No matter how long you’ve been a leader, one of the most important communication skills is talking to your team about topics that might be challenging, sensitive or difficult. It’s important to pay attention to both how and why we’re actually delivering our communications in these situations, and the impact that they may have on the recipients.
Of course, mastery of this skill is relevant for all areas of your life. Sometimes we just deliver the communication and we don’t really put care or thought behind it. Many times, it can seem easier to just say nothing and not provide feedback. But it’s often important to share our thoughts because it can build communication, alignment, and ultimately improve performance. It also clarifies expectations…often people may not be doing something the way you’d prefer because expectations weren’t set properly in the beginning.
Effective understanding of behavioral styles can help you better tune how you deliver your message. There are different approaches that will impact people differently—it all depends on you and your style.
You want to make sure you’re not discouraging someone when you are giving feedback. If you’re having a tough conversation, there should be something positive that can result. Whether or not you invoke fear or insecurity in the recipient is going to depend on your delivery. Everyone is going to feel something when they first hear feedback, but you have to recognize and capitalize upon the opportunity to make it supportive and productive.
Although easier said than done, try your best to remain unemotional. Make sure your own emotions don’t take over. If you’re taking
Here is an effective 3-step process that provides a model you can use when considering how to deliver effective feedback:
Being in the right frame of mind helps ensure that the conversation is both productive, and also preserves good working relationships even beyond the feedback session.
Before you have a discussion like this with someone, make sure your mindset and emotional state (or, your HeadTrash) are not in the way. Because once you’re having this discussion, there may be some sensitivity or emotional impact for the other person.
Your goal is to help that person do something better, or become aware of something. It’s important to make sure your motivations are in the right place and that it’s not personal.
For example, you would NOT start by saying,
“This is the fourth time now I’m telling you this…”
That’s not very encouraging!
It’s also very helpful when you prepare some examples in advance. Examples help people relate to and understand what you are sharing. If you leave it vague, and they have their own assumption of what the goal should be, there could be a misalignment on expectations. They may be working really hard on doing just what they thought you asked, but it wasn’t really what you asked. This is why examples are important.
If you can’t think of an example, though, you need to determine whether or not you’re actually prepared to have this discussion. If you can’t come up with some concrete situation that supports your feedback, it’s going to be hard to convey credibility. They will likely ask, “Well, what do you mean by that? Can you give me an example?”. You must be prepared for these types of questions.
In advance of the discussion, prepare some specific examples that illustrate the impact of what their behavior or action is doing. It will help set the bar as to what is expected.
Be timely about your response to an event or issue. If it’s something someone did months ago, it’s going to be hard to make it relevant. Sometimes it’s better to bring up a difficult discussion later than not at all, but do strive to make it as timely as possible. You may want to leave enough time for the proverbial dust to settle, but don’t wait too long. It will make the situation seem less critical. It will also help them connect to the impact of what they did. It’s worth taking the time to organize your facts and observations in advance.
While timeliness is important, you also don’t want to deliver feedback if you’re still upset about a situation. Otherwise, the feedback you’re going to give is going to be overpowered by your emotions. You want to make sure this is a productive and effective discussion.
When you get into the actual discussion, be clean, crisp, clear, and factual…not interpretive and editorializing. If you add in things that make it more abstract and emotional, they may misconstrue what you’re saying. Examples really help, especially ones that focus on the behavior instead of criticizing the person.
For example, you wouldn’t want to say something like
“You know better than that! You don’t like when people interrupt you.”
That’s not going to motivate someone! Instead, here is a good example of focusing on behavior:
“I’ve noticed you get impatient when someone else is talking, and you don’t give them a chance to finish. Let’s think about that for a minute. How can we strategize on a way for you to let the other person finish their thought before you respond?”
It’s helpful to convey empathy and to make them feel supported. Do not make it feel like an attack. Acknowledge appreciation of where they are in the situation and how their actions have impacted the outcome. Empathy is going to be important, which means you must listen a little bit more than you speak. The moment you deliver the information, being empathetic gives that person an opportunity to share.
Even if you just pause and say something along the lines of…
“Do you see what I mean?”
“Do you understand the feedback I’m giving?”
“Do you see why I wish we can do this instead?”
Those kinds of phrases allow the person to talk. It gives and shows empathy that you’re going to let them have some sort of discussion with you. It also avoids the classic “feedback sandwich”— which is when you start out with all positives, you slip in the issue in the middle, and then you end with all positives. Depending on the behavioral style of the person you’re talking to, they’ll often miss the middle! They’ll hear the positives on both sides, which actually can make it distracting for them to really get what was actually the problem.
So yes, be cordial. Of course, you might want to have an icebreaker (at least with some behavioral styles) to set out the tone, and you can do a little “sugarcoating” to get the conversation started. but you don’t want them to miss the core aspects of the situation you are addressing.
Though you are the one delivering feedback, strive to keep it a two-way conversation. This is often the hardest part because of the difficult nature of the discussion. Most times everyone (including you) just wants it to be over quickly. There is the temptation to get it all out, end the meeting, and move on like it didn’t happen!
In most cases, though, people really do want an opportunity to share how they’re responding to that feedback. They want to express their own beliefs, or ask questions. It’s important to allow for openness, because the person hearing it may be intimidated in this interaction especially if they report to you. Depending on your tone, they may be uncomfortable to start talking, or wonder if it’s appropriate to raise questions.
Do what you can to make it a very easy place for them to have a dialogue with you. It will improve the chances that they are hearing you and are trying to digest the feedback. On the other hand, if you’ve done all the talking then ended the meeting—and they didn’t utter a word—there’s a good chance they missed it all! You may have thought you accomplished something by delivering the communication, but it may not have made any change in what they’re doing.
The follow up step often gets overlooked, but it is very important to achieve results. Because of your own possible discomfort in confronting the situation, there can often be a rush to just have the whole thing done and over with. Our internal hope is that we don’t have to talk about it again, especially if it was a sensitive and difficult conversation.
For effective people dynamics, though, you want to make sure that the feedback from the prior session was both appropriately received, and that the person is “okay”. It’s also worth checking in to see they might want another conversation. Depending on the behavioral style, some people need to digest the initial feedback, think about it, put it in context with what they are doing, and really try to understand it. If you think that another face to face conversation is too much, drop them an email to let them know you are still there to support them.
Also, they may have questions. If you leave it open ended and you don’t follow back up, though, it will not bring them closure. If your objective is to have a clear and consistent process for someone to know when an interaction begins and ends, you need to bring closure to at least the dialogue of what you had just shared. This is also a great time to make them aware of any next action steps. Effective follow up is key to actually making the initial feedback “stick”. It also provides an opportunity to validate for them your sincere and true support.
Most people sincerely want to do good work that matters and makes a positive difference. Just as world-class athletes still have coaches, your team members can benefit from your perspective to help them enhance their performance.
If you can deliver effective feedback in a way that:
then you will not only have achieved your business goals, but will have helped that person grow and succeed as well!