Four powerful tips to make giving feedback easier

We sometimes see these conversations as difficult and awkward, but they don't have to be.

Steffan Surdek
June 8, 2020
Give feedback

Feedback is one of those awkward realities of business, and people can react to it in different ways.

As a coach, one of my most important roles is to provide feedback to organizations. Over the years, I've learned a lot about it, and I've come to notice it's an art.

What is feedback?

At the root of it, feedback comes down to having a conversation with someone to share information. Maybe you want to share something you observed or something that a person can improve. But these conversations can often be difficult for both parties depending on the context.

Do you struggle with giving feedback to a colleague, a friend or even a family member? Do you feel uncomfortable doing it? Or do you wonder whether you even have the authority to do it?

Here are four tips to help you give better feedback.

1. Ask permission first.

For those times you wonder, "Who am I to give feedback to this person?" or "Am I allowed to do this?" one of the best approaches is to ask the other person for permission first. Here are a couple different ways you can do that:

  • "I would like to share some observations with you from the meeting this morning. Would that be OK with you? When would be a good time?"
  • "I need to talk to you about something, but I'm kind of uncomfortable doing it. I'm not sure how you will react. Could we try talking about it and giving each other space?"

The first approach allows the other person to opt in and gives you a designated time where you'll have their attention. Right now may not be a good time for them (they may have other concerns and worries), but they can choose when.

The second approach expresses your vulnerability and discomfort. At this point, they know this isn't fun for you, and they can even be more open when they listen. (Funnily enough, you'll often find the conversation is much easier than you first thought!)

2. Be clear about your intentions.

Taking a moment before meeting with someone to get some clarity on the conversation will help you relax. What conversation are you looking to have with this person? What is important for you to say, and why is it important to you? What are you looking to gain from this conversation?

Once you know your intention, you can use it and share it in different ways. For example, you may want to share it upfront with the person at the start of the discussion.

You can even use your intention to gauge where the conversation is heading. Are your words and behaviors aligned with your intention? If the conversation goes off track — if you get upset, for example — you can use your intention to do a reset: "Wait a minute, this is actually what I am looking to do, and I noticed my words do not jive with that."

You can also look back to your intention if the other person gets angry and sidetracked. "Wait a minute. This is the conversation that I wanted to have with you. We are way off-track right now. I didn't mean to upset you. Can we try to go back to this conversation?"

3. Look for the good intentions.

Some people like to call this the sandwich technique: good stuff, bad stuff, then good stuff again. As a coach, I would rather try to look for your good intentions and bring that up when I can.

For example, imagine you have a colleague who can never say no to anyone, and they drown in their work and get frustrated. How can you talk to them about it? In your conversation with them, you could simply say, "Stop saying yes to everyone! You are driving yourself crazy and driving us crazy too!"

But imagine what could be different if you were to give that feedback in a way that highlights their intention of being helpful, like, "I can see you want to help people, but does it get to be too much for you sometimes?"

Noticing the good intentions and efforts people are making is a good way to offer support. It opens up the discussion, and you can show more empathy for them rather than categorizing their behavior as good or bad.

4. Pay attention to their reaction.

As hard as it can be for someone to give feedback, it can also be difficult to receive. People may perceive what you are saying as blame or as if they are doing something wrong.

Pay close attention to how people receive your feedback. Are they taking it in a constructive way? Or are they justifying themselves or finding excuses? When you step back and notice what you are telling them, do they have a reason to act this way?

You may find some people are reacting to what they think you are saying instead of what you are actually saying. Be curious and invite them to reflect back on what they heard from you. How does what they tell you line up with your words and your intentions? How do you need to adjust?

Sometimes you may notice that even positive feedback makes people uncomfortable. They may start rationalizing what you are telling them and even find an explanation for it. When you notice this kind of reaction, invite them to respond with "thank you" instead!

What is most difficult for you when you providing feedback to people? How do you stir up the courage to speak your mind and bring up the conversation you need to have?