3 Tips for Delivering Feedback
Considering most people want to do good work and meet expectations, delivering constructive feedback sure can feel like picking your way through a minefield of misunderstanding, hurt feelings, defensiveness, and conflict.
And with anxiety and depression rates still exceeding pre-covid numbers, I’ve heard from several coaching clients and workshop participants that their employees are more easily discouraged and offended … and more willing to walk off the job if they hear something they don’t like. As a leader, this can put you in a bind.
There’s an art to telling people they aren’t measuring up in a way they can actually hear and use! Thankfully, a quick google search will bring up zillions of useful articles on the topic, most of which include suggestions like this (I mean, I’m assuming—I haven’t read them all):
- Create safety and trust. All difficult conversations go better when you lay a foundation of open communication, clear expectations, positive feedback, and appreciation.
- Be specific and clear. Do not embellish, sugarcoat, or avoid the truth. Be straightforward. As Diane Musho Hamilton writes, “Speak with kind confidence.”
- Focus on behavior. State facts and share observations without derailing into shame, blame, or name-calling. Keep character, motives, and identity out of the conversation.
- Coach before you evaluate. Avoid comparisons and assessments if you haven’t given ample training or conveyed expectations.
- Acknowledge reactions. Notice, address, and give space for emotional reactions, including your own.
- Listen. Ask questions and pay attention to the answers to discover whether your intended message got across and what you may have missed.
- Plan for improvement. Work together with the other person to brainstorm ways to effect change, set goals, and follow up.
Each of these could be an article on its own (and I’ve written a few of those!), but today I’d like to focus on the physical, concrete, nonverbal things you can do to keep your constructive comments from devolving into de-structive feedback. Here’s how to create an atmosphere that gives your words a chance to resonate.
In addition to the tips above, pretty much every book or article you check out on delivering feedback will say, “Stay calm.” If you wear your anxiety or frustration on your sleeve when heading into a potentially difficult conversation, you nonverbally signal to the other person that there’s something to get upset about! Not a great start. Even when you begin calmly, you may need to fight getting sucked into an emotional tornado. Staying calm provides a psychological anchor, allows you to think rationally, creates safety, and communicates confidence.
But how do you do that? Especially if the other person is losing their cool? It’s so easy to get hooked!
In addition to managing your thoughts, here are some physical things you can do:
- Reduce physical tension. Your muscles tense in response to a threat, attempting to protect you from injury. By releasing tension, you communicate to your brain (and the other person) that you’re safe and everything will be okay.
- Feel physical sensations. Getting out of your head and into your body almost always reduces anxiety and can help with anger, too. Feelings aren’t all you can feel. What about your hands on the desk? Your clothing against your skin? Your feet on the floor? Noticing your feet, especially, can ground and stabilize you.
- Keep your voice low and slow. Speaking with a smooth, gentle voice can soothe your nervous system (and everyone else’s).
- Breathe. The lower lobes of your lungs activate the “rest and digest” system. Deep breathing will calm your mind and body more quickly than anything else—plus it helps you release tension, get out of your head and into your body, and soften your voice. Bonus!
- Take a break. A quick break—taking a sip of cool water or finding an excuse to stand up and move to a different spot—can be all it takes to shift the energy of a conversation. If emotions are running high though, be willing to postpone the conversation until everyone is calmer.
To prevent escalation, keep yourself and your relationship with the other person separate from your message. Some words and phrases connect; other words and phrases separate. The same applies to nonverbals. If you’re concerned about an emotional response, avoid nonverbals that connect. Save them for later (see below)! Instead, use nonverbal communication that will keep you both focused on the issue:
- Stay out of the line of fire. Candlelit dinners with your one true love are a great time to sit across the table so that you can both gaze deeply into each other’s eyes and share your souls. But don’t do that when you have constructive feedback. Sit next to, or at an angle from, the other person, so that you’re looking the same direction instead of at each other. Take the pressure off. Don’t make yourself a target.
- Look at the issue. Eye contact connects people. Therefore, when discussing something that’s hard to hear, have something else for both you and the other person to look at. It could be a document, chart, calendar, message, or report (just to throw out a few ideas), either physically printed or pulled up on a screen; share your screen if you’re on a video call. It could be a poster, an object, or something you are jotting down on the back of a napkin. In order to give space, cool emotional temperatures, and keep yourself out of it, avoid eye contact.
- Speak authoritatively. Frequently, in an attempt to convey that you care, it’s easy to try to soften your voice by speaking tentatively or curling it up at the ends of statements. This does not convey the “kind confidence” you’re going for. Plus, it takes you back into relationship mode. If you want to soften your voice, breathe, and turn down the pace and volume. Speaking authoritatively communicates that this is about the issue, not the person.
While you don’t want to drag your persona or your relationship into the fray when delivering feedback, you do want to communicate that you and the receiver are on the same side. The whole point of delivering feedback is improvement and growth that will ultimately lead to success—individual, team, and organizational success. Yet any time you have to tell someone they aren’t doing as well as they could or should, it can feel like a personal attack.
Many of the tips already mentioned do double duty; they demonstrate that you’re on the same side while also keeping you calm and objective. In fact, staying calm and neutral shows that the conversation isn’t about you at all—it’s about what the other person needs to hear.
Keep in mind that often your feedback will not be a surprise to the other person. Approach the conversation as if you’re both coming at the problem together. (If they’re blindsided, you need more frequent and clear communication.) Since you’re in this together, avoid condescending nonverbals, such as an exasperated voice, a smug expression, or looking down your nose. And once the relationship does enter the conversation (e.g., “I’m here to help; I know you’ve got what it takes to handle this; what do you need from me?”), go ahead and use communication of connection: “I/we” statements, eye contact, open body language, and a more approachable voice pattern.
Most people don’t enjoy giving or receiving constructive feedback. Some people go great lengths to avoid it! Yet without feedback, how do you learn and grow and improve? An effective leader can share comments while preserving relationships by cooling down, keeping the relationship out of the interaction, and pulling together with their team members. In fact, with the right tools and mindset, giving and receiving feedback becomes less of a burden and more of an opportunity.