Updated: May 12
In the third article of this mini-series about trust and feedback, you will learn how to deliver negative feedback constructively and effectively and be positive when delivering negative feedback. You will also realize that there is such a thing as too much feedback and how to deal with a recipient who doesn’t want to take your feedback. Finally, I will discuss my personal opinion of the “Feedback Sandwich” method (hint: I don’t like it).
How to Deliver Negative Feedback Constructively
So, you decided to deliver negative feedback. I assume you are doing that to help the other person be a better version of themselves. Good for you! But it’s not enough to get this feedback off your chest, right? You hope they will do something about that feedback. For that, you must deliver it in a way that will help them hear you. Here are a few ideas on how to make that happen.
Attack the issue, not the person. When you tell someone they are stupid, they won’t listen to you. When you tell them they did something stupid, they will. Don’t put the person you are giving feedback to in a defensive mode, and don’t shame them.
Focus on the negative impact of their action on you. Don’t say, “you are disrespectful to me when you don’t show up to a meeting on time,” because you characterize the other person as disrespectful. They may get defensive. Don’t even say, “you don’t respect me when you don’t show up to a meeting on time,” because you indicate an intention on their side. Again, they might get defensive. Instead, say, “I feel disrespected when you don’t show up to a meeting on time.” It’s easier to hear, digest, and act upon.
Own your own feedback. Don’t project what you feel on other people. Avoid the “other people said that…” syndrome. If other people feel that—encourage them to give feedback directly. Otherwise, don’t hide behind what other people might or might not think or feel. Say what you think and feel.
Don’t ask why? It’s not your position to determine why the other person did what they did. Don’t make assumptions about why they did it. You are not them. They are in a different situation than you and might be concerned at other, more fundamental levels of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid. “Why?” is for them to figure out. You stick to what you know and feel.
Be specific, clear, and objective when you give feedback. Avoid metaphors and analogies. Use the actual descriptive words. Don’t make them guess what you are trying to tell them. Don’t tip-toe around the issue, and don’t go on and on about it. Just say it!
Avoid giving advice. Don’t tell them what to do and how to “fix” the situation. They might have better (or different) ways to solve the problem. You don’t know what they know. You don’t know why they are doing what they are doing. Stick to what you feel and observe.
Be Positive When you Deliver Negative Feedback
Say what you mean, mean what you say, and don’t be mean when you say it (quote from my daughter’s classroom…). Don’t “drill” endlessly. Don’t use your words like a knife. Make sure they understand.
Keep emotions out. If you allow yourself to be emotional when you deliver feedback, there is a higher probability that you will be irrational when you deliver it and violate many of the rules provided here because you will not be in control of your delivery.
Use humor, if appropriate. In a future article, I will discuss the relationship between the trust already established between the two of you and the level of humor (or even sarcasm) you can use and still be positive. Make sure your humor is not offensive to them. What may be funny one moment may not be funny another time.
It is always better to give negative feedback in person than over email or text messages. Bad is much stronger than good, and the recipient of your feedback is more likely to try and read between the lines of your message if you’re delivering negative feedback.
However, if you are uncomfortable, afraid, or for any other reason not willing to give that feedback face-to-face, giving it in another form is still better than not giving feedback at all.
What does your body language say? Is your body language consistent with the words you use? Albert Mehrabian said in his book Silent Messages that “when our words contradict the silent messages contained within them, others mistrust what we say.” When you say what you mean, your body language and your words will be consistent.
Looking for Acknowledgement, not Commitment
Make sure the feedback recipient understands what you are telling them. You can ask them to repeat what you said (make sure you don’t do that in a way that makes them feel small). You should only be looking for them to acknowledge what you said and indicate that they understood (at least how you see things). Do not look for a commitment. First, remember that your feedback might be only your perception and not the reality of the situation. Second, you must give them time to digest what you said, think about it, and decide if, what, and how they want to change.
How Much is Too Much?
You can be too direct with your feedback, which might have a negative impact if the recipient sees that as a personal attack on them and becomes defensive. How they perceive your feedback depends on the level of trust they have in you (not the other way around) before you started giving them that feedback. They need to trust that you are not trying to hurt or belittle them. The more they trust you, the more direct you can be with them (which, in turn, will cause them to trust you more).
But even if they trust you a lot, there is a limit to how much feedback a person can take at one time. They might start to think that they are not doing anything right, even if you didn’t say or mean so. Second, they might lose focus on what they should fix because there is just too much of it.
When you give feedback, don’t turn it into an “open season” on the recipient. Focus on what is important right now. If you have more feedback to deliver, ask yourself why you waited for all those things to accumulate? Some people don’t like giving feedback. So, they let things accumulate, and gradually they distrust the other person for what they are doing (even though they never gave them feedback). They let things fester inside until they explode, and when they explode, they give all the feedback at once, typically in an emotional and irrational way that makes the feedback feel personal.
What if They Don’t Accept It?
Is it worth giving feedback when the recipient doesn’t accept it? I’m going to say yes. Definitely. First, if your feedback is only 10% real, there is a slight probability that you are telling them something they don’t know. Even if your feedback is purely your perception of them, they might still not know that this is your perception and possibly other people's perception.
Maybe they don’t trust you with that feedback, but after receiving it from you, they will ask someone they do trust if they see the same thing. You could have caused them to take this step.
Maybe they heard the same piece of feedback so many times that they needed to hear it just one more time to internalize it and do something about it. Maybe it’s not your feedback but the feedback from the next person that would do the trick, but your feedback still played a role.
Maybe they didn’t appear to accept your feedback but only needed some time to digest it, and eventually, they will accept it.
But your role is not to make the recipient accept your feedback. It’s only to give it. Don’t force the feedback on them. Again, only make sure they heard you and understood what you said.
The “Feedback Sandwich” Method
Some people believe in the “feedback sandwich” technique. You start with positive feedback, then you give your negative feedback (the “meat,” hence the name “sandwich” method), and you close with positive feedback again. I don’t like this method for several reasons.
First, if you had positive feedback to deliver, why did you wait only until you had negative feedback before delivering it? Could it be because you don’t really think positively about them? Could it be because you are making this positive feedback up just to soften the blow of the negative feedback? Either way, you will come across as disingenuous with your positive feedback, which will spill over to how to take your negative feedback.
Second, when you give positive feedback at the end, isn’t there a risk that you will be taking the edge off the negative feedback to the point that they will not feel the need or urgency to do something about it? Some people have filters that allow them only to hear the positive things, and the fact that you opened and closed with positive feedback might help them ignore the negative feedback altogether.