"Giving feedback turns out to be the unnatural atomic building block atop which the unnatural skill set of management gets built," top VC Ben Horowitz has written.

He's not the only one who has noticed that giving good feedback is both really hard and really essential. While it's obvious that your staff can't improve unless they know what they could be doing better, it's just as easy to see that telling people how they're coming up short is inherently unpleasant for polite, decent folks.

So, if giving good feedback is both fundamental to your success as a leader and unlikely to be a skill that comes easily to you, where can you go to learn this key management competency? A recent post on Insights by Stanford Business rounding up feedback wisdom from Stanford Graduate School of Business lecturer Carole Robin isn't a bad place to start. The useful article has advice on giving and receiving feedback, including these great tips for bosses.

1. Clarify your intent

Negative feedback is easier to take if the person you're speaking to understands why you're offering it. Robin suggests you lead with phrases such as "The reason I am telling you this is..." and "I am hoping the result of this conversation will be...."

2. Make it a conversation

Perhaps this one should be obvious, but great feedback isn't a lecture, it's a conversation. Make sure you view this kind of interaction as a two-way exchange, Robin reminds leaders.

3. Remember your goal

According to Robin, "the purpose of constructive feedback is to encourage the other to move into a problem-solving conversation with you, not to 'change' for you. The purpose of complimentary feedback is to help the other more fully own and leverage their strengths."

4. Focus on behavior, not character

If your employee gets defensive, he or she is less likely to take what you're saying on board. Therefore, keep your feedback sessions focused on specific behaviors and their impact on the team or organization.

5. Choose your words carefully

"Language matters," the Stanford article points out. Avoid labels (e.g., "you are insensitive"), and don't offer your pet theories as to why a person acts the way he or she does (e.g., "you just don't care enough"). "I" language generally beats "you" language. Elsewhere, other experts have suggested adding the word yet to negative feedback to soften the blow (e.g., "you don't have the skills for this project yet").

6. Ask questions

"Ask what the other person hears you saying," suggests the post. "Ask what is important to him or her. Ask what the person needs in return from you." 

7. Reframe feedback

How you view feedback matters. Try to think of it as simply useful data. Therefore, more of it is always better.

Published on: Jun 25, 2015
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.