It's a moment you always dread. Someone--your employee, your partner, your child, or even a vendor--has failed to fulfill a commitment to you, or delivered a poor performance. Now you have to give that person negative feedback. Your goal is to avoid a repeat of whatever went wrong. Your fear is that you'll wind up damaging the relationship and have an even bigger problem than you had before.
"Giving someone effective feedback is one of the most difficult things for people to do well," says executive coach and best-selling author Wendy Capland. For the past couple of years, I've been working with Capland as my coach and writing about what I've learned in the process.
"Either people are afraid of hurting someone's feelings or they do it so aggressively that they go nose to nose with the other person because they're afraid they won't get what they want," Capland says. "It takes focus and commitment to learn how to give feedback well. It's not easy."
It may not be easy, but, unfortunately, giving feedback is not avoidable either. So it's worth making the effort to get good at it. These tips from Capland can help get you started:
1. Don't do it too soon or too late.
How soon after a problem arises should you give feedback? That depends in part on your own mental state, Capland says. "Some people--this is me--if it's really loaded emotionally, it's better to sleep on it overnight. It's also helpful for me to write out the dialogue ahead of time so my emotions stay at bay and I can be as effective as I want to be."
If you're more levelheaded, you may not have to wait overnight, she says. "If you're equipped to give feedback in the moment, go for it. But if you know yourself and you're someone who needs to count to 10 or take a break, then come at it the next morning."
You should probably wait no later than that, though. "The longer you wait, the less effective it will be," says Capland, "because they won't remember it to the same degree. It won't be fresh in their minds."
2. Ask permission first.
"Start by asking for permission to give the feedback," she advises. "'Could I share an observation?' 'Could we talk about what just happened in the meeting?'" You should ask permission, she says, even before giving feedback to someone who reports to you. "Otherwise, they're not open to hearing."
What if you ask to give feedback and the other person says no? "You shut up," Capland advises. "The reason you give feedback is to create behavior change. That's the only reason. You cannot coach someone who is not coachable."
3. Share your understanding of the situation and ask for theirs.
As the person initiating feedback, you go first, Capland says. "My understanding was we would have something by October 1. It's now October 15, so I'm wondering what happened. Was that your understanding?"
It's important, she adds, to be careful to avoid blaming the other person throughout the conversation. "My rule is that if it's possible to put 'you idiot!' at the end of a phrase or a sentence, then you're blaming," she says.
4. Say how the person's behavior made you feel.
It's important to include both elements, Capland says, not only how you felt but also the specific behavior that made you feel that way. "'I didn't feel supported in the meeting when so-and-so said X. You kept quiet, and I thought we were in agreement that you would back me up.'"
This may come as a surprise to some professionals who carefully try not to insert their own feelings into negative feedback conversations, but Capland says expressing how someone's actions made you feel can be an important part of coaching that person. "I'm not saying you should talk about it at length, but it's good to say the effect the behavior had on you."
5. Explain what consequences it had.
It's important to tell others that their actions (or inactions) had consequences and exactly what those consequences were. "'When you submitted the proposal past the deadline, it caused the following cascade of effects' or 'We lost the discount we had with that vendor' or 'My boss reamed me out.'" The other person may not be aware of the ramifications of his or her behavior.
6. Ask how things will be different next time.
You probably know exactly what the other person must do to correct the problem in the future. But resist the temptation to say so, at least at first, Capland advises. "Start by saying, 'I'd like to have this be different next time,'" she suggests. "Before I say what I'd like to see, I ask them first: 'How can you make sure we don't get in this situation again? What will you do differently next time?'"
The reason is that the person receiving the feedback might well come up with the same solution you would propose. "If they come up with the same thing you would have said, it will be much more powerful," she says.
7. Get a specific commitment.
Once you've agreed to a general course of action, "come to an agreement on the specifics," Capland advises. For instance, if the other person has come up with three things they can do to avoid a repeat of the problem, say, "'I like that idea. How would you do that?'" she says.
If any of these actions could have a deadline attached to it, get the other person to set one by asking when he or she would be willing to have the task completed, Capland says. "You're asking for something concrete."
8. End on a respectful note.
"It's about the result of the conversation and how both parties feel about it and think about it," Capland says. "Has the other person felt heard? Do both parties feel they've said what there was to say?"
Should you even care if the other person agrees with you so long as they do what you asked? "It depends on what you consider a successful conversation," Capland says. "Because I believe the foundation of business comes from relationships, I think the stronger your relationship, the better the business outcome. You don't need to be best friends, but you do need to respect one another. If you think the other person is an idiot, you're not likely to be as effective."