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Prepare to Give Critical Feedback with These Vital Questions

Posted by Louellen Essex on July 30, 2021 in Communication, Leadership, Managing Difficult Situations, Performance Management, Team Development

Preparing to give critical feedback helps ensure a potentially challenging discussion produces the result you are after.  Comedian and television personality Craig Ferguson suggests that preparation begin with three important questions: Does this need to be said? Sometimes reflection leads to the conclusion that the issue is not relevant nor important enough to address. Does this need to be said by me? Consider if you are the best person to deliver the message. Does this need to be said by me now? A well-intended and thoughtful message can go sideways if delivered at the wrong time when the receiver is less receptive.


Going a step further, here are additional questions to guide your thinking once you decide it is the right time for you to communicate.


  1. Where should I hold the discussion? If the message is authoritative (i.e., We are terminating your employment.), you may want to hold it in your own workspace.  If you are after a more collaborative discussion, consider a neutral space like a conference room.


  1. Should anyone else be involved? Be careful about being perceived as “ganging up” on the person you will be speaking to.  Only involve others if their perspective is crucial to delivering your message or if you are mediating between more than one party.


  1. How long should the discussion take? Consider the pressure the receiver of your feedback is under.  Intense conversation about oneself is uncomfortable at best.  Limit your discussion to no more than one hour and schedule a second meeting if you need more time.


  1. What words should I use and what should I avoid? Avoid judgmental words that label the person, i.e. You were rude, inappropriate, unprofessional, disrespectful.  Instead, use descriptive words that give examples of behavior i.e., when you responded in this way…the impact was…. Ask questions to explore the other person’s perspective:  What got in the way of you meeting the timeline? What do you think contributed to the client taking business elsewhere?  How do you think your colleague felt when that happened?


  1. What might be the possible responses and how will I respond? Ideally, you are met with humility and the person to whom you are speaking agrees with your feedback and indicates intent to change. More realistically, less humble responses may occur.  If you encounter defensiveness, stay focused on your core message and don’t get derailed by discussing other issues, particularly if criticism comes back to you.  If denial is the response you receive, give clear examples with as much detail as you can.  If you are not able to reach agreement a problem exists, say you are disappointed and hope the person will take time to consider what you said.  If the situation is serious, forewarn about potential consequences if things don’t improve within a given timeframe.  Listen carefully, recognizing that you might not have the complete picture and the other person’s perspective may alter yours.


  1. What follow-up should I suggest? Follow-up should depend on the seriousness of the issue.  Check back more frequently if the stakes are high. If the behavior dissipates, be sure to recognize the change and praise the individual for making it.


Too often critical feedback goes awry due to poor preparation.  Sharpen your emotional intelligence by carefully contemplating your approach and increasing your odds that your message will be well-received and acted upon.

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In these times of rapid change, leaders can never stop learning.”

Dr. Louellen Essex