What Doctors, Managers, and Police Officers Taught Me About Delivering Effective Feedback

variety-of-workersMost people would agree that feedback is a good thing… in theory. But in practice, who really likes being told that their presentation style is awkward… or that they don’t have “presence” in meetings… or that their report or article or book didn’t quite hit the mark? Very few of us do.

And just as uncomfortable as feedback is to receive, it’s often equally uncomfortable to deliver. For many years, I studied managers firing and laying off employees, police officers serving warrants or evicting people from their homes, and doctors delivering negative diagnoses to patients or performing painful procedures, and I can tell you first-hand how difficult it is for people to deliver bad news – even if it’s in the service of a “greater good.”

But critical feedback is essential – for growth and personal development, and in many cases, for the bottom line. So, with this in mind, here are a few key tips to make the entire process a bit less painful and, hopefully, more productive.

1. Give the other person a heads up. This doesn’t have to be days or week or hours in advance, but even in the moment, it’s always a good thing to prepare someone for negative news. And it can be quick and simple: something like “Hey – do you have a minute… I wanted to give you some quick feedback.” If they know it’s coming, people are often just that little bit more prepared to hear the message.

2) Be specific and non-judgmental. Of course on some level feedback is judgmental, but try to avoid a judgmental tone. And be as specific as possible about the exact behavior you’re giving feedback about.

For example:

  • Ineffective version: “I can’t believe you interrupted me like that.”
  • Better: “When you interrupted me twice during the conversation, it reduced my credibility with the clients we were speaking with.”
  • Ineffective version: ” Stop being such a jerk.”
  • Better: “When you said X, it made me upset and I also noticed the customer appeared angry.”

Your goal here is to have the other person actually listen. And by being specific and non-judgmental, you increase the odds of that happening.

3) Do it sooner rather than later. It’s key to seize the moment when memory is fresh – so you can be really specific about the feedback you deliver and so the other person can hopefully appreciate the impact of their actions on you. Of course, in certain situations, immediate feedback isn’t always possible. If someone interrupts you in a meeting, you might wait until the meeting is over before discussing the transgression. Similar, if a colleague struggled with a key presentation, you might want to wait a bit for emotions to die down before digging in. But in general terms, it’s good practice to give feedback as soon as you can if you want to maximize the chances of a positive impact.

4) Convince yourself before convincing the other person. The great preponderance of advice about feedback is focused outwards, on the ways you should communicate towards others to optimize the impact of your message. But my advice is to spend just as much of your time focused inward on developing a sense of purpose for why you feel justified in delivering this feedback in the first place. Perhaps you care deeply about helping others develop and improve. Or perhaps it’s the mission of your organization you’re passionate about, and that by delivering feedback, you’ll be helping to advance the mission. Wherever your conviction comes from, it’s critical to find and embrace it.

In the end, you may never love delivering feedback – but, then again, if you do it enough and learn to cultivate your own approach, you might end up surprising yourself.

The material in this post is adapted from my new book Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence 



Andy Molinsky

Andy Molinsky

Andy Molinsky is a Professor at Brandeis University’s International Business School. Andy helps people develop the insights and courage necessary to act outside their personal and cultural comfort zones when doing important, but challenging, tasks in work and life. His work has been featured in HBR, the Financial Times, the Boston Globe, NPR and Voice of America. Andy Molinsky is the author of Reach and Global Dexterity. Visit here to receive Andy’s free guide to 10 cultural codes from around the world, and here for his very best tips on stepping outside your comfort zone at work.

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