4 Ways to Reduce Your Fear of Uncomfortable Feedback Conversations

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

Sweaty palms, dry mouth, temples pulsing, fast beating heart. No, that isn’t you perched on the platform preparing to zipline; that’s you thinking about giving feedback to someone on your team. If dread or nervousness is your typical response when you think of having to give developmental feedback, don’t worry, you aren’t alone. 

There are various reasons managers would rather zipline over the Atlantic Ocean than give feedback, including not wanting to hurt someone’s feelings, not knowing how to provide effective feedback, fear of demotivating employees, and not knowing how the person will respond. According to a Chief Executive article, Why Leaders Avoid Giving Feedback, leaders especially fear feedback conversations because they don’t want to damage their working relationship with the other person. Whatever the reason, what do all of these justifications have in common? You! The feedback giver. Your fears, anxieties, and assumptions lie at the root of your not feeling more comfortable giving feedback. But the good news is you don’t really belong in the equation at all. The more you can shift from being you-focused to focusing on the person receiving the feedback, the more at ease you’ll be with giving feedback (even the most constructive). 

Why Do We Care So Much About Feedback?

Feedback is information about a person’s performance. Feedback can be positive and negative and simply tells a person what behaviors they should start doing, what they should stop doing, and what they should continue to do. Without getting feedback on all three of these dimensions, your team members’ professional growth is stunted. Quite naturally, we engage in behaviors we think will help us succeed. But we don’t know what we don’t know. We need others, our supervisors, our peers, and those who report to us, to give us their perspective on our behavior to learn what behaviors will help us succeed and do so effectively and efficiently.

While you may be the person observing (and being impacted by) the behavior and giving the feedback, it’s not about you when it comes to delivering the feedback. Feedback is a gift to the recipient, designed to help their growth. They are the star of this conversation, not you.

But feedback conversations can be very vulnerable. Giving and receiving feedback can make even the toughest professional feel uneasy. Feedback conversations may generate feelings of discomfort. If these feelings prevent you from delivering feedback, you’re letting your comfort hinder someone else’s professional growth. And how fair is that? If you find yourself in this space, here are four ways to reduce your fear of uncomfortable feedback conversations.

Put Yourself in the Other Person’s Shoes

While we all know about the Golden Rule – treat others as you want to be treated – by now, we’ve hopefully all up-leveled to the Platinum Rule – treat others the way that they want to be treated. Applying the Platinum Rule in feedback conversations will go a long way toward making both the feedback giver and receiver more comfortable. For example, if you know that the receiver isn’t much of a morning person and isn’t entirely on top of their game until 11 AM, don’t schedule a tough feedback conversation for the first thing in the morning. 

But what if you don’t know that much about the other person? Maybe you’ve only worked with them for a limited time and haven’t had the opportunity to observe them in different situations or learn much about them. In that case, we’ll allow falling back on the Golden Rule. More than likely, in a feedback conversation, you would want to be treated with respect and compassion in an honest and cordial manner. For most of us, receiving feedback makes us feel very vulnerable, so the need to treat others with care goes up exponentially when giving feedback. When you put yourself in the other person’s shoes, your compassion, empathy, and good intentions will lead the conversation. 

And don’t forget your intention. Your intent in giving the feedback is to help them grow, so keep focused on how they can use this feedback to improve and succeed. The more you think of the other person, the less you will think about yourself and the less discomfort you will have around the conversation.

Ask Some Questions

Now that you’re clear with your intention to help the other person improve, what do you want to share with them? Preparing for the conversation. What aspects of the person’s performance are going well? What are the behaviors that are contributing to their success? What behaviors should the person stop doing to be more effective? What behaviors can the person start doing that will help them get to the next level of performance? What are things that the person doesn’t know that you have observed that hurt their performance? What are the examples that you can bring up to support the information that you plan to share? What is the impact of the behavior on the team, client, or the organization and why does the behavior matter? Write some talking points to use as a guide for the conversation. How might the recipient react? How will you respond? Thinking through navigating objections or worst-case scenarios will build your confidence and help you communicate more effectively in the moment. 

Plan and Practice

Feedback conversations are too often had off-the-cuff and with minimal preparation. If giving feedback tends to cause you anxiety, you might spend more time stewing in your downward spiral of emotion than preparing for the actual conversation. One way to pull yourself out of that emotional storm is to turn on the more analytical part of your brain by planning the feedback conversation. This has the dual benefit of calming your anxiety and ensuring that the feedback recipient is getting the most thorough and accurate information you have.

Be clear with yourself about the message that you want to communicate. Ask yourself questions to help you hone in on the key behaviors you want the person to start doing, keep doing, or stop doing. What examples can you point to of the particular behavior? What is the impact of the behavior on the team, client, or organization? And why is shifting or continuing this behavior necessary? Write some talking points to use as a guide for the conversation. 

Remember that this is a conversation, not a monologue. Think through how the recipient might respond. Might they have any objections or defenses? How will you navigate those? Thinking through navigating objections or worst-case scenarios will both build your confidence and help you communicate more effectively in the moment. 

Then, role-play! This thought may be cringe-inducing, but practicing having a conversation with someone else beforehand will supercharge your preparation. You will be more comfortable if, during the feedback, the conversation isn’t the first time you’re speaking the words aloud. During your role-play, resist the urge to expound, deviate far from your talking points, or go off script. This could lead to rambling and confusion. Practice saying a point, stopping to listen for a response, and asking follow-up questions—preparation and practice help reduce your fear of having an uncomfortable feedback conversation.

Hold the conversation

Breathe, stretch, and relax as best you can before you have the conversation. Put time on the calendar so that the conversation is scheduled, not impromptu, so that you can have a private space to meet, minimizing distractions and interruptions, and so that the other person is emotionally prepared to receive some feedback.

Even though you’ve prepared your talking points, don’t jump right in. Ask the other person some questions first. Ask what they think they’ve been doing well and what they could improve. By letting the recipient lead, you’re both demonstrating that you care about their opinion and taking some of the pressure off yourself. Their answers should align with your message. And if not, well, now you have more information about their perspective that will help you have a more productive conversation.

Once you’ve communicated your feedback, ask some more questions. Ask what their takeaways are from your feedback, actively listen to what they say, and reflect back and or clarify what you hear. You may not have practiced every potential response the person can have, and that’s OK, remain composed and take a curious posture, resisting getting defensive or adversarial. Stick to your points, be clear, and set agreements around the action the person will take to improve. Remember to be kind, respectful, and empathetic. Be sure that at the end of the conversation, both you and the recipient agree on the message and next steps, and have the recipient memorialize that in email so that you know where you’re starting from next time.

Giving feedback can be awkward and uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to be. Remember that feedback is just information – critical information that the other person needs to develop. Center the other person and take the focus off of yourself and your feelings. By following the four steps above, you can be sure that your next feedback conversation will be effective and a bit more pleasant for you.

Schedule a call with us to discuss how a workshop on feedback or our coaching support could help you and your colleagues reduce the fear surrounding having feedback conversations. 


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