Nail hard conversations - Tools for giving and receiving difficult feedback

feedback tough conversations Apr 26, 2022

If you have ever managed people, interacted with colleagues, or been an employee, then it’s likely that at some point you’ve had to have a difficult conversation. 

Maybe you’ve found yourself on the receiving end of feedback that was hard to hear. Or it was outrageous, you straight up disagreed with it.

Maybe you’ve had to deliver a lackluster performance review, or inform a colleague that their behavior wasn’t having the desired impact.

Or you had to make a decision about whether or not to bother having what would probably be an awkward conversation. Someone you interact with is doing something that’s not helpful, or disruptive. Will they even hear you? Will they get mad? Will they change? Could sharing the feedback harm your relationship? Isn’t it someone else’s job to do that anyway? 

Having tough conversations is a skill, and it’s one that’s very much worth cultivating. Research shows that when managers provide feedback, it improves team performance, regardless of whether it's positive or negative. And being able to receive feedback well is also a game changer. In their book “Thank you for the Feedback”, Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen argue that nearly every kind of feedback can help you grow, and the better you are at learning from it (regardless of whether you agree), the more you’ll develop. 

So it’s clear then. It’s uncomfortable, but feedback is important. Keeping your feedback to yourself, or sharing it in a way that’s unclear and ambiguous, doesn’t serve you or the people you interact with. Tuning out feedback because you disagree with it also doesn’t serve you, or your development.

Today’s blog post shares our best tips for difficult conversations, whether you’re the one having to deliver tough feedback, or you’re on the receiving end. At the end we’ve also included some additional reading and videos to dive deeper into the topic.


7 steps to nail hard conversations when you’re delivering the feedback

Feedback is defined as “information about reactions to a product, a person's performance of a task, etc. which is used as a basis for improvement.” Feedback often stems from a gap between expectations and reality, or a gap between intent and impact. The goal of sharing feedback is to help the recipient learn and grow, here’s how you can boost your odds of doing just that.

1. Define your feedback

Good feedback references observed actions, behaviors, or performance outputs, and it is based on things that the feedback recipient can change or control. Giving someone feedback on something that’s completely out of their hands isn’t helpful. Step one is to ensure you’ve clearly defined your feedback, and that it’s specific and actionable (and true). Avoid vague sweeping statements. The more specific and actionable the better. If you aren’t sure whether your feedback meets this criteria, ask a trusted peer or colleague. 

2. Prepare for the conversation

If you know it’s going to be a difficult discussion, don’t wing it. Be thoughtful about creating the right context and environment for a productive conversation. For example, if you’re sharing feedback that a person isn’t expecting and might have a strong reaction to, having a dedicated conversation may be more appropriate than a throwaway comment walking between meetings. Consider whether you need to signal your intent prior to the conversation (for example: “I’d like to share some observations with you”) so the person is ready to hear your message and in the right frame of mind. 

3. Get your head in the game

Giving feedback can be hard, but it is an investment in the person’s growth. It helps your team, and the person you’re delivering the feedback to grow. Look at the conversation as something you are doing because you care, and as an investment in the person. Kim Scott outlines this well in Radical Candor, calling it “Caring Personally” and “Challenging Directly”. In other words, be blunt and direct, but do so from a place of care.

4. Deliver the feedback

When the time comes for the conversation, signal that you’re about to give feedback ( for example: “I have some observations, can I share them with you?” or “I’d like to give you some feedback about x”). Use clear language (that you’ve hopefully prepared). You’d be surprised how often people don’t even realize they are receiving feedback because the language is so ambiguous. Use examples that are specific and concrete, and talk about the impact of the behavior you’re giving feedback about. 

It can also be helpful to be explicit about what you are, and are not saying to avoid confusion and misunderstandings. For example: “I’m not saying that none of your deliverables met expectations, but I am saying that deliverable A & B did not demonstrate the rigor that we expect”. Being explicit about what you do NOT mean, can help ensure you both walk away with a shared understanding. 

5. Create space

Just because you said it, doesn’t mean they heard it. Create space for the person to ask questions, to clarify. Check that they understood what you meant. You might ask questions like “What are you taking away from this?” or “How do you see it?” or “How does that resonate?”. The person may not be in the mental space for this, if that’s the case offer to follow up at a later time. 

6. Know how to de escalate 

It’s possible the person will not respond well, even with the best intent. They might get flooded and shut down. Alternatively, they may get argumentative or combative. If you’re delivering the hard feedback, it’s important to look out for the early signs of a strong reaction, and pause the conversation to be revisited later when everyone’s a bit more centered. You might do this by saying “I can see this feedback is affecting you, how about we take a break and continue this conversation [TIME]” or “I don’t think we can fully hear each other right now, so let’s take a break and come back to this important conversation [TIME]”.

7. Support growth & development

Feedback is meant to help someone grow. It’s not a permanent label or a judgment on their permanent value. Part of delivering difficult feedback includes creating opportunities for the person to demonstrate their growth. 

6 ways to become great at receiving tough feedback

All feedback can be a powerful tool for growth and development, regardless of whether you agree with it or not. Tuning it out, debating it or avoiding it won’t help you grow. Here are our top tips for becoming great at receiving difficult feedback. 

1. Get in the growth mindset

The book Mindset (and the 2016 HBR Article) on Fixed vs. Growth Mindset should be required reading for adulthood. In short, those who have a fixed mindset tend to interpret developmental or constructive feedback as an assessment that they are bad, unskilled, a failure. With the fixed mindset, feedback can be devastating. In contrast, those with a growth mindset view feedback as an opportunity to learn. If you haven’t reviewed Carol Dweck’s work, it’s worth every minute you invest in it and may very well change how you work, lead, parent and relate. 

When you’re getting tough feedback, put yourself in the growth mindset. Tell yourself “this is an opportunity for me to grow my self awareness, skills or competencies”, and listen for opportunities to grow. 

2. Focus on what you agree with

The first instinct when receiving difficult feedback is often to debate, disagree or refute it. To look for the flaws in logic, to explain why the situation was a totally justified outlier. To defend our actions and why they made sense in the context. 

When you’re receiving feedback, practice shutting the defensive reflex down, and actively listen for what you DO agree with. 

What is true? At a minimum, the person giving you the feedback is giving you valuable insight into how your behavior or actions are perceived, what can you learn from this? 

3. Invest in understanding

You should aim to have as few questions as possible about what the feedback was, and what it meant by the end of the conversation. Take the opportunity to absorb and to understand as best as you can. Ask open ended questions. Ask for examples. This tends to work best if you’re not in a combative, debating dynamic. Remember that the person giving you feedback is investing in your growth and development, what would help you understand their experience and what they are sharing more fully? It may help to validate that you’re hearing them correctly by playing back what you understood (for example: “what I’m hearing from you is that when I [X], it comes across as [Y], and that impacts you in [Z] ways, did I get that right?”).

4. Stay open

This one is definitely easier said than done. Often our bodies will show signs that we are getting flooded with anxiety or overwhelming emotions before we consciously realize it’s happening. It’s helpful to know how you tend to react, and how those feelings first show up for you physically. Do you feel weight on your chest? Does your breathing accelerate? Does your head swim? Do you have a knot in your stomach? Understanding this and paying attention to it can be a powerful early alarm that your emotional state is changing, and an opportunity to either actively work to recenter and stay present (for example, through deep breathing), or to ask for a break to regroup. Have a go-to phrase you can readily deploy if you’re getting overwhelmed, or combative (for example: “This is a lot for me to take in, can I take a bit of time to think about this all, and we can come back to it?”).

5. Partner on your growth

When a person is investing in giving you feedback, enlist them as a partner in your development. Work with them to identify how you might demonstrate that you’re acting on the feedback they’ve given you. You can ask:

  • “How could I show you I’ve acted on this feedback?”
  • “Who do you think is really good at this? How do they demonstrate their skill?”
  • “What projects, meetings, initiatives, interactions could I practice this in?”

Alternatively, you might think of some ideas and follow up with them at a later time to validate whether they’d be good examples of addressing the feedback. 

6. Follow up

In addition to brainstorming how you might act on what you heard, you may also consider asking for more real-time feedback. Ask them to observe you in a specific context, looking specifically at how you are shifting your approach or actions. This can sometimes yield more insightful feedback than more general observations. For example:

  • “In this upcoming meeting, I’m going to be practicing [insert behavior], could you observe and let me know how you think it’s working?”
  • “I’m focusing on [skill/behavior] in this project, could we touch base at the end of the week on how I’m showing up?”

If the person who shared the feedback isn’t someone you feel comfortable with, ask someone who you trust that can observe your work directly. 

Build your skills in giving and receiving feedback 

There are some excellent resources available to help build these muscles and skills. Here are a few of our favorites for more advanced exploration:

  • Read…

    • Thanks for the feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen - The book is dense but packed with valuable insights about feedback, how to receive it, and what we can learn from the people who are great at it. For a shorter read, check out this book summary with key messages.
    • Crucial Conversations by Joseph Grenny, Kerry Patterson, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler & Emily Gregory. The book is all about how to identify and get better at the crucial conversations that truly matter in your personal and professional life. 
    • Radical Candor by Kim Scott - The book teaches us that Radical Candor is what happens when we Care Personally and Challenge Directly, together. There is also a Radical Candor ~20 minute video.
    • Mindset by Carol Dweck - The book is excellent and well worth reading (for leadership, parenting and life). For an immediate blast of insight, check out the HBR Article.
  • Watch…

Having hard conversations is a skill. It’s a skill you can build, practice and cultivate. While it might be hard, uncomfortable and awkward, it is absolutely, unequivocally worth it. We hope you find these tips and tools helpful!

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