Feedback and speech act

Good feedback is specific and actionable. That’s one trait that separates it from complaint and criticism

So, how to formulate feedback that’s specific and actionable?

We acknowledge that there are many ways to come up with feedback that’s specific and actionable. One we’d like to explore in this writing is from the speech act perspective.

“Speech act is a part of pragmatics where there are certain aims beyond the words or phrases when a speaker says something. Speech acts are acts that refer to the action performed by produced utterances.” — Agus Hidayat

Speech acts are the linguistic patterns that we use in daily conversation. Whenever we make offers and requests, give invitations, promises, apologies, and the like, we’re actually using a speech act.

There are many types of speech acts, but 2 that we’ll focus on here are assertion and assessment.

Assertion is a statement of facts, it’s something that’s true or false, yes or no. Below are examples of assertion:

  • I’m 175cm tall
  • I have a mother
  • The meeting lasted for 60 minutes
  • The proposal consists of background, timeline, project implementation, and pricing scheme
  • It takes me 1 hour 20 minutes to complete the task

Assessment, on the other hand, is a statement of opinions. You either agree or disagree with the statement. Below are examples of assessment:

  • I’m short
  • I have a wonderful mother
  • The meeting is long
  • The content of the proposal is not enough
  • The task is too difficult for me to complete
A comparison of assertion and assessment

If you pay attention, our perspective is mostly shaped by our assessments.

  • My manager is mean and unfriendly.
  • This project demands a lot of my time and effort.
  • It's hard to get a promotion in this office.
  • My direct reports are difficult to manage. 
  • I don't feel challenged in my current job.

Assessment also influences how one gives feedback. In fact, it’s more accurate to say one’s assessment can actually be a part of feedback that one gives to others. 

Here exercising caution is necessary. When your feedback solely consists of assessment, it’d be hard to make it specific and actionable.  More often than not, feedback that only has assessment can quickly turn into a complaint or criticism. 

Let’s look at 2 examples.

  1. “You’re not professional enough” is a complaint because it’s neither specific nor actionable, and it focuses on a person’s behavior or action. If we examine further, that statement only consists of one’s assessment, specifically one’s interpretation of professionality or lack thereof.
  2. “You’re an unprofessional jerk” is a criticism because while it’s neither specific nor actionable, it also targets a person’s character (“jerk”). The statement, as it turns out, is made up solely by one’s assessment of another person’s character. There’s no observable facts or assertion here.

Thus, one alternative to keep your feedback specific and actionable is by using both assertions and assessments.


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