Four Ways to Give Feedback That Sticks But Doesn’t Sting

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Kate Germano is an Executive Coach and Trainer at Fringe PD, where their mission is to help people communicate better and create more human workplaces.

We’ve all been there. You feel like you’ve said the same thing over and over about what someone needs to do to improve their performance, and yet nothing ever seems to change. Over time, these feedback conversations become more and more frustrating for you and the other person, leading to frayed patience, stinging words, and an even bigger downward spiral in their performance—the very thing you wanted to improve in the first place! Want to break the feedback doom loop? Here are four pro tips that will help your feedback stick so you can get the best out of others and be the leader you aspire to be.

Why Feedback Doesn’t Always Take

Want to know why you’ve had so many conversations about what needs to improve and nothing changes? It probably has a lot to do with how human beings are fundamentally wired.  

Because the brain’s primary purpose is to keep us alive, it’s primed to be on the lookout for threats. Even if the conversation seems benign to you, feedback can still feel scary to the other person. Unfortunately, once the brain is hijacked and we move into a threat response, we aren’t capable of listening well and processing information. So even when the other person nods their head in understanding, if they are in distress, they can’t really hear what you have to say. In fact, all they are probably thinking about is digging in to defend their position (fight) or escaping from you (flight), leading to less progress and more frustration on both sides. For more on how you can manage yourself well during feedback conversations, check out this blog from my colleague Veronica Matthews.

Catch them doing something right

The fastest way to break the cycle? Be intentional about noticing what they do right and enthusiastically recognize it in the moment. As Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall note, “By helping your team member recognize what excellence looks like [ ]—by saying, “That! Yes, that!”—you’re offering [] her the chance to gain an insight; you’re highlighting a pattern that is already there [ ] within her so that [they] can recognize it, anchor it, re-create it, and refine it.” 

When people feel good because their accomplishments are recognized, they will feel motivated to do those things, even more, to keep those positive emotions flowing. So if you are overly aggressive in anything you do when it comes to feedback, make it noticing them doing things the way you want and call it out!

Keep it clean!

It’s normal to be frustrated when working with someone who seems stuck. Unfortunately, our false perceptions about why they are stuck can lead us to be extra spicy and even personal in our feedback exchanges, all of which are counterproductive to behavior change.

To remove the sting from your conversation, prep ahead of time and focus on using “clean” language free of adjectives and descriptors. Just stick with sharing the who, what, when, and where of the situation. Notice I skipped the why. This is because why often implies judgment, and feedback that sticks is grounded facts and not your interpretation of the other person’s motivations. As Dane Jensen and Peggy Baumgartner write, “This ability to separate observations from interpretations is the cornerstone of effective feedback because it minimizes the potential for debate (“I wasn’t rude; I was direct!”) and keeps the discussion focused squarely on observable facts.” 

Make it about learning…not lecturing

One of my coaching mentors recently told me, when it comes to development, “The treasure is in the bumps in the road.” So once you’ve delivered a descriptor-free summary of your observations, help them find the gold in their performance hiccups by having a learning-focused conversation, not a lecture.  

 Ask open-ended questions, like:

“When you faced a challenge like this in the past, what worked for you?”

“What will you do differently next time?”

“What obstacles might you face along the way?”

But the conversation shouldn’t just be about what they can do. By asking, “What can I start/stop doing that will make it easier to work with me?”, you can strengthen your partnership and make it clear that feedback is good for you too. You might even find there is something specific you can do, like being more explicit about due dates, that will help accelerate their progress and reshape their perception of you. 

Most importantly, follow up regularly

In the Marine Corps, we say: “Supervision is the most important troop leading step,” and this is especially true when it comes to behavioral change. The more consistent non-judgmental rudder steers and positive reinforcement we can provide along the way, the more emotionally ready your colleague will be to receive feedback in the future and the faster they will improve. So, create reminders on your calendar to follow up. And if they tell you something isn’t working, collaborate on new options, which will further cement your partnership and learning. 

As you move forward, be prepared for setbacks. It’s human nature to revert back to familiar behaviors, especially when we are under stress. When you notice this, simply share your observation with them in a non-judgmental way and ask what they are noticing. Often, just having a short conversation is enough to create awareness and get things back on track.

Remember that the effort you put into upping your own feedback game to improve your team’s performance can also ensure you show up in the way you aspire to as a leader. The more you demonstrate your own willingness to learn and grow, the more open others will be to changing and the more accelerated their growth will be– proof that feedback that sticks but doesn’t sting is a win-win for everyone.

Did you find the pro tips for giving feedback in this blog post helpful? At Fringe, we have a ton of tricks up our sleeves that you can use to improve how you communicate and lead. Schedule a call with us to discuss how a workshop on feedback or our coaching support could help you strengthen relationships and elevate your team’s performance to the next level. 


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