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Dana Caspersen: “You need to focus in these online meetings, I’m tired of you drifting off and not participating”

If you don’t give people honest, direct feedback about their work, you are depriving them of a chance to be part of their own growth. If you don’t share feedback when you have concerns about someone’s work, there are no clear benchmarks to measure change going forward. On the other hand, when you create an […]

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If you don’t give people honest, direct feedback about their work, you are depriving them of a chance to be part of their own growth. If you don’t share feedback when you have concerns about someone’s work, there are no clear benchmarks to measure change going forward. On the other hand, when you create an environment where feedback is seen not as an attack, but as a collective form of evolution toward a goal, then people anticipating feedback can relax and listen with curiosity instead of defensiveness. Feedback becomes a tool to work on common goals; not a tool of punishment and blame.


As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dana Caspersen.

Dana Caspersen is a conflict specialist, award-winning performing artist and author of “Changing the Conversation: The 17 Principles of Conflict Resolution” (Penguin, A Joost Elffers Book). Dana’s work integrates conflict engagement and choreographic methods and ranges from coaching, to organizational consultation, to large-scale public dialogue events addressing topics such as immigration, racism, and violence. Her work has engaged thousands of people from diverse communities across the world– from a refugee camp in Berlin, Germany to Lincoln Center’s Global Exchange conference in New York City.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I’m an artist and a conflict engagement specialist. I started training in dance and choreography as a child and went on to work for decades as a professional performer and creator in touring companies based in the US and Europe. I began studying conflict for myself because I was so sick of the conflict in my own life. Inspired by seeing conflictive situations and relationships unfolding in positive ways when I changed my own approach, I went for a degree in conflict studies and began focusing on how each of us can build our own ability to find productive ways forward in difficult situations.

Eventually, I came to see how my practices in conflict and choreography are connected and inform each other. In both fields, we step into messy, dynamic situations and work to see how apparently contradictory forces can function as a whole to create new pathways forward.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I see every conflict as proposing constructive change. The hybrid work that I do, integrating conflict engagement and choreographic practice, creates new fields of action where people can learn, practice, connect, and reflect on challenging issues in a number of dynamic ways. I engage with people through my writing, coaching, training, consultation, and the action-based public dialogue events that I create with collaborators across the world. But, at first, I thought that hybrid work would be a mistake…

When I was starting out in conflict engagement, my first project was to create a public dialogue event. Being new to the field, I thought I needed to stick to the rules and do things ‘properly’, so the event was traditional, with people seated and in a discussion. It was a disaster. People were stiff and uncomfortable and the conversations that I wanted to enable didn’t happen. Reflecting afterward, I realized that I had thrown everything I knew from my life in the theater, about how to create situations where perspectives can change, out the window.

So, I changed course. I started researching and developing models for teaching, learning, and convening that combine the power of conflict engagement and choreographic thinking, without requiring participants to have any physical skill. The new models that I’ve developed are focused on empowering people to navigate conflict and difficult conversations with a robust curiosity and an adaptable mindset.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

It’s hard to choose one, but this one comes to mind: I once worked in collaboration with three groups of middle and high-school students to create an action-based public dialogue event focused on youth and violence. The young people chose this question as the center of the project: “Is there a difference between the physical punishment of children and violence?” It emerged that most of the young people had experienced violence in their families and initially many of them expressed that this was normal and no big deal.

As we worked over the space of several months, the students developed their own physical models for engaging a group of adults in conversation, and we continued diving into crafting the questions that could be asked to explore the main question they had raised. One young man who had experienced substantial violence in his life initially refused to participate in the project. Over time, he began to hesitantly engage but only in defense of violence, saying violence between family members and community members is a normal, acceptable way to deal with conflict. He would say, “No offense, but that’s how I was raised up. That’s how we do it.”

One day, he suddenly volunteered to be the leader in building an object that would hold the thoughts of the event participants– he decided to make a wheel and paint it blue. Eventually, he decided to attend the final event and took part in the dialogues with the adults and other students from the community. For him, this was an unprecedented action. His teacher was in his dialogue group and reported that he spoke for the first time in a different way about violence. He acknowledged the violence that he had experienced, and he named it as being wrong. In response to the question: What is your definition of violence? He said, “It ain’t right, but one kind of violence is when you get beat as a kid by adults.” His teacher wrote to me that the whole experience was “most definitely a life-shifting event” for him. I saw this kind of shift toward self-empowerment and self-worth take place in many of the young people in the group as they worked together to create this project.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Getting back to that first, disastrous dialogue event, which was an endless source of learning… One of the things that made the event problematic was that it was presented in a theatrical context, so the participants arrived expecting to sit down and watch a show. We had arranged for 7 different events with 100 people each over the course of a weekend. The space we had set up had opaque walls, so you could only see what was happening as you stepped through the entrance, and what happened, over and over, was that people coming in would realize what was going on and stop in the entrance, refusing to go through, sometimes hanging on to the doorway to avoid moving forward with the crowd.

So, the people who were already in the space were watching this ongoing drama of arrival, shock, refusal, and backtracking. For the people on the outside, there was an incomprehensible bottlenecking and uproar, with the stage manager and technical director trying to coax or coerce the people into coming into space. It was good theater, but a very ineffective public dialogue!

What I learned through that experience, was the importance of clearly explaining the purpose of an action or event and framing and designing it in a way that engages the participant’s power to choose, rather than their compliance.

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Normalize conflict. Help everyone see conflict as an opportunity to uncover important information and move together toward valuable changes and stronger relationships. Make that kind of examination and common action a real possibility in your workspace. Have clear agreements on roles and responsibilities, processes for decision-making, and plans for how to work with conflict when it arises. Check-in frequently with people, with real curiosity, to find out how those agreements are working. Follow through with making changes when they are not working well.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I see leadership as the action of enabling a group to access its collective power.

I see leadership happening when people:

– take responsibility for decisions that are theirs to make and enable others to do the same.

– have the courage to articulate a vision of a possible future and the perseverance to follow through with the work it takes to move toward that vision.

– are willing to sit with failure and help the group learn from it.

– are able to dilate their attention between interpersonal and structural issues and notice how they are connected.

– are willing to continually consider how their own thinking and actions are impacting the situation and to change course when necessary.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I’m an introvert, and I gather my strength internally. I often use physical means to focus my mind and engage my parasympathetic system to help me calm down in stressful moments– taking time to breathe while exhaling slowly or lying down for a moment and consciously releasing tension in my body.

To activate my energy right before a meeting, talk, or decision, I will often gather my body into itself, seated or in a crouch, and bring my palms together with my index fingertips touching my forehead to unify my focus. Once I feel connected, I stand and consciously extend my body and energy outward, with the willingness to connect.

When I am working with people in conflict, I find it important to recognize that the ultimate work is theirs. If I find myself feeling anxious, I will take a moment to redirect my energy to remember that it is not about me, but about them. My work is to help them do their work.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?

As a dance artist, I have been on the giving and receiving end of daily feedback for decades and had strong experiences of both damaging and beneficial modes of feedback. Working in conflict situations with individuals, project teams, and organizations, and I have seen how the lack of agreements around feedback mechanisms and the lack of skill around communicating feedback can lead to immense, negative disruption. On the other hand, when feedback mechanisms are intentional and useful, I see growth, connection and innovation blossom.

This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?

If you don’t give people honest, direct feedback about their work, you are depriving them of a chance to be part of their own growth. If you don’t share feedback when you have concerns about someone’s work, there are no clear benchmarks to measure change going forward. On the other hand, when you create an environment where feedback is seen not as an attack, but as a collective form of evolution toward a goal, then people anticipating feedback can relax and listen with curiosity instead of defensiveness. Feedback becomes a tool to work on common goals; not a tool of punishment and blame.

One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.

1. Talk to their best self.

Shift your own mindset to assume that a useful conversation is possible and talk to them as if that’s the case. People tend to step up or step down to the level on which we engage them, so talk to the other person’s best self– to the self that can listen to and speak about what is important. Your willingness to give people the benefit of the doubt can turn a situation around. For example:

Rather than: “Look, I don’t want to bring this up again, because you freak out every time, but…”

Try something like: “I’d like to get back to our previous conversation, I still have some concerns in that area. It’s important to me that we take the time to talk this through together and make a plan for moving forward.”

2. Don’t assume that you know what’s happening; ask.

Find out what is going on. Even when you think you already understand the situation, ask the others involved what is happening with them. This means ask them to tell you what they have experienced in the situation, what is important to them, and why it is important. For example:

Rather than saying:

“You need to focus in these online meetings, I’m tired of you drifting off and not participating.”

Try something like:

“I’d like to talk about your experience with the online meetings that we’ve been having. I’m feeling frustrated because I get the sense that you’re not engaged, and I value your thoughts and want them to be part of the process. I’d like to get a better understanding of what’s happening for you. Would you let me know what your experience is in those meetings, and if there are specific things that are getting in the way of your participation?”

3. Be specific:

If you give vague feedback or skirt around the subject, people won’t benefit from your information. Let the people know what is important to you and why.

1. Describe the topic, the specific situation or behavior that you observed and want to discuss, without including blame.

2. Talk about how it affected you, other people, or the business.

3. Talk about why the issue is important to you.

4. Talk about expectations moving forward- what you would like to see happen

5. Have a conversation about what would help those expectations be met.

Do all of the above without blame or attack.

For example:

“I’d like to talk about how we deal with urgent questions over email [bringing up the topic without including blame]. I see that currently when I send a question, it typically takes 3–5 days for you to respond [description of triggering event without attack]. When the response time is that long, I run into problems with deadlines [talk about how it affects you]. It’s important to me that we have an agreement about communication that works for everyone and allows us all to meet the deadlines we have [talk about what’s important to you]. I’d like to work together to create a protocol for dealing with urgent questions that creates a quicker turn-around time and is also manageable for you. Let’s talk about what that might look like [describe expectations and open a conversation to help you move forward].”

4. Empower the person by including them in a process.

When people feel acted upon, they tend to respond with resentment and resistance. When people are willingly engaged in a process, they tend to feel more empowered and willing to be part of finding solutions. Frame your feedback and conversations with employees as an opportunity for thinking together about issues, with the goal of finding ways forward. For example:

Rather than saying:

“This is ridiculous, you’re constantly missing deadlines [attack, vague description of problem]. I’m sick of you being so irresponsible, everyone else is working like crazy [attack, blame, comparison]. Get it together or you’re fired [threat, not engaging the person to understand what’s happening].”

Try something like:

“I’d like to talk with you about work flow [bringing up topic without including blame]. I’m feeling concerned, as I see that you have missed 3 deadlines in the last week [being specific] and that doesn’t work for the organization [talk about how it affects you and the organization, without attack]. I’d like to get a sense of what’s going on for you. Let’s talk about what’s getting in the way of those deadlines being met, and what could be changed to make that possible [describe expectations and open a conversation to help you move forward].”

5. Ask: If this were said without attack, what would it sound like?

Feedback is difficult to receive when it is a form of judgement, attack, or blame, rather than a process for sharing information. To help people hear what you have to say, start with yourself. Tell them what you observed, how you felt, what you want, and why. For example:

Feedback as judgment:

“This is just careless work, it looks like you just threw it together [attack, vague description of issue]. You need to come up with something better [vague direction]. The point of a cover is to get people to actually buy the book [useless sarcasm].”

Feedback as information:

“I find the cover design doesn’t illuminate the content as I would like it to [clear description of observation and impact on you, no attack]. I want you to have another go at this and see how you might connect the cover and content more strongly to invite the readers [clear description of what is important to you and expectations]. Let’s talk for a moment about the issues that you’ve run into as you’ve been working on this and think about how to address them [invitation to conversation].”

Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.

How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

Be clear with what you are wanting to express and do it without blame. To do this, remove any language that is, or could be, read as an attack. Go back through your email a few times to imagine how the other person might feel receiving it- rewrite as necessary. Ask yourself, if this were said without attack, what would it sound like? This doesn’t mean tiptoe around the subject, it means to focus on what matters; the information you want to get across, not the attack.

Start with yourself. Explain: a) what you observed, b) what is important to you in relation to that, and c) why that is important to you. Don’t tell the person what they ‘are’, instead, tell them how their actions are affecting you.

Give them the information that they need to understand what you need- not what you think is wrong with them. Do it in a way that will make it easier for them to hear it. When possible, open up a conversation where you can work on a common question together.

In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?

In ongoing work relationships, it can be useful to have a forum for regular feedback, particularly if the forum allows feedback to move in both directions. Create an environment where feedback is normal and about your common cause. Make sure that if an employee has an issue with you, they feel comfortable letting you know about it as well.

If there is a specific instance where you want to offer feedback, wait for a moment when you can offer it in private- not in front of other colleagues- and when emotions aren’t running high so that the person receiving the feedback will be more able to hear what you are saying and perceive it as useful.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

I value the work of leaders who look for constructive change that difficult situations propose, and help their co-workers do the same.

I had the good fortune to work for many years with a choreographer who embodied this practice. I remember one morning in particular after we had spent months working on a new piece that had premiered the night before. The performance had not gone well and the piece itself had not turned out as we hoped it would. That morning, we all came in to rehearsal downcast. But the choreographer came in, sat down with the dancers and said, “Ok, so, that didn’t work like we thought it would. Let’s think about what happened and what else this can become. Let’s see what we can try tonight.” That simple acknowledgment of difficulty, without blame, and the assumption that together we could shift direction and move toward new action immediately engaged the power of the group.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like to see a movement where every young person learns how to have difficult conversations in a productive manner. I’d like to see the question, “How can the amount of violence in the world be reduced?” be an integral part of every education, and the development of strategies to address that question to be a foundation of every educational practice.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I often think of this quote from the Buddha:

“When struggling, friend, I was swept away, when tarrying, I sank.

So, friend, it is by not struggling and not tarrying that I have crossed the flood”.

This helps me to remember that while situations may seem overwhelming, steadily working toward a goal without forcing a result or giving up is how I can find the way to cross to the other side.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Dana Caspersen, MS, MFA

Website: https://danacaspersen.com

TEDx Talk: Conflict is a Place of Possibility

Book: Changing the Conversation: The 17 Principles of Conflict Resolution

YouTube Channel: Dana Caspersen

If those hyperlinks don’t work, here are the direct links:

Website: https://danacaspersen.com/

TEDx Talk: Conflict is a Place of Possibility: https://danacaspersen.com/

Book: Changing the Conversation: The 17 Principles of Conflict Resolution: https://amzn.to/3fpT4I3

YouTube Channel: Dana Caspersen: https://bit.ly/2ZnZ529

Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.

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