Giving Feedback

Clients have been asking me for some guidance on how to give feedback -- a hard conversation if there ever was one.  While every situation is different, here are some ideas to help you give shape to the interaction and to stay on track:


  • Never go into these interactions intending to wing it; do your homework
  • Make the conversation about learning, sharing, and problem solving
  • Be clear on your main message(s) and where you would like to end up
    • Keep the number of these messages small; this will help you to maintain focus
    • Difficult conversations are not about finding the Truth or establishing Facts, but are rather about discovering what’s important (to you and the other person)
  • Think about what’s at stake for you in this conversation.  What makes it difficult or challenging for you?
    • What do you need to do to support yourself through it?  Remember, this is about learning, not being perfect
  • Recognize your emotional triggers.  Remember, no one can “make” you feel anything.  Choose your feelings appropriately and help them to work for you (or at least not against you).
    • Disentangle your feelings from the issues

Who goes first is not a hard and fast rule.  Given that this is a formal feedback conversation, it makes some sense that you as manager would offer some initial observations.  Still, I can imagine scenarios where you begin with a question, asking your team member what she is interested in talking or hearing about.  This can help you both get into a listening frame of mind right from the start.

Learn their story.  Be interested in what’s important to the other person.  Be curious.  Ask questions.

  • Acknowledge the feelings behind the arguments and accusations.  This is not the same as agreeing with the other person.
  • You may need to work on making it safe for them to open up (if that is appropriate in the circumstances). Especially think about language choices.  Avoid “Yes, but…” which is just another way of saying “No”, or “You’re wrong…”

Share your story.  Connect your point of view (where possible) to their needs, assumptions, values, and perceptions.  

  • Tell your story as your own experience rather than some irrefutable set of facts.  Share your data.  Name your assumptions, stories, and hypotheses as such.  
  • Have you contributed to the situation at all?  If so, it can be very powerful to acknowledge this.

Be open to the possibility that where you initially thought you wanted to go may not be where you wind up.  There may emerge some very good reasons to adapt your expectations.  Just make those adjustments intentionally and thoughtfully.

Pay attention to possible derailments.  Gently and respectfully direct the conversation back to its original topic.  Common derailments include:

  • Defensiveness
  • Changing the topic
  • Deflecting the conversation toward you or another person
  • Extreme emotion

If the person gets emotional, let them have their reaction.  Be supportive of the person and firm in your message.  These are not mutually exclusive outcomes.

Feedback is information about the past, shared in the present, and that may influence future behavior.

  • The person you are talking to has to want to change.  You can’t make them change.
  • Figure out together what is needed to create the conditions for the change you are seeking