Deep down, you know you have to say something difficult or give someone feedback, but the idea of having a feedback conversation has you in knots. What’s the best way to say what you need to say so it is productive for everyone? Approach the conversation prepared by bringing your toolbox with you – filled with frameworks for feedback – to help ensure the conversation stays constructive, calm, and caring.
In this article, I will help you step into a difficult conversation feeling prepared and confident. I’ll walk you through three well-known frameworks for difficult conversations, as well as one I created that will guide you through the conversation you need to have.
What to Consider When Planning a Feedback Conversation
Many leaders avoid having a feedback conversation that is constructive in nature, fearing it will have a negative impact on the relationship. If this sounds like you, start by reframing feedback as a gift so you can envision the positive impact the conversation can have on the relationship. Read this article to learn more about how to shift your perspective so you see feedback as generous.
There are dozens of frameworks and tools out there about how to have this type of difficult conversation. Before deciding on which to use, it’s important to first decide what the nature of your feedback is. Ask yourself if the feedback is about:
- A specific moment in time?
- A recurring pattern or habit they exhibit?
- Something they are doing, or some part of their character or personality? On this note, if it is a part of their personality, consider if your feedback is fair and something that others share. For example, if they have a personality that simply irritates you, is this something they can change? Is it actually impacting their work? Will their knowing this feedback be helpful to them and others? Or is it just something that rubs you the wrong way, but does not create a negative impact on others?
It would also be helpful to preempt any potential reactions. For example, does this person have a tendency to get:
Considering these questions will be helpful in choosing which framework to use as you plan your conversation. Here are the three well-known frameworks for feedback conversations.
Feedforward is a technique developed by Marshall Goldmith that focuses not on the past (FeedBACK), but rather on the future. As the name suggests, instead of having the conversation about what someone did wrong in a situation or what pattern they have that bugs you, you steer the conversation toward what they need to develop for the next level of their success, whether that is a new role, new team, new organization, or new responsibilities of any kind.
By framing the conversation on the future, you are simply saying, “Here is where you are now with X, and here is where you need to be next year. Let’s talk about what you need to work on to close the gap and prepare for what’s next.”
I have heard Goldsmith use the analogy of staging a home for the next owner. Feedback would look something like, “The paint in this house is peeling and the bathrooms have tile from the 70’s. I think we need a complete kitchen remodel to get rid of the oven and remove the ugly shaggy carpet, etc.”
Feedforward would look more like, “What updates does this home need to make it perfect for the next owner?”
As Goldsmith says, “Feedforward helps people envision and focus on a positive future, not a failed past.” From my experience, feedforward technique is particularly helpful when talking with people who have a tendency to get defensive or arrogant when they are offered feedback.
An acronym for Situation, Behavior, Impact, S.B.I. is one of the simplest frameworks for feedback developed by the Center for Creative Leadership. It can help you offer employees and colleagues specific feedback in real time or at any point after an event has occurred.
S.B.I. begins with describing the Situation so the person you are talking to has the context they need to understand where you’re coming from. Be specific about when the situation occurred, what happened, and who was involved. Then you describe the specific Behavior(s) you observed that you want to discuss. Make sure you stick to fact-based statements and things you observed firsthand to remain as objective as possible. The final step is to describe the Impact that the observed behavior had on you or your team. Again, be as specific as possible when describing impact.
This might look something like, “Hey Bill, yesterday when Amy, Lawrence, Patti, Kory, you and I met to discuss the 2022 strategic plan, you interrupted me twice while I was presenting my vision, and then raised your voice when we were debating the priorities. I felt disrespected and frustrated, particularly because it was in front of the entire executive team. I had trouble fielding Kory’s questions because I was triggered, so I had to schedule a follow-up meeting for tomorrow since we did not get through our entire agenda.”
Once you have moved through the framework, you will want to step into the role of active listener so you can hear their perspective on what happened. You can close by either co-creating a solution or making a clear request, if you have one.
Because S.B.I. is focused on specific facts, I find it works particularly well for those people who tend to exhibit overconfidence, and when the constructive feedback is about a moment in time, rather than a pattern.
Radical Candor is a book and framework by Kim Scott that boils down to guiding you how to be a boss that simultaneously cares for their employees and colleagues personally, while challenging them directly.
The framework itself is simple to grasp, but not as easy to practice. The four-quadrant graph helps you assess the kind of feedback you tend to give, and how you can improve. Scott’s book, workshops, and online courses help you learn how to give feedback in a way that helps the other person know you care personally, while giving them the feedback that challenges them directly.
The quadrant graph is the starting point. The Radical Candor process includes creating two-way feedback loops and approaching these conversations with humility and emotional intelligence. In her book, you’ll find out what to do, how to do it, and what not to do so you don’t wind up in the ruinous empathy, manipulative insincerity, or obnoxious aggression quadrants.
Her book is well worth a read, and if you’re short on time, study the graph, and before your next difficult conversation, ask yourself: “Is there a more direct, kinder way to say this?”
The Collaborative Feedback Framework (My Own Feedback Model)
The steps here describe my own approach that can help you prepare for a feedback conversation so that the conversation stays productive and calm. This framework highlights three elements you’ll need to pay attention to when preparing to deliver feedback, including eight steps to approach it with care.
1. Center Yourself
You don’t want to have a difficult conversation when you are heated about a particular topic, exhausted, or triggered by stress of any kind. You want to give feedback when you can remain more neutral (rather than emotional), when you know you’ll be able to respond (rather than react), and when you are even-keeled and cool no matter what unravels in the discourse. This may mean waiting an hour or day or week to have a conversation to ensure you can manage your own emotions throughout the conversation.
Example: Try 10 slow, deep breaths, in and out through your nose to center yourself before the conversation.
2. Choose Your Mood or Attitude
What mood or emotion would be helpful and supportive of your ideal outcome in the conversation? Moods like curiosity, openness, and thoughtful tend to support conversations where there are differing opinions. Whatever mood or emotion you decide would be helpful for your conversation, be sure to step into it before you begin.
Example: Try on the mood of curiosity. You will notice that it is impossible to be curious and judgmental at the same time, which can really help disarm the other person in the conversation.
3. Acknowledge Fear or Discomfort — and Respond to it with Courage
The greatest obstacle to giving feedback is fear. Even when we know we have to discuss something with someone, the potential discomfort is enough to avoid the feedback altogether. Leadership is about leaning into discomfort. It is about honoring how scary or uncomfortable it is to give feedback, have challenging conversations, make difficult decisions, and sit with uncertainty and ambiguity — and responding to that discomfort with courage. Some element of fear or discomfort will be there — how do you choose to respond to it?
4. Communicate Your Goal, Ideal Outcome, or Intention
What is your “why” for this conversation? What would you like to accomplish? This can be an intention for yourself, the other person, your team, the organization, or some combination of these things. Try to cut through the noise of any potential biases you might have, assumptions you might be making, and unrelated ideas that might be contributing to its uncomfortable nature so you can narrow your focus on the outcome you wish to generate and what needs to be said to accomplish that particular outcome. It is also helpful to think through what the other person might want from the conversation, and where there might be common ground.
Ask yourself what success would look like once the conversation is behind you – how do you want to feel and how do you want the other person to feel? Share your intention with them at the beginning of your conversation (and if possible, in advance of the conversation). Before moving on, make sure they understand your stated intention.
Example: “I want to give you some feedback because I think it will help us get on the same page and also help you align better with the rest of the leadership team. From my perspective, this is something that is inhibiting you from fully embracing your role and our organizational culture, and I want to see you really succeed.”
5. Trust and Psychological Safety
Check in with yourself and honestly consider whether or not there is trust in the relationship with the person you are about to initiate this conversation with. Would you trust that this person had your best interest in mind if they were to give you constructive or difficult feedback? If you don’t already have the trust, you are going to have to work harder to build it when setting the stage for the conversation.
The top priority is to remain open to their point of view and be mindful not to get defensive if their recollection or perspective differs from yours. If there is psychological safety, continue to deepen it by initiating the conversation in the spirit of elevating the relationship and helping the person grow, as well as delivering the message with both compassion and candor. Giving feedback could be seen as an offer to help the person to grow in some way. If there is trust, the other person will see it that way, and the conversation will be more productive.
One way to promote trust and psychological safety in a difficult conversation is to be vulnerable and honest – and put your relationship above the conversation. Start by sharing how you feel about them and the conversation you are about to have, and why this type of conversation is important for building trust between you. This could also serve as a mutual objective for the relationship or you could integrate with the intention you already have, if you word it strategically.
Example: “I am nervous to have this conversation with you, but I want you to know that I’m coming to you because I respect you, care about you, and want you to succeed – and I would want you to feel comfortable giving me this kind of feedback as well, and would know it came with the best intentions. I hope you see it the same way.”
6. Describe the Issue, Situation, or Pattern
What happened that you would like to discuss or debrief? Or perhaps there is a pattern of behavior you have observed you would like to bring to someone’s attention? In this step, it is important to try your best to filter out your thoughts and feelings from what occurred. In other words, stick to the facts. This means recount examples, emails, reports, or any specifics that can help you ground your assessments with evidence, without seeming like you’re attacking them with documentation.
One of the biggest ways humans muck up communication is by confusing opinions and facts. Don’t let your feelings overshadow the specific facts needed for productive conversations to happen. Make sure you are open, honest, respectful, and fact-based in your dialogue as you discuss the issue. Don’t withhold or sugarcoat facts that are important to the story, either. Open, honest, respectful, and fact-based wins.
Example: I had a client, Ronni, who was the SVP of Sales for a consumer-facing organization. There were complaints that one of her directors’ sales teams was not adhering to the agreed-upon processing time for applications with prospective customers, which led to a big impact on the account management team. The director didn’t do anything to fix it, and Ronni was irritated that she had to micromanage the process with a senior member of her team. She sat him down and said, “Hey Aaron, the accounts team has been getting your green light emails for prospective clients four business days from when the applications are submitted, when the deadline is two days…” (…Example continued in step 7.)
7. Share the Consequence(s) or Impact
This is where you describe how the issue or their behavior impacted the meeting, employee, team, organization, or yourself. Be specific about what happened as a result of the action they took (or didn’t take) or comment they made (or didn’t make). This might be a clear consequence, such as losing a client after being underprepared for a meeting, or a team member quitting in response to an inappropriate comment. Some element(s) of the consequence might be subjective, so it is important to label it that way. You also want to invite them to fill in their perspective.
Example: To build on the example from step 6, Ronni continued, “When this happens, it creates frustrated potential customers that are harder to sign on. They call complaining that we aren’t fulfilling our promise of a response within 48 hours, which directly impacts our bottom line. It also creates tension between our teams, which frustrates me because it makes my job harder than it has to be. Can you fill me in on what’s happening for your team?”
8. Collaborate on the Solution and Go-Forward Plan
Decide together what to do next to ensure you are turning communication into action. This could be as simple as making a clear request and getting their buy-in and commitment on it, or it could include negotiating next steps or brainstorming solutions together.
You can have ideas or a plan in mind for next steps, but make sure you remain open to their perspective, ideas, and input as well. The goal in collaborating is to find out what ideas they have for a go-forward plan, share your ideas and expectations, and design something better together — a solution that meets both of your needs. You can also use the opportunity to discuss how you can navigate these types of situations in the future, the next time you are confronted with a similar circumstance.
Before you close the conversation, make sure you have a clear call-to-action that you both agree on, as well as a plan for following up and accountability. This can also be a collaborative process, just ensure there are clear next steps, ownership, conditions of satisfaction, and shared expectations that you both understand and agree on.
Example: To further build on the examples in steps 6 and 7, follow by making a request and collaborate on the final plan moving forward. “Aaron, can you agree to adhere to the 2-day processing time from now on, and alert me about any outliers where you cannot meet that deadline?” If Aaron agrees, this would be a reset of clear expectations and you can check in with him at a mutually determined time for accountability. If he says something akin to, “Well actually two days has been impossible to meet, but we can agree to three days,” this would be the start of negotiating a new agreement.
Practice Active Listening Throughout
This is not a step, per se, but rather something to practice throughout this entire process. These kinds of difficult conversations require you to be present and pay attention at many different levels. You won’t catch anything that might be lurking below the surface – such as hesitations or emotions – if you are not actively listening.
Remember, you don’t have to agree with someone to listen, acknowledge, and understand the other person’s point of view. One of your goals in the conversation should be simply to understand one another and build more trust. To become a stronger active listener, you can use the 12 steps I outline here in this article on how to be a better listener.
Pre-work for Feedback Conversations
The difficult conversation should begin before the actual conversation. Go through the steps in any of the frameworks on your own, with a pen and paper, before having the actual conversation.
Aside from the frameworks for feedback and preparation, there are a few other things you can do to ensure the conversation goes smoothly:
Decide on the Right Time and Communication Channel
I strongly feel that email, text, and digital messaging are the wrong channels for difficult conversations. If the conversation and relationship matter to you, figure out if in-person, phone, or video chat would be best. And remember, the right conversation at the wrong time is the wrong conversation, so be sure to plan your timing accordingly.
Just in case there is no background of obviousness on this, make it a one-on-one conversation to give privacy to an already uncomfortable discussion.
Before having the conversation, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. What might they be expecting in the conversation – and how can you prepare them going into it? How might they react? Try to see things from their point of view to preempt any surprises on either end.
You also want to think ahead by imagining if there are any others that might be affected from the conversation you are about to have. Are there any third party people that might be impacted by the conversation or decision? Try to see things from their point of view as well.
Once you have prepared for the feedback conversation and know what you want to say and how you want to say it, ask a friend, coach, or other objective third party if they would role play the conversation with you. This serves as practice for you and also gives them a chance to give you feedback on how it went so you can fine-tune before the actual difficult conversation.
What to Do if the Conversation Escalates and Becomes More Difficult
Despite your best efforts, the feedback conversation could go off the rails, depending on whom you are having it with. Here are a few ways the conversation could escalate, and what to do if it does.
- If the other person gets defensive, your best approach is to remain centered and get curious. Ask them their point of view and inquire about their reaction.
- If the other person raises their voice, balance it out by lowering your voice. Most often a shouting person won’t continue shouting when they are the only one doing so.
- If you get emotional or notice you are triggered, take a break. Don’t risk raising your voice; giving yourself time to center yourself and regain composure is always appropriate. You don’t necessarily need to complete all of the steps of a difficult conversation at one time and resolution may only come after a few conversations.
- If the other person is clearly triggered or still sees you as an adversary, step out of the content and into the higher goal to strengthen mutual purpose and mutual respect. What do each of you want and where is there common ground?
Feedback is an investment in the relationship, your team, and your organization. If you deliver feedback candidly and compassionately at the same time, and prepare yourself with one of these frameworks for feedback conversations, you will strengthen the relationship, build greater trust, and develop the other person professionally – which are all part of your job as the leader.
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