I recently surveyed 300 human resources professionals about their most challenging conversations. Forty percent said giving critical feedback is the most challenging conversation they face, which didn’t surprise me — giving critical feedback is just as difficult as receiving it.
I experienced this first hand recently. While delivering a workshop for a global technology company, I asked for reflections after an exercise. One of the participants, a manager from Korea, raised his hand. Because he was not communicating in his native language, he spoke slowly and deliberately. When he stopped, I thanked him for his contribution and moved onto the next exercise.
During a break, the program coordinator approached me. “Mr. Kim is very upset with you,” she said, nervously. “He is packing his things and leaving the session.” I was shocked. What had I done to upset him? “Do you remember when you asked him to share his thoughts? When he paused, you cut him off. He wasn’t done speaking.”
I took a deep breath and considered my response. I walked into the classroom and, sure enough, found Mr. Kim packing his bag.
“Mr. Kim, I was informed you are upset with me and I want to understand why,” I said.
He looked up from his bag. “You were teaching communication and leadership. How can you be so rude and cut me off! That was disrespectful. I don’t want to waste my time in your class!”
I apologized, explaining it was not my intention to cut him off, and agreeing that I was rude and disrespectful. “If I had known you had more to share, I would have loved to have heard the rest of your comments. Will you give me another chance and stay in my class?”
He instantly relaxed. “Ok,” he said. “I will not leave.”
The remainder of the workshop went smoothly. Mr. Kim was an active participant — and I always let him finish speaking.
Receiving and giving feedback can both be fraught with intense, negative emotions. But it’s how we navigate through those emotions — and how we craft our communication — that make the biggest impact.
Here’s how we can successfully navigate these challenging conversations.
Set ego aside
As leaders, we must embrace vulnerability, set our egos aside, and admit our failings when necessary. I could have reacted defensively with Mr. Kim, insisting I hadn’t intentionally cut him off, but that would have centered on my emotions, not his. Instead, I listened carefully for facts, feelings, and values, the things that would help me understand his perspective. If we approach tough conversations with openness and humility, it’s much easier to be open to positive solutions.
Use straight talk
Michael Schaerer and Roderick Swaab write in the Harvard Business Review of the tendency for managers to sugarcoat critical feedback because they fear retaliation, want to spare the feelings of their direct reports, or because they are experiencing a cognitive bias called the illusion of transparency. This is the human tendency to focus so much on our own feelings and intentions that we overestimate the clarity of our communication, resulting in vague messages that don’t accurately convey what we mean. To avoid falling into this cognitive trap, use straight talk, which means communicating with clarity, accuracy, and respect. Support your feedback with data and facts. Avoid phrases that can obscure your meaning, such as “it’s a real possibility,” or “I will try my best,” which can confuse or give false hope. When tempted to sugarcoat, aim for specificity instead, remembering Brene Brown’s thoughts on the subject: “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.”
Focus on the future with feedforward
Feedback focuses on the past. Feedforward reframes the conversation to solutions for the future. As the feedback receiver in my interaction with Mr. Kim, I accepted his feedback and apologized for my misstep, allowing him to feel heard and understood. Then, I changed the tone to the future, asking for his input on a solution moving forward. As a feedback giver, you can do the same. Acknowledge the past with feedback, but introduce feedforward as a way to focus on proactive possibilities. This helps reframe the conversation from challenging and difficult to hopeful, productive, and positive.
When I think back to my experience with Mr. Kim, I am grateful he didn’t keep his feelings to himself. His feedback may have been difficult for me to hear, but it allowed me to fix my misstep and create a better experience for us both. When we set our egos aside, embrace vulnerability, admit mistakes, use straight talk, and focus on feedforward, we can use critical feedback for the gift that it is.