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How to give good feedback to people who don’t want to receive it


Giving feedback should be constructive and helpful, but that might not be how everybody views it

The key requirements of giving good feedback are good intentions, sound preparation and a calm response, says Amy Jen Su, co-founder of Paravis Partners, writing for Harvard Business Review. The feedback process takes a lot of time, and can be a cause of anxiety for both manager and employee, particularly when you are dealing with somebody who might cry, yell or get defensive. But there are things you can do to keep the process on track.

1) Good intentions. It’s important to remember why you are giving feedback. Your purpose is to help the employee to be successful, not to attack them. Reminding them of this can help the process go smoothly. Kim Castelda, senior vice president at Bullhorn, a software company, says: “I’ve rarely met someone who didn’t want to be successful, and giving feedback is an essential part of that.”

If somebody gets tearful, reassure them that you understand how difficult they might be finding the process but that you want them to be successful, and that’s why it’s important to do this. Have some tissues handy, acknowledge the emotion, reschedule if necessary.

2) Sound preparation. “Don’t wing it,” advises Jen Su. It’s important that you enter the room fully prepared, emotionally centred, and armed with “ideas and actions to ensure the person’s success”. You need to be ready to explain clearly why you are having the session and what the issues are, and be able to offer concrete examples and observations to support your reasoning.

Some people get defensive in the face of feedback. Castelda says: “The defensive person is like Teflon – it’s never his responsibility and he attempts to shift the ownership of blame on someone else.” Being well prepared with clear examples can support a calm assertion of, “I see this as your responsibility,” and can help to take you both to the point where you can come to a shared agreement on next steps and actions.

3) A calm response. You need to increase your own self-awareness and understand how you react when confronted with another person’s emotions, and how this might affect the session. The better prepared you are, the easier it will be to react calmly and effectively: “The goal is to diffuse the emotional reaction so that you can productively give the feedback.”

When confronted with somebody who yells, Castelda advises: “Aim to stay calm while standing your ground.” Reiterate your good intentions, and let them know you want to listen to them, but that you first need them to lower their voice. Be willing to shut down the meeting if it continues to be unconstructive.

Being thoroughly prepared, well centred and armed with good intentions can help diffuse difficult or negative emotional reactions to feedback, and can enable a positive and constructive outcome – which is, of course, what both parties want.