thinks, but you don’t know who that “someone” is. You could be speaking to them now, or tomorrow, or never even speak to them again. It could even be your best friend. You can’t know.

You can see how giving you feedback, without letting you know who I am, is ultimately very unloving, selfish and cowardly. Its a way of telling you what I think, without any consequences to myself.

So, if you get anonymous feedback, the only way to stop the effects of the selfishness that started it, is to just not read it.

If there’s no name on it, stop reading and throw it.

Be careful giving feedback to people who don’t report to you

At one level, I think we all need to get better at giving specific, regular, behaviour based, feedback. But, we need to be careful that on doing so, we don’t undermine our peers, by encouraging their people to do things that they’re not meant to do.
So, instead, it might look something like… “Hey, I really appreciated when you [describe the ACTION you observed]. Is that what Ben (your manager) wanted you to do?”
They might say, “Yeah!” So you can say, “Great,”
They might say, “Actually, no… I think he wanted something different.” So you can say, “Well, it would be worth going back to Ben and making sure you understand WHY he wanted something different.”
They might say, “Actually, I don’t know.” So you can say, “Well, there were certainly some positives there, but it would be worth getting some specific feedback from Ben, heh?”
So, there… Feedback and keeping your team members first.

What to say when you’re told that “some people” are unhappy…

He asks you over to the side of the room for a quite chat. With grave concerns in his eyes, he tells you that “some people” (or worse, “lots of people”) have expressed some discontent about something you’ve said or done. How should you respond?

First, in your heart, remember that you can’t please everyone… not even yourself. And you’ll always make mistakes. So whether for good reasons or bad, some people will always be unhappy. You might have something else to repent of, or you might not. So don’t get too worried.

Next, respond with a simple question, void of anger, bitterness, or fear… “Who?” or “Which people?”

If he doesn’t tell you WHO, ask him, “Exactly how many? Count them.”

I’ve never heard a complaint from “lot’s of people” that’s ended up with any more than 5 individuals… including the person who raised it. That’s their version of “a lot”.

So, simply end the conversation with a pleasant and unemotional voice. “Bob, there’s a good chance those people have already come and chatted to me, in which case they shouldn’t now be talking to you. Encourage them to come back and talk to me. If they haven’t talked to me about something I’ve done, be a good servant of Christ and discourage them from talking to you, and encourage them to come and raise it with me. But Bob, you need to understand, I’m not going to listen to 2nd hand complaints – especially from people who won’t tell me their name.”


Feedback Cards… unless you’ve got a better idea?

So… feedback cards. Some people love them, others hate them. Here’s some principles:

  • They don’t work on their own. You need to communicate clearly about them, again and again.
  • They don’t get filled out without a bit of social urging… its best when your church gathering has a culture of everyone filling out cards, so that the new person feels more comfortable doing it. Heard mentality can be helpful.
  • The point of feedback cards is primarily being able to follow-up new people. If you’re getting loads of feedback, but not getting new people’s details, don’t blame the card, but take a closer look at your systems and communications.
  • Cards… not Forms. People hate forms.
  • Tell people what you’re NOT going to do with them (“We’re not going to sell these to a marketing company. We’re not going to publish them anywhere, they’re only for designated leaders within our church family.”)
  • Don’t give people every option. Don’t ask them what congregation they’re from… that’s like calling my phone company, being asked to enter my phone number, then when I get to speak to someone, they ask me for my number. You should know what congregation they’re from because you collect them on the spot.
  • Reduce the questions… if you really want to know things about these people CALL THEM!!! Ask them all the questions you want over the phone, but don’t waste their time (and yours) by getting them to fill in every little possible detail on the form.
  • If you need to know something special, just ask them to write it on there; “I’d like to help with carols!”

For what it’s worth, here’s one we’re currently using for unichurch. It needs a re-do too.

HBC UC FeedbackCards 2013

The mathematics of normal complaints

A common experience among growing churches is they experience a growing number of complaints from “within”. This is often given as anecdotal evidence that larger churches don’t work in australia.
However, there’s some simple reasons for this.
Consider how often a person or couple might feel like raising an issue with their pastor… My guess is (on average) about once every 2 years. That is, on average, a person will go 2 years before they find they have such a concern or question about how things are they they will raise it with their pastoral staff or elders.
If you had a church of 50, that’s only 1 “issue” every 2 weeks. In a church of 100 that’s about 1 issue or question per week. In a church of 500, that’s 5 issues every week.
So, do you go? Less than that? More than that?
Either way, Praise God!

Some feedback tricks are just destructive

Have you heard the feedback trick, “Sandwich negative feedback between two positive pieces of feedback”? But what usually happens?

They hear the first comment with suspicion, thinking “What’s coming that’s so bad you need to butter me up first?”. And they probably won’t even hear the other positive comment, because they’re still reeling from the negative feedback.

But it’s still a good model! Positive comments should be given more liberally than negative ones. Just don’t try to trick them.

Tell them that you’d like to give some feedback, both positive and negative. Ask them if that’s ok. Tell them, “Ok, let me tell you some things i think you did really well.” Make sure they understand. Get them to explain it back to you. Then do the same with the negative.

Then tell them your concerns, “I’m concerned that you might go away from this conversation only remembering the negative… Is that a likely possibility? do you remember the positive things we talked about?”

It’s just about putting everything on the table. both your feedback, and your method of delivery, and your concerns about how they’ll hear it.

Because the thing that makes feedback tricks destructive is allowing people to think (assume) that you’re not being honest.