How to give tough feedback without losing respect (and friends)

Updated: Sep 14, 2019


The last few days I have been in the midst of some emotional turmoil that pretty much turned my world upside down and made me doubt myself professionally and personally. The details of the issue aren't particularly relevant but there is such a lesson here on how to give and receive difficult feedback, with a touch of humanity.

No one likes giving negative feedback.

I hate giving it, and I struggle to receive it. I don't think I am different to many of you on that score. In my career, I have had my fair share of giving and receiving feedback - sometimes successfully, sometimes shamefully badly.

Almost a year ago I blogged about how I screwed up a crucial conversation, one where I launched a verbal attack on two of my colleagues because I had been terribly embarrassed by our client due to some of my colleagues' careless mistakes.

I needed them to experience some of that pain, which they did, but I lost some credibility along the way.

It reflected about a year's worth of general frustration with where I was in my life at that point in time. My mindset was in a deep dark place, and there was something initially tantalising about dragging my colleagues into the darkness with me.

I am glad to say we sorted out the issue, and writing about it in my blog last year helped us all to move on. But it was not a shining moment in my life!

This weekend I was dragged into that dark place by someone else.

Months ago I did some work for a friend. I was developing a new service line and was experimenting with my style. While my process was excellent, my deliverable was a little (maybe even a lot) clunky.

I have refined my deliverable substantially since then but had not taken the initiative to go back and revise the product for my friend. Lesson number 1 for me: be proactive in offering clients free updates and revisions when they have very kindly paid for products that are still in beta testing!!

A few weeks ago, my friend presented my work in a professional context and was advised that the deliverable was not up to scratch, actually the word was "unusable" (**gulp).

Said friend was deeply embarrassed and understandably so. But rather than talking to me about it in real time, the issue was brushed under the carpet, left to rot and develop into a deep dark ugly sore.

This weekend, after following up with my friend on a long unanswered email, I received a message that shook me to my core. The gist of the email was that my friend was angry with me, my work was unusable, I had taken advantage of our relationship, I obviously didn't care, and I was unprofessional.

After much sobbing, an awful phone call later, an offer to pay back the money, and an attempt to rectify the product, we got to the bottom of what was really going on. My friend had been sitting on the comments, trying to fix the deliverable and all the while getting more and more angry with the world and with me for somehow not knowing what was happening and not offering to correct the situation.

I felt like I had been part of an imaginary conversation. But my lack of knowledge of this conversation left me stripped of the ability to do anything.

There are three lessons out of this:

Talk about issues in real time and be brave, be candid and be human Kim Scott, in her book Radical Candor talks about the sweet spot where one can challenge directly while caring personally - an approach that is founded in respectful relationships.

My friend later said to me that it was preferable not to talk to me than to have to deal with conflict, and/or give feedback that might hurt our friendship. And I completely get that! The irony in all of that was that we had a much greater conflict and almost lost our friendship as a result.

Sure, time a difficult conversation carefully, but no matter what the situation, that old adage of "if you have nothing nice to say, then don't say anything at all", is actually completely inappropriate.

It is absolutely possible to say difficult things in a way that is constructive and supports the relationship, but it gets harder and harder the longer one leaves it, and it gives all those emotions and internal voices the opportunity to simmer and grow.

Something that I learned from a boss early on in my career, was to start a difficult conversation with one of these phrases:

  • "This is going to be difficult for both of us, but this needs to be said...".

  • "I might fumble my way through this feedback because it is hard for my to say this, so please bear with me and let's see what we can learn together along the way...".

  • " This is the situation....., I would like to understand your perspective / what you were aiming to achieve".

Funnily enough, a lot of my bosses conversations with me started with these phrases.

It's not always about you My inclination is always to assume that I am at fault and that I have screwed up somewhere along the line. The delivery of negative feedback in a particularly hurtful manner somehow makes me a lesser person - it rarely occurs to me that it might rather be a reflection of the mindset of the feedback deliverer.

The reality is, the delivery of feedback can reflect several things:

  • being too nice or holding back on any form of feedback, can reflect a discomfort with conflict and/or a concern around hurting the recipients feelings - this is not about you, this is about the deliverer of the feedback.

  • being aggressive and hurtful with feedback, again is a reflection of the mindset of the giver of that feedback - and important to note here - this again has absolutely no reflection on the recipient and yet can cause an awful lot of damage, self doubt and loss of confidence in the recipient.

The upshot of all of this for me, is this:

When receiving negative feedback, in whatever format, it tends to hurt, and that leads to defensiveness, closing up and shutting out all possibilities.

Perhaps it's useful to ask:

  • What might be going on here?

  • What should I be curious about, instead of what should I be defensive about?

  • Where is the truth in this feedback?

When giving negative feedback, it's useful to be aware of the consequences of the delivery of that feedback. If your intention is to harm, if you know you are somehow going to feel good about hurting someone because you are feeling hurt - perhaps take a step back and rethink your approach.

Before giving that feedback try and ask:

What is my intention here?

I know that in my previous blog on how I handled a difficult conversation, I was hurt and embarrassed and I really wanted my colleagues to feel some of that pain. For a moment I was delirious with the power of being able to pass that pain on to them, but within seconds of delivery I was already feeling pretty ashamed and regretting my actions.

There was a particularly short-term gain, but not a lot of long-term benefit.

Look for the learning

The final lesson is that withholding feedback eliminates the possibility for the recipient to take any form of action, it increases the chances of catastrophizing the situation, and it prevents any sort of learning for either party.

If you are struggling to have candid conversations with those around you, as a manager or leader, as a parent, a friend, a client or as an employee, it might be worth asking yourself two questions:

  • What am I intending to achieve with my approach to this conversation?

  • How will my approach contribute to strengthening this relationship in the long term, and get the required results?


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