Guide: How to Give Hard Feedback

The elusive art on giving hard feedback: a working guide.

Guide: How to Give Hard Feedback

Giving hard feedback and having hard conversations are some of the hardest things to do because there is so much more in play than just the contents of the feedback. There is:

  • The story we tell ourselves about what we are like to work with (we want to be liked, we want to be easy to work with, etc.)
  • The fear of hurting the other person by coming across as harsh and unsupportive
  • The fear that the feedback won’t be received well
  • The uncertainty of if we are right in our feedback (could we be out of touch? Who are we to say this is the way things are or should be?)

For me, the problem is fundamentally a mismatch in timing between the costs of giving that feedback and the benefits of giving that feedback. Quite simply, the costs are more immediate than the benefits, and our mind knows this: the short-term costs present the greatest psychological obstacle to having hard conversations and giving hard feedback.

So what can we do?

Steps to arrive at conviction

  1. List out all the short-term costs (and related fears...most perceived short-term costs are actually fears) we have about giving hard/negative feedback or having a hard conversation. What are you afraid of? What will happen that you don’t want? What fearful consequences exist as it relates to your reputation? In step one, don’t place a value-judgment on any of these. Simply write them down.
  2. Reality test these short-term costs and fears. Ask yourself: “How likely is this to come to pass?” “Are the logical leaps I am making in assuming these eventualities will happen actually logical?” “Am I creating false dichotomies?” “Is there gray area where I am seeing things in black and white?” For example, one false dichotomy I might begin to believe is “I will not be liked if I give hard feedback.” Once you have reality-tested those fears, there are some that might remain legitimate and others that hold less power over you. Set the legitimate ones aside for a moment and go to step 3.
  3. Now that you’ve identified your short-term costs and fears, list out the long-term benefits to having this hard conversation and sharing this feedback. One of the traps we fall into is that we operate only from a place of short-term costs instead of weighing the short-term costs against the long-term benefits. So write out what the benefits are in giving this feedback and ask yourself a simple question: “Do I think the long-term benefits outweigh the legitimate short-term costs?” If the answer is yes, then write down somewhere why you believe giving this feedback is worth-while. Writing it down can be helpful because as you get closer to giving feedback, and when you’re in the conversation, your fear-mind will resurface and you will begin to doubt. Having this sober-minded judgment written down will help serve as an anchor for you.

Steps to prepare for the conversation

Once you have conviction, it’s time to begin thinking about HOW to deliver the feedback. One of the common fears that could be legitimate is that feedback isn’t well received and the relationship will never be the same. If you have feedback to give, then a big part of your job is to determine the when and how of delivering that feedback. Determining the when and the how gives you the best chances for the feedback to be successfully received.

  1. Before you have feedback to give, explore with the people you work with how they want to receive feedback. This can be as simple as “Hey, I know we’re going to be working together a lot in the next few months. What’s the best way for us to give feedback to each other going forward?” This question can open up a brief conversation about the preferred ways people want feedback reflected to them.
  2. If you haven’t done step 1, but are in a moment when you have feedback to give to someone, find a time when you can give the feedback verbally to them (perhaps connected to another meeting you already have with them).
  3. Once you have a time set, then it’s time to begin to prepare to communicate this hard truth. Nonviolent communication best practices recommend communicating the impact that behavior or performance is having on you, instead of speculating on their intentions. For example, saying “When you arrived 30 minutes late to this meeting, the impact on me was we didn’t get everything done” instead of saying “Because you don’t care about this team and showing up late, we didn’t get everything done.” Prepare your talking points to be: “your action led to this impact on me.” It’s important to note that the impact on you might not only be not accomplishing the work at hand. The impact on you could also be something like, “when you arrived late, I felt disrespected.” You’re not saying: “you are disrespectful,” but you are taking responsibility for your emotion and how the feeling of being disrespected was yours. Use this “your action led to this impact on me” logic-model to come up with talking points. You might also have clarifying questions to ask them as well. “I am sharing the impact this had on me. Can you tell me more about last Wednesday? Is there anything that will help me better understand what happened?”
  4. One of the biggest barriers to people changing is that they don’t make the problem their own. This is because there aren’t clear consequences if things don’t change. For example, imagine a husband who is an alcoholic, and his wife continues to say: “you need to stop drinking.” This is the right advice, but it doesn’t have the teeth consequences, and he might be likely not to seek help for his addiction. But if she says: “If you don’t stop drinking, then I will leave.” Suddenly there is a consequence attached, and the husband now understands the consequences of not changing. He might be more inclined to reach out and ask for help in his addiction because he now understands what is at stake. What kind of consequences can you communicate to the person so they understand that this is not just take-it-or-leave-it feedback, but actually you’re connecting feedback with a consequence. If you are not in a place of positional power with a person, the consequence might not be tied to you doing something with/to the person you’re communicating with, but it could be connected to your own life. For example, “If we keep missing our morning meeting, I have to work late to make up for it, and then I get home late to spend time with my child. Every time you are late, I am also late getting home to be with my child.”
  5. Brainstorm your desired outcome and desired next steps. What are you hoping this conversation leads to? What specific steps are you asking the other person to start doing or stop doing? Make sure you’re extra clear about the goal of this meeting and how you want it to change your working relationship in service of those long-term benefits.
  6. At this point, it’s been valuable for me to write out some intentions for how I want to show up in this meeting. People will remember how they made you feel far longer than what you said. So how I do want to show up in this meeting? How do I want to make them feel? There is a trap here where you might fall back into providing more wishy-washy feedback because you don’t want them to be hurt, but I encourage you to separate the content of the conversation from how you want to make them feel by your behavior and how you show up. Focus less on the content (remember you’ve already made up your mind on the conviction to communicate this), and instead focus on how you show up. In what ways can you speak something with full truth and full love? Make sure you’re not distracted. Make sure you can be fully present. Make sure that you actually listen when you ask clarifying questions.
  7. If you’re realizing that a hotness of emotion and anger is showing up for you when you check in with yourself at this point, then ask yourself the five whys. “Why am I angry?” Then respond, and then ask why again, and again, and again. As you continue to introspectively dig into your emotions, you’ll find out perhaps deeper impacts on you that you hadn’t thought of sharing. Asking a series of successive whys will lead you from saying “you being late led to us not getting everything done” to “you being late led me to feel disrespected by you. It made me feel like my time didn’t matter.”
  8. Before the meeting, make sure you’ve written down the following. This might feel like overkill, but it will keep you focused, it will steel you to get through, and you’ll be able to look back throughout the conversation to make sure there is nothing you have missed.
  9. The justification for why the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term costs
  10. The logic flows between “your actions, impacts on me”
  11. Clarifying questions
  12. Consequences
  13. Desired outcome and next steps
  14. Intentions for how you want to show up
  15. Finally, Reach out to someone who will hold you accountable to having this conversation. Tell this person the date by which you plan to have this conversation, and outline the contents of the conversation above so they don’t just hold you accountable to having it, but they also hold you accountable to communicating every element of your conversation plan.

How to start the conversation

Okay, so you’re in the conversation, but how do you actually broach the subject? Sometimes that first sentence is the hardest to get out. I propose asking for permission first:

  • “Hey, is it okay if I give you some feedback on last week’s meeting?”
  • “Hey, if it’s okay with you, I’d love to share how last week’s meeting impacted me?”
  • “I’ve been feeling funny about last week’s meeting, and I wanted to see if we could talk more about it with you. Is that okay?”
  • “Our working relationship is super important to me, and I want to continue to invest in it and make it better. Something last week happened that has left me feeling funny, and I’d love to process it with you. Can we do that?”
  • “The [long-term benefit] is something I am super committed to, and I wanted to see if I could share some reflections on how our working relationship can better achieve that benefit.”

How to end the conversation

A hard conversation is a real conversation, and you would be remiss if you didn’t give them the chance to also share any feedback they have for you. This is one of the most valuable ways to create a sense of peership (even if you’re in a position of hierarchy). You can make them better by providing feedback and they can do the same for you. So make sure you don’t end this conversation without doing the following:

  • Asking for any feedback they have for you
  • Decide on next steps
  • Ask them if it’s okay if you follow up in writing (via email) with what you discussed and your next steps (this is helpful to cement the key takeaways from the conversation, and it enables you to have a record of when you had these conversations and what came out of them).

After the conversation

I propose the following steps after the conversation:

  1. Send a follow-up email summarizing the conversation’s key takeaways and next steps
  2. Reflect on what you learned, what you would change in how you showed up.
  3. Look back on the fears and short-term costs you listed out. Which of those was credible and which of those was overblown?