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The magic ingredient to giving negative feedback

Updated: Jul 28


The magic ingredient to giving feedback

Search online on how to give effective feedback and you’ll find a host of articles explaining how to do it. So why is it still so difficult?


This is my take on the subject. 

We all yearn for positive feedback but equally dread the boss calling us in to her office for ‘a word’, the door closes behind us and we know this isn’t going to be pretty.

You can throw all the logic and process you want at this type of conversation but neither party enjoys it. We humans are fragile emotional creatures first. The fear of being wrong or blamed for mistakes in the eyes of our leader along with the dread of loosing our status in the office pack can quickly trigger our survival mechanism and, well, very little of the ensuing feedback is actually heard.


Unsolicited feedback is taken as veiled criticism. 

Just sit with that for a mo. Uninvited feedback - unexpected, unwanted, not asked for - is received as an attack on their very being. It’s taken as a threat so there really are only two viable options in this case, fight for your life or run for the hills!


So feedback givers, while giving feedback is part of your job, there is a piece of magic that will hopefully lower the stress associated with doing it and increase the likelihood that your feedback is taken onboard.

The solution is simple, you ask permission to give it. It sounds like, “John I’d like to have a chat with you about x project, would you be open to have a conversation about that with me now?” If he says no, ask him when he would be available to have the conversation this week? If he says ‘never’ we’ve shifted into a difficult employee conversation which I’m not covering in this post. 


Let’s say he hesitantly says “Errr, ok, I’m guessing it isn’t good, what do you want to talk about exactly?”


Next permission request “Thanks John, may I share with you my understanding of the project?’ Allow him to say yes. If he says ”I’d prefer to start.” Give him the go ahead. Be clear what you want to hear. “Ok John if that works for you, can I ask that you talk in facts, and we don’t go into ‘he said she said’ stuff?” “Sure” “If it’s ok with you, I’ll redirect you back to the facts if that happens.”  “Ok”. 


Let’s say he wants you to start. Thank him for giving you the space to talk. “My understanding of x project is [list the facts and examples, drop the conjecture and hearsay]” Check-in with him if the facts are correct. Ask if any facts are missing. Listen and note down his facts, summarize his facts back to him and check you’ve heard them all correctly. 


Ask permission to dig deeper. “May I ask you a few more questions?” Expect a yes. 

Now shift into questions that gets him thinking about the facts in relation to the ultimate goal. “My understanding is we are wanting to achieve x goal, is that your understanding?” Get alignment if there’s a mismatch. “Ok with x goal in mind, what in your view got us to this place in the project?” Keep asking him to explore all reasons don’t stop at the first one or two. When he’s run out of ideas and if he hasn’t mentioned what you were wanting to give as feedback, once again ask permission to share you thinking. “John, thanks for going there with me, may I share what occurs to me?” By this point he will feel a lot more trusting of you and will be open to hear your thoughts. “Thank you, I know it’s been a tough period for you and the team, what I have noticed is...” [list your observations, again fact-based, with concrete examples]. Ask him if that resonates with him. Explore his view on your feedback fully.


Shift into solutions and next steps, get agreement, make solid commitments together. How much, of what, by when? details. There’s no room for language like “I’ll try...” or “Let me see.”


Final great question “What do you need most from me John in order to succeed?”. Listen and commit to what you are willing to commit to.


Thank him for his honesty and engagement and agree a follow up meeting.

There you have it. Feedback heard during a respectful, honest discussion with emotions and unhelpful reactions kept in check.


If you have any more questions about this approach, give me a shout.

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