How to Give Tough Feedback

My days are spent coaching people in tough situations on how to deal with scenarios such as approaching their supervisors or coworkers to give constructive feedback. It's easy to tell other people how to do things though, right? When it comes to actually following our own advice, we detour and justify our situations as "different" and "not the same". However, the advice that I give my clients on approaching conflict and giving feedback stems directly from a particularly difficult conversation that I myself had with my own boss years ago.

I was a mental and emotional ball of stress because I was mad at her. I was frustrated with a few things she was doing. It was imperative that I talk to her to repair our work relationship so that we could move forward and not harbor anger and resentment. On top of the fact that giving feedback is challenging on its own, I was I also faced with the extra challenge of my boss being a very emotional person. She is an extremely passionate and caring person, but also very sensitive to any sort of correction. I was super nervous about our chat and how it might go.

There were a few things that I did to prepare for this conversation that were key:

Take a weekend to cool off

The actions that had made me the most mad had happened at the end of a very long and tough week at work. I was already drained and little frustrated, when... BOOM! I leave work on Friday with one more thing to be mad about. And I'm MAD. Really mad. Did I call her Friday night at 5:30 to give her a piece of my mind? Nope. I took two days to stew, let a few things go, and attempt to think constructively. By Sunday, I was thinking much more clearly about what the real issues were and my emotions were much "cooler" than they had been.

Set the stage for both of you

I scheduled a meeting with her during a day when there weren't supposed to be 35 other priorities taking over, and made sure I was in a good mental place, as well. I chose to do it in her office so she would feel comfortable and hopefully not threatened. I offered to bring her coffee on my way over and approached it by assuming it would go well. I convinced myself that there was nothing to be afraid of. I also did a "Power Pose" right beforehand. If you haven't seen Amy Cuddy's TED talk, you have to see it now. It's awesome, and it works.

Write down what you want to say

I often have verbal diarrhea, and I know it. I talk a lot, and often I find myself rambling. Giving someone feedback requires you to get to the point so that the focus and intention is not lost. Spending some time to map out what the real issues were and how it might impact our work at a team was really helpful. It forced me to really hone in on what needed to be addressed while eliminating the "verbal noise" that was not necessary to talk about at that time.

Talk to others for support

We all have those coworkers that are either our friends, or maybe somewhat more of our "work confidants." We trust them, they trust us, and we are free to share honest issues and concerns and get honest input back. I have a few that I connect with on a regular basis... I sometimes call them my "accountability folks." I approached two of them to express my frustration and justification for approaching my boss, and 2 more that had reported to her for many years. The first two were able to justify my actions and give me a sounding board for what was really bothering me. They also said, "You can do it, and you should do this!" The last two folks really helped me frame the messages correctly so that the conversation went well... and didn't end in an emotional explosion. Those people helped me see why the "fluffy" approach was necessary and how it would help me get through to her. I added their advice to my notes as reminders. Talking to them also meant that I had to do it. They would hold me accountable, and I knew it.


I went over what to say, how to say it, and specific verbiage to use (instead of what I naturally wanted to use). Saying those words aloud primed my brain and voice, and it was key to the success of delivery.

I'm happy to report that the conversation went really well, and afterwards she immediately started to make little changes to her approach and to what she was doing. Was it easy? Not necessarily. But preparing for and delivering the feedback was much less stressful and much more effective in the end when I used these strategies. I had to adjust and adapt from what might have been my gut-reaction, but that was exactly what made it successful in the end.

Can you use these strategies when giving feedback in your personal relationships as well? Absolutely! These tips are great in the workplace as well as at home. It is important to approach personal feedback as intentionally as I approach work feedback. Intentionally, while assuming positive outcomes and joint solutions.