5 Strategies To Give Negative Feedback People Actually Want To Hear
Have you had that moment when you have to tell someone they aren’t performing well? When they pride themselves on being good at the very thing you’re about to tell them they aren’t? It’s that moment when you swallow hard, your mouth goes dry, and secretly you pray that they’ll listen and won’t come up with 10 reasons why you’re wrong.
It’s that moment that every good executive coach (and most good leaders) must face, no matter how difficult it feels. Because without it, breakthroughs don’t happen.
After nearly 30 years of coaching leaders at all levels and teaching executives how to have difficult conversations in The Influence Workshop, I’ve learned a lot about how to thrive in those moments…and more importantly, how to deliver the message so that the person receiving the message can thrive too. Here are 5 tips:
1. Don’t Sugarcoat The Feedback
Delivering feedback is a critical task. In many cases, you are the only one who can deliver the message in a way that can do any good. Don’t lose the significance of the moment by minimizing or making light of the feedback. Emphasize how important it is and why it matters rather than explaining it away, making excuses for them, or dancing around it. Framing the issue clearly and actually naming it is critical, no matter how hard it is. Remember, you may be the only person who will ever tell them the truth. I have lost count of the number of coaching clients who have told me that I was the first to level with them about how critical their behavior was. If you are gifted with the chance to do this, be the person to change someone’s life
2. Be Prepared
Difficult feedback can be a great gift in the long run, but it can also be quite wounding, particularly in the moment. To avoid wounding, do a bit of homework and have relevant quotes, data, or examples to share. Be ready to provide enough information so that the listener can understand and relate to the feedback but not so much that they feel a barrage of ammunition or can attack the people who provided the data. That may require being judicious in how much you share but be ready to explain the feedback in a way that, regardless of whether they agree, they can at least understand what you’re referring to. Don’t underestimate the preparation you must do prior to the conversation.
3. Wait For Their Reaction
After delivering the feedback and the data that supports it, STOP. Ask them what they think or what their reaction is and wait for them to speak. The waiting is critical. It’s not easy to outlast the ‘pregnant pause’ but in this moment, how you encourage them to respond can mean the difference between a breakthrough and resistance. Waiting is worth it. Fight through the awkwardness of the pause and let them talk.
4. Make It Possible To Fix It
Once they understand the issue and have had a chance to respond, help them see that fixing the issue is possible (if it is). Be ready to reinforce the strengths they can leverage to fix the problem. I have come to believe that when people realize that the feedback is about a part of who they are and not all of who they are as a person and that they are equipped to change their behaviors, they are more likely to work on it.
5. Address The Root Cause
If you have a lot of feedback or if there are several critical issues to address, you can do one of two things. My favorite is to pick the one thing that, if resolved, would have the most impact on the others (the root cause). I often ask, ‘if you could snap your fingers and change one thing about this person, what would it be?’ But alas, sometimes, particularly when delivering 360-degree feedback as a coach, there are simply more than one thing. In this case, the most effective strategy I’ve seen is to organize the feedback into themes.
Delivering difficult feedback can be a dreaded and thankless task but if you think it through and deliver it strategically, it is also a chance to drive a life-changing breakthrough. Telling the truth in a way that the other person can actually hear it and address it may be exactly what your listener needs to implement real change. Don’t take that responsibility lightly.