What’s the most important thing to keep in mind when giving negative feedback? Well, to fully experience and understand the tip I’m about to share with you, I invite you to think about a time when somebody really helped you out. Maybe recall an instance when your car broke down and a friend picked you up, or a team member helped you meet a deadline, or someone gave you support during a difficult time. Now think back to how you felt when that person helped you out. Feelings of gratitude, appreciation, and even relief probably come to mind.
Feedback can have a similar impact, even if the feedback is “negative”. Just like how you’d feel if a friend quietly let you know before attending a big meeting that you had a piece of salad stuck in your teeth; you might be slightly embarrassed initially, but overall, you’d be very thankful for the helpful feedback.
And that is the most important thing to keep in mind when giving negative feedback. Our thoughts have a strong influence on how we behave. For example, if you’re thinking about the happiest moment in your life, people will likely notice a smile on your face and a spring in your step. Likewise, if you’re thinking about helping someone with feedback, your tone, choice of words, and mannerisms will reflect that, and the person you’re speaking with is more likely to be open to what you have to say.
It may sound simple, but it’s much easier said than done. In my experience as an executive coach, I’ve noticed that many managers have difficulty giving negative feedback because they get caught-up in thinking about how others will become upset, disappointed, or even volatile. Those thoughts are then unconsciously transmitted through the managers’ tone, mannerisms, and so on, and the people receiving the feedback sense it and become defensive.
With all that in mind, before giving negative feedback, I recommend you take a moment to get in the right frame of mind by recalling an instance when someone truly helped you, and remembering how good that felt. Then, think through how your feedback will be helpful to the person you’re delivering it to (e.g., make them more effective, help them to advance, etc.) so you can be sure to explain and emphasize those points (e.g., by using the “What’s In It For You” principle).
Finally, if you ever find it difficult to identify how a piece of feedback would be helpful to a person, that’s a clear indication to reexamine if the feedback really has merit or is truly worthwhile to share.