The Looking Glass: Holding Up the Mirror

The what, why, how and art of giving and receiving feedback

Julie Zhuo
5 min readMay 31, 2024

Dear Readers,

I just went through feedback season at Sundial, and just like Christmas it’s full of gifts.

This is a total 180 from how I used to approach feedback, which fell into roughly the same blah-bucket as doing taxes. Sure, it was purportedly good for you (and good for the country!), but I limped into the task with resignation and duty, felt that the entire ordeal was far too arduous and long, and boy was I relieved when it was over. Until the cycle would sadly repeat.

No longer, my friends. I’m a feedback zealot now. This issue is dedicated to the why, how and art of feedback.

After all, you’ll be doing this feedback thing for the rest of your life. Maybe I can convince you to enjoy it just a tad more? ; )



In this issue:

  1. The litmus test for feedback
  2. Ineffective feedback
  3. Giving excellent feedback

For paid subscribers:

  1. How to receive feedback with excellence
  2. The gift of the mirror

The litmus test for feedback

Did you give helpful feedback?

The litmus test is simple: did your feedback result in the other person taking action in a way you and they feel good about?

If yes, pat yourself on the back. Your feedback was great, and you gave them a gift of great value.

If not, then it wasn’t.

That’s it.

Ineffective feedback

Sometimes giving any feedback feels so daunting that just saying something feels like you deserve a pat on the back.

Certainly be proud of yourself for speaking up! But hold yourself to a high feedback bar.

There are many types of well-intentioned but ultimately ineffective feedback. Feedback is ineffective if it does NOT result in the other person taking action in a way they or you feel good about.

As the remixed Dostoevsky quote goes, All effective feedback is alike; each piece of ineffective feedback is ineffective in its own way.

Ineffective feedback is feedback the other person…

  1. …already knew, so they don’t do anything differently
  2. …has no clue how to put into action
  3. …feels forced to act on because they’re afraid of what happens if they don’t
  4. …thinks is inaccurate
  5. …is not motivated to do anything about
  6. …dismisses because they think you’re out to get them
  7. …finds confusing so they disregard
  8. …misunderstands and does something that isn’t what you intended
  9. …acts on but with great resentment toward you
  10. …acts on only to get such a poor outcome that they learn to do the opposite

Giving excellent feedback

The most important ingredient for giving effective feedback is care for the other person.

Your intent must to be genuinely help the other person. You must see and validate them, and thus want what’s best for them. If you go into giving feedback with a kind of I mantra in your head — I want to sound smart, I want them to like me, I give them a piece of my mind — it will reflect in your delivery.

We humans are excellent at sensing when someone seems to be doing something because they care about their own agenda, versus because they care about us. For those folks, we tend to disregard what they tell us.

So, if you want to give effective feedback, you must first work on your own state of mind.

Giving feedback when you’re seeing red doesn’t work well. Neither does giving feedback to someone you consider your enemy (unless they are exceptionally gifted feedback-takers.)

If you’re angry or hurt by someone, you’ll likely have no shortage of feedback you want to dish. But before delivering, try to see them as a flawed human being just like you. Envision them in your mind as a person with enormous potential and capacity for change. See your role as helping them reach their potential.

The second most important ingredient for effective feedback is courage.

You need to be brave to spelunk the depths of your own feelings and speak plainly your truth. Most people in the world are not courageous or vulnerable enough to be truly honest; that’s why it stands out. Honesty wrapped in care is precious as rubies.

When you talk like that, you sound to me like a follower and not a leader is more honest than I’d like to see you work on your communication, assuming both are said with care and a genuine desire to be helpful. The first is bright, sharp, and arresting. The second is watered down canned soup. The first is what will be remembered and acted on.

The third most important ingredient for effective feedback is a high standard of excellence.

Even if you master care and honesty, your feedback quality will be limited by how high your bar goes. This is why it can be hard to think of something useful to say to a manager or peer you like. They’re already having impact, working hard, being supportive and proactive — what more is there to say?

All that may be true, but in fact there IS more to say, if you raise the bar. Unless this person is the GOAT of their discipline, there’s going to be actions they can take that’ll help them improve in a way they feel good about. But if your bar isn’t high enough, you won’t be able to see it.

So to be excellent at giving feedback, imagine not just what they aren’t doing well today, but what the best version of them in 2–3 years time could look like. Then, tell them how you believe they can close that gap.

There are 2 more chapters in this article for paid subscribers that go even deeper into feedback:

  1. How to receive feedback with excellence
  2. The gift of the mirror

If you like my words and want to support more of my writing, consider being a paid subscriber!

Big thanks to those of you who have subscribed and shared with me your questions, musings, confusions and insights. I cherish you.

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Julie Zhuo

Building Sundial ( Former Product Design VP @ FB. Author of The Making of a Manager. Find me @joulee. I love people, nuance, and systems.