10 Steps To Helpful Feedback

By Shari Harley

We’ve all been there. Someone does something irritating, off-putting or upsetting, and we must decide to speak up or say nothing. We ask ourselves – is it worth it? Will the conversation make a difference? Will the behavior change? Do I even have the right to say anything? If I speak up, will I damage the relationship or make the situation worse?

If someone else’s behavior has a significant impact on them, on your organization or you, it’s OK to say something. That said, there are a few things to consider before having a difficult conversation.

1. Evaluate the Situation

First, ask yourself if you have the relationship to give this person feedback. People are more receptive to negative feedback when they trust the person providing it. If you don’t have a trusting relationship, giving feedback without damaging relationships is very difficult.

Second, evaluate if the person is open to hearing the feedback. If the person isn’t open to your feedback, it’s better to say nothing. When there is a lack of receptivity, you’ll face resistance and won’t see behavior change. You can give feedback to a senior person at work, a colleague, a family member or a friend, provided you have a trusting relationship with that person and they are open to your feedback.

Let’s say the criteria for giving feedback are met – there is a significant impact on the person, the organization or you. The person trusts you and your reasons for speaking up and is open to your feedback. When all these things are true, how do you say what you want to say? Where do you have the conversation and when?

2. Preparation Is Key

If a conversation is going to be particularly difficult, write out what you want to say. Save those notes as a draft and come back to them the next day. Your message might be different a day later when you’re feeling less emotional. Never give feedback when you’re upset.

3. Say It out Loud

Next, practice what you’re going to say out loud. Speaking words aloud and “saying” them in your head are not the same. Use your notes to guide you. Typed, bulleted notes, double-spaced, with large font will help if the conversation becomes emotional or tense. Your handwritten notes will not help you during times of stress.

4. Ask for Help

If you aren’t sure what to say, ask for help. Everyone but you will do a better job planning a hard conversation because other people aren’t emotionally involved. It’s our emotions that make feedback conversations difficult. Ask for help from people outside of your organization. Change the names of the people involved. Don’t increase the gossip that is pervasive in most organizations.

5. Review Your Notes

Once you’ve typed out talking points, reviewed your notes when you’re not upset, practiced out loud and possibly gotten some help planning the conversation, you’re ready. Ask the feedback recipient for time to talk. Always give negative feedback privately. Make sure the person can focus on the conversation and isn’t distracted by looming deadlines, an upcoming meeting, a vacation or a sick family member. If the recipient is distracted, you’re talking for yourself and won’t see the receptivity or change you’re looking for.

6. Deliver the Feedback

Pick the medium that will allow you to provide feedback within a week or two of the event you want to address. You can give feedback in person, over the phone or via video. Any of these mediums will work. Do not give feedback via email or text message. Talk with the person live.

If the timing is right, you are both in a private place, and you’ve planned your conversation, it’s time to deliver the feedback. I always start difficult conversations by telling the person the reason I’m speaking. It could sound like, “I care about your career. I’m seeing something impact you negatively, and I want to tell you.” Or, “I care about our working relationship. Something is impacting our relationship, and I want to tell you about it.” Or “I need to talk with you. This might be awkward for both of us, but I’d rather you hear this from me than someone else.” Phrases like these explain why you’re talking. You’re planting little seeds of trust. Because when people trust your motives, you can say anything. When people don’t trust your motives, you can say almost nothing.

7. Give Specific Examples

Now, it’s time to give examples. When you give feedback, provide one to three specific examples of the behaviors you saw the person exhibit. If you can’t give an example, you’re not ready to give feedback. Saying, “You hurt my feelings,” without telling the person what they said or did that hurt your feelings only creates paranoia and defensiveness. Vague statements violate the purpose of giving feedback – to be helpful to another person.

Instead of saying, “You’re sleeping on the job,” say, “You volunteered to run this year’s team builder. Our retreat is in 10 days, and I haven’t seen a plan yet. What’s happening?” Instead of saying, “You’re taking advantage of our hospitality,” tell your house guest, “We love having you here. We’re happy to host you for the week. After that, it would be best to find a hotel.” Instead of telling someone they’re a gossip, say, “I heard you were talking about me to other team members. This makes me feel like I can’t trust you. What’s happening?” Helpful feedback provides just the facts. Skip the subjective judgments, which increases defensiveness. Instead, focus on observable behaviors.

In my book, “How to Say Anything to Anyone: Setting Expectations for Powerful Working Relationships,” I call vague feedback Cap’n Crunch. Vague feedback is just like the children’s breakfast cereal. It contains no nutritional value and leaves you hungry ten minutes after eating. Vague feedback leaves people confused, defensive and wanting to know more. If you really want to help a person or alter a behavior or situation, be specific.

8. Prepare for Emotions

Now, let’s talk about defensiveness. Most people say they avoid giving feedback because they don’t want to hurt another person’s feelings or they’re afraid the person will quit. But what if we, the feedback provider, really just don’t want to deal with the person yelling, crying, becoming angry or giving us the silent treatment?

9. Use Notes

Human beings get defensive when they receive feedback. Defensiveness is a normal, natural and even healthy response. Human beings want to be seen as competent. Negative feedback questions our competence, and the brain reacts, defending itself. When you give feedback, your job is to tell it how you see it. The listener’s job is to defend themselves. Defensiveness is a normal and predictable part of the feedback process. Instead of avoiding defensiveness, plan for it. Use type-written notes to bring the conversation back on track when the listener takes the conversation off track.

10. Trust Matters

You really can say anything to anyone when people trust your motives and are open to your feedback. Prepare, make type-written notes, practice out loud, get help when you need it, and gather your courage. You can say more than you think you can.

About the author:

Shari is the founder and president of Candid Culture, a Denver-based training and keynote speaking firm that is bringing candid conversations back to the workplace, making it easier to tell the truth at work. Shari is the author of the business communication book ”How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide to Building Business Relationships that Really Work.” Learn more about Shari Harley and Candid Culture’s training programs at www.candidculture.com.