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Hate delivering negative feedback at work? 19 phrases to help make giving difficult feedback easier

If you’ve always struggled to give negative feedback to your team, this is for you.

Negative feedback is often the elephant in the room.

“I love giving negative feedback at work,” said no one ever. Unless you enjoy causing people to be angry, upset or hurt — chances are you don’t like giving difficult feedback. We squirm, postpone, or avoid having to relay hard truths, all together. No one is proud to tell an employee else that their work is subpar. No one looks forward to sharing that they’re making the team look bad in front of the client. No one likes to be made out to be the bad guy or gal.

“I’ve always struggled with giving critical feedback during one-on-ones,” admitted one of our from our online community of 1,000+ leaders in Know Your Team. “I have been delaying giving critical feedback for a long time, and it is causing team chemistry problems. I need to right the ship.”

How do you right the ship? Especially, if you’re known as the positive nice guy or gal in your company (which this manager acknowledged he was), how do you make the shift to start giving constructive feedback more regularly?

I’ve written & spoken extensively on this topic before,  on the subject, and given workshops on it — but I thought I’d extract from it all what I see as the most useful phrases for giving negative feedback for folks to use in their day-to-day, perhaps during a one-on-one meeting.

Hopefully, armed with these phrases, you can ease yourself into giving negative feedback more frequently and more naturally…

Ask permission to give feedback

When you have difficult feedback to give, ask if now (or another time) is good to give it. No one likes to be bombarded in the middle of their workday, or blasted on the spot without just a small heads up that a critique is coming. Here are a few phrases you can use to “ask permission”…

“Would you be open to hearing some quick feedback around a few things I noticed?”

“I heard a few things on a call the other day that I thought we could talk through together — would you be open to that?”

“Happen to have time later today to chat around a few things I saw?”

“Would you want to sit down and talk about different ways we can both improve?”

Regarding this last phrase, only use it if you genuinely want to talk about how you yourself can also improve.

Looking for more detailed guidance on this topic? Make sure to check out our Training Program.
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Come from a place of Care

Make it clear the intention behind your feedback. This isn’t about tearing the other person down. You want the person to succeed. For example, you could say something like:

“I’m saying this because I believe in you and what you’re capable of…”

“I’m giving you this feedback want you to succeed…”

“This is important to me because I care about the company’s direction as a whole…”

Come from a place of Observation

Focus on the observable behaviors of what happened, not the personal characteristics of the person. This helps make the other person not as defensive in their reception of your comments, and also helps make it clear what you’d actually like to see changed.

“When you did ___, it made me feel ___…”

“Here’s what I observed…”

“Here’s what I noticed…”

“Here’s where I think there’s an opportunity to improve…”

For example, if you think a coworker wrote a sloppy email to the client, instead of saying: “I think you’re careless and sloppy”… you could say, “I noticed that in the email you wrote, there were a few mistakes that made me feel like the work careless .” See the difference?

Looking for more detailed guidance on one-on-one meetings? Make sure to check out our 1:1 module in Canopy.
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Come from a place of Fallibility

Don’t forget that your feedback is only an interpretation of what you observed, and your own perspective of how things can improve going forward. Your perspective is not a universal truth. To make this clear to the other person, you can say something like:

“Is there anything I’m missing?”

“Is that how you saw things, or do you see things differently?”

“Is there anything I’m misinterpreting?”

“I’ve made this mistake before myself…”

“I may not have given you all the information…”

Only say the last two phrases if you indeed believe you’ve made the same mistake before, or if you think you’re partially at fault for not supporting this employee as well as you could have. No progress is made if you say these phrases and do not mean them 🙂

Come from a place of Curiosity

When you give feedback, it should feel like a conversation. No one likes being talked at. Your time to give feedback is also a time to listen to what the other person thinks, as well. To do this, you can simply ask…

“What do you think?”

“Was there anything that doesn’t seem clear to you?”

“What do you think both you and I should do to move forward?”

Helpful phrases aside, remind yourself that giving difficult, honest feedback is in the best interest of your team. Being a good leader requires at times hard and uncomfortable conversations. It’s a natural and not-so-glamorous part of being a leader. Remind yourself that this is part of the job, as painful as it is and that you’re doing the right thing by telling the truth.

You may not love giving negative feedback, but these phrases will help you become better at it.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Canopy. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.