Why hasn’t anyone told Jim to get rid of half of his slides; the client literally fell asleep during his presentation. There goes Sarah, interrupting again; doesn’t she know how much everyone hates it? I can’t believe Bill just called our new client “Hoss.” When is Jamie going to learn that his aggressive sales tactics are turning off some of our best customers?
It’s not always hard to see what’s wrong, but it can be very hard to do something about it. There are three big reasons why negative feedback frequently goes undelivered: We don’t like doing it, we’re not good at it, and the other person doesn’t want to hear it. Consequently, negative feedback conversations often make situations worse by inflaming tensions, provoking arguments, and driving a wedge between people.
But negative feedback is too important to abandon, even if it’s tricky to deliver. Sometimes, people are unaware of the impact of the behavior, and your negative feedback can provide the insight they need to improve their performance. Other times, prompt feedback makes the difference between a one-time incident and a pattern of problematic behavior (as Paulo Coelho says: “Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.”). And occasionally, your negative feedback might even salvage a client relationship, rescue a floundering project, or save someone’s job.
The good news is that there are reliable ways to keep negative feedback conversations on track. These six tips will help you successfully deliver negative feedback while minimizing the risk of conversational damage:
1. Find your example.
Without an example, you’re not providing negative feedback, you’re just criticizing. But criticism doesn’t encourage people to change, it encourages them to argue, and a missing example leaves a hole in the conversation where evidence was supposed to go. When there’s no clear example of the counterproductive behavior, it’s easy for the recipient to rebut your claims and deny that there’s a problem, and it’s quite likely that you’re merely criticizing.
2. Point to a solution.
Feedback differs from criticism because there’s a path to improvement embedded in feedback messages. If you tell Jim that he’s a bad presenter (a criticism), how does he fix that? But if you tell him he had too many slides during yesterday’s client pitch (feedback), you’ve pointed out something that he can fix. There’s nothing Sarah can do if you say she’s bad with people, but if you zero in on her interruptions at staff meetings, you’ve given her something she can work on.
3. Stick with your conversational goal.
Don’t confuse what you hope happens after the conversation (behavioral change) with what you need to accomplish during the conversation (communicate the counterproductive behavior). Your goal in a negative feedback conversation is to inform the other person of the problematic behavior: Jim’s excessive slide show bored the client; Sarah’s interruptions upset her coworkers; Bill’s nicknames are creating awkward client moments; Jamie’s aggressive sales tactics are backfiring. Focus on making the other person aware of what’s wrong during a negative feedback conversation. Change, when it happens, comes after awareness.
4. Focus on intentions, if you want to lighten up your feedback.
Pointing out the difference between intentions and outcomes can help reduce reflexive resistance without diluting your feedback by giving the recipient a face-saving way to accept your message. “I know you didn’t intend to make the client defensive on the call today, but that’s what happened when you started pushing hard for a decision.” “I know you didn’t intend to create an awkward moment during the client meeting, but that’s what happened with you called their CEO ‘Hoss.’ ” “I know you didn’t intend to lose the client’s interest, but that’s what happened when your slides lasted 30 minutes.”
5. . . . . but don’t dilute your feedback with compliments and praise.
Have you ever heard the advice to say two things positive for every negative statement you make? That’s good advice for many conversations, but not if you are supposed to be communicating negative feedback. Too many positives can cause the other person to underestimate the seriousness of the feedback (something she’d like to do anyway) or be genuinely confused about what you are trying to say (What’s going on here? Am I in trouble? What’s this conversation really about?). Don’t smother your message with a pile of puzzling praise.
6. Don’t overstay the conversation.
Length doesn’t correlate to success when it comes to delivering negative feedback; long conversations confuse as often as they clarify. Your goal is to communicate the negative feedback, not to produce a dazzling epiphany, a heartfelt apology, or a ton of emotive dialogue. Once you’ve communicated your message, get out of the conversation, and allow time and space for the feedback to work.
Negative feedback has the potential to do a great deal of organizational good by providing timely examples of counterproductive behaviors, but these sessions are often hijacked by criticisms, generalizations, and confusion about the conversation’s main point. When it comes to negative feedback, be clear, be focused, and then be gone. Feedback conversations that wander are almost always lost.
—Geoffrey Tumlin is the CEO of Mouthpeace Consulting LLC and the author of Stop Talking, Start Communicating: Counterintuitive Secrets to Success in Business and in Life (McGraw-Hill, 2013).