How to Give Feedback that is Honest and Respectful
By Don Johnson
Giving tough feedback to someone in the workplace or at home can be a real
challenge. There is a lot at stake. If it goes badly, relationships may be damaged,
jeopardizing the ability to work well together in the future. Emotions may run
high and be difficult to manage. You may worry about the person’s reaction and
your ability to handle it. As a result, many people shy away from giving honest
feedback and opt to “sugar coat” or minimize it. Others simply don’t give it at all
and just put up with behavior that is less than desirable.
On the other hand, some people pride themselves on “telling it like it is” and
being “brutally honest.” The problem here is that the bravado has the impact of
being hurtful and tends to do more harm than good.
The solution is to learn how to integrate being both honest and respectful. Sound
impossible? No, it’s not. Here are 7 steps that can help you deliver effective,
honest, and respectful feedback that will build stronger relationships, get work
done more effectively, and leave you feeling proud of what you have done.
1. Get yourself in the right mindset.
Our mindset—our beliefs, attitudes and values— influence everything we do in
life. Getting yourself in the right mindset means thoroughly clarifying your
intention and desired outcome for the conversation. To do that, you can ask
yourself the following questions:
What would I like to have happen, for me and for them, as
a result of this conversation? What impact do I want this to
have on our relationship?
What is my overall intention in delivering this feedback? Is
it to help them go forward? Is it something else? If so,
What facts do I know about the situation? What has the
person done or said? What don’t I know?
Am I satisfied overall with their performance? Or, is what I
am seeing an indication of deeper concerns that I have?
In this way, you can get a mental picture of what you want to communicate
before you even enter into the conversation.
Getting this clarity can be difficult when your emotions are flaring and you find
yourself in a situation where you believe the feedback must be given
immediately. For example, if you approach a feedback conversation feeling anger
and frustration, it is very likely that what you do or say, driven by those fiery
emotions, will not be constructive, even though it will honestly reflect how you
feel. And chances are, it may harm the relationship. On the other hand,
suppose you are feeling positive and really want to help the other person
improve? Your approach will be quite different and likely be much more
So, if you are feeling agitated, you will need to pull yourself together and find a
way to get calm first and foremost. The best way to do this is to simply take a
break to get your mind in gear. You can do this by taking a few deep breaths,
going for a walk, or simply letting the other person know that you want to give
feedback but are feeling upset, and agree to meet in a short while. Awareness of
difficult emotions is the first step to managing them in a way that enables you to
engage productively with others.
2. Choose the right time and place.
The right conversation at the wrong time is the wrong conversation. Make sure
that you have chosen a setting that is appropriate for the conversation. A few
years ago when I was the head of a sales team, I bumped into one of my sales
people in the office hallway and we started a conversation. Before I knew it, I was
giving him feedback about a joint sales presentation we had just done and how he
could have done better. Later, I found out he was quite upset that I had delivered
this feedback in a public place where other people could overhear our
conversation. I was pretty embarrassed. A comfortable, quiet place at a time you
know will maximize the other person’s ability to hear your message is always best.
Also, if you know someone is under stress, distracted, or tired, it is best to check
with them first regarding their ability to even have a conversation. Or if it is
obvious that they aren’t ready, just wait until you believe they are.
3. Provide the context for the feedback.
Assuming you are satisfied with the person’s overall performance and this isn’t a
disciplinary or termination discussion (another subject), the first step in the
face-to-face meeting is to create the context for the discussion.
“John, I want to have a serious conversation with you today about your
performance. Overall, I want you to know that I am very satisfied with how
you are carrying out your responsibilities, particularly in areas A, B, and C. I
have one concern that I want to talk with you about today.”
Context is the compass heading for the conversation rather than the details of the
feedback. It could be your overarching perspective regarding the individual’s
performance in the example or any other reason or feeling that is prompting you
to provide the feedback.
4. Express your concern.
If you are delivering feedback with the intent of helping the other person, it is
important that you focus on the issue, the situation, the facts, and/or the
behavior of the person in question. It’s easy and natural to make judgments or
assumptions (see the article on the Ladder of Inference) first, and this is not yet
the time for those. This is the time to really be clear on what you have observed
and what the known facts are.
Judgments - Assumptions Facts
You are lazy. You delivered the report 2 days
You are troublesome. You used language that is
considered by many to be offensive…
“The concern I have is that you have turned in the month-end report 2 days
late. Correct me if am wrong. I recall your promising several weeks ago to
have it in this past Monday, and you delivered it to me after hours on
When you focus on the facts, both parties can start the conversation from the
same place of understanding. This enables shared learning. When you make
value judgments or assumptions, people usually experience these as an attack
upon their value or dignity, which triggers defensiveness. That defensiveness
usually blocks the ability to have a productive conversation.
5. Share the impact on you and/or others.
Doing this grounds your concern in tangible terms and helps the other person see
that their behavior has a real emotional impact on you or others, how
relationships are affected, and how poor performance impacts the business.
“The impact on me is that I am disappointed personally, I am losing trust in
what you tell me, and in order for me to roll up all the reports, I will need to
ask support staff to work overtime, and they are already stretched.”
6. Ask the other person to respond, and listen, seeking to understand.
At this point, it is very important to pause and ask the other person to respond.
In our example, this conversation is driven by the fact that one person believes a
commitment was made to deliver the report on Monday. If that fact is disputed,
then a different conversation needs to occur. Let’s continue with the
assumption that the commitment was made. The primary reason to involve the
other person is to hear his story and what his thinking is. There may be
information that you don’t know, and if you simply keep talking,
believing that your perception of the situation is the only possible reality, you
open yourself to an arrogant mindset that typically refuses to see other points of
“So, what is going on, John?”
The key to effective listening is to suspend judgment and listen with real curiosity
and openness. Just going through the motions and pretending to listen isn’t going
to contribute to a positive outcome. Body language, voice tone, and appropriate
questions that draw out the full story are all critical ingredients that contribute to
a mutual understanding regarding what occurred.
7. Mutually address the concern and agree on the next steps.
There are several things that can happen here:
Respond to any concerns or questions the other person has brought
Ask what the person can do to address the performance gap.
Make your own suggestion, ask the person what he/she thinks, and
seek a commitment to your request.
The underlying principle in this step is to develop a commitment from the other
person regarding what they can do to improve the situation. A commitment is
not something imposed on another. A commitment is something they
willingly agree to do. It is specific and includes action steps and time frames. If
you make a suggestion and they disagree, then the conversation continues until
you reach a mutual agreement. If they make a suggestion, you can help them
make it specific and actionable if they haven’t. The conversation concludes when
you and the other party are in agreement regarding who does what by when!
When it comes to giving feedback, there is a way to be honest and respectful. If
you follow these steps, you can deliver feedback that not only improves the
overall situation but enhances your rapport with others and leaves you feeling
proud as well. Most people want to improve their performance and giving them
honest feedback is an art we can all master.
Don Johnson is a corporate coach and leadership consultant and founder of The Integria Group. He has
coached executives at Google, Yahoo! Microsoft, Crowe Horwath, PKF North America, AXA Equitable and
other Fortune 1000 organizations. Earlier in his career, he was the President of Élan Vital, a Raj Yoga
Master Instructor, and Vice President of AchieveGlobal and the American Management Association.
Contact him at: http://www.integriagroup.com
© Copyright 2010 by Don Johnson