Five steps to more effective feedback conversations

By Heather Campbell

This week seems to have been one of difficult conversations for me. Well, not actually MY difficult conversations. Rather coaching conversations about difficult conversations that the senior leaders I’ve been working with need to have. Most of these difficult conversations could equally be called ‘how to give someone feedback about something I want them to change.’

From giving feedback to the micro-managing boss, to giving feedback to a peer who has over-stepped the mark on a mutual project, to giving feedback to a team about re-setting some performance expectations, leaders have been exploring how best to conduct these interactions. It’s interesting how often leaders struggle to give feedback, even though they’ve participated in many ‘Feedback Skills’ workshops during their middle-management years. The simple fact is, human interaction doesn’t become miraculously easier just because we’re in a more senior role.

So, reflecting on my coaching conversations this week, I’ve decided to go back to some of the basics of how to give effective feedback. Even for those who’ve carried out these conversations many times, a little bit of a re-set can be useful.

First things first, it’s quite natural to have some level of discomfort when it comes to challenging someone else’s behaviour. They might become defensive, they might counteract with something we don’t want to hear about ourselves, they might set out a picture for their behaviour that challenges our perceptions of what’s been happening… We might stumble over our message, we might get aggressive or defensive ourselves, we might be unfair in what we’re saying…

However, even while accepting that feeling uncomfortable is quite reasonable, we still can’t ignore these conversations. It’s soooo tempting to do this.

Rather than facing the discomfort of the potentially tough conversation, many leaders choose to ignore the situation or behaviour in the vain hope that it will disappear in time.

But we all know that this is unlikely to happen; it’s more likely to lead to a negative atmosphere, growing frustration and unnecessary conflict.

So, rather than leaving things to fester, get on and deal with it. These are the primary points I’ve been exploring in my coaching sessions this week.

1. Be clear about the specific issue in hand >> Annoyance or frustration with another person can easily lead to clouded judgement. As the problem apparently deepens, so it seems that the person is just plain and simple Difficult, with a capital D.

But few people are difficult in every way, or completely negative. You need to be clear about what specifically you are finding difficult about the other person’s behaviour. Only then will it be possible to have an appropriately targeted discussion.

2. Avoid exaggerating >> Is your boss ALWAYS micro-managing? Does your peer ALWAYS interfere in your parts of the project? Does the team member NEVER show up on time? It is important to be fair and just in your dealings with behaviour that you find difficult.

In particular here, notice when an individual displays the behaviour, and when they don’t. Exploring what causes the behaviour sometimes, and what prevents it happening at other times, can be a good way to open up powerful insights for everyone involved.

3. Check out the good in bad >> Does the person’s “difficult behaviour” actually produce some good results? For example, the permanent pessimist often draws the team’s attention to risks that the optimists overlooked. A peer who gets into far too much detail may actually be more thorough and professional.

If you appreciate the benefits the person brings, you are far more likely to approach the conversation in a constructive way.

4. Consider the reasons for the behaviour >> Most of us have good reasons for our behaviour, reasons that make sense to us. To get the best results from your conversation, make time to consider why the other person is behaving in a particular way. Is the micro-managing boss under particular pressure from their boss? Is the interfering peer feeling that you’re pushing them out or not sharing key information?

By the way, one of the best ways of understanding the reasons for the other person’s behaviour is to ask them why they do it. You don’t have to second-guess this; in fact, it’s best not to do so!

5. Review the validity of your views >> Ensure that the person’s difficult behaviour is actually causing a problem that needs to be resolved. Sometimes someone else’s “difficult behaviour” is simply behaviour that we don’t like.

It’s vital that you take an objective view on a person’s behaviour and not allow your judgement to be clouded by your personal preferences. Taking this step back will also help you to avoid that sense of ‘I’m right, you’re wrong’, which can so easily lead to counter-productive conversations.

Following these five steps will help you to have far more effective conversations and, hopefully, find them less difficult too.

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