Debra Roberts of The Communication Protocol: “You are an important part of our team”

To build and sustain a thriving business, leaders must be effective communicators. A big part of being an effective communicator is learning how to give feedback. Honest and direct feedback is critical, but it will only be effective if the leader has established trust with their team. As a part of our series about “How To […]

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To build and sustain a thriving business, leaders must be effective communicators. A big part of being an effective communicator is learning how to give feedback. Honest and direct feedback is critical, but it will only be effective if the leader has established trust with their team.


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

Debra Roberts, LCSW, helps savvy businesspeople navigate important conversations. She is an author, conversation expert, public speaker, and developer of The Relationship Protocol communication model. Her proprietary and practical approach to communication revolutionizes how we work together. It is at the core of The Communication Protocol, an online professional development program for teams. She is a columnist for Inc.com, has written for Business Insider and been featured as an expert on multiple media platforms, including The New York Times. Visit www.therelationshipprotocol.com.


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 am Debra Roberts, LCSW. I started my career as a licensed clinical social worker and became an EMDR certified trauma consultant working in private practice and consulting with businesses. For a long time, I worked in the nonprofit sector, including an organization for troubled youths, legal services, a mental health clinic, and a national health organization.

For more than 20 years, I’ve been in the trenches working with people in all types of difficult and challenging relationships. I’ve counseled individuals and couples and consulted with family businesses, educational institutions, and small and large corporate entities.

I developed The Relationship Protocol® model because, throughout my career and during these varied experiences, one thing has been consistent: communication shapes relationships and impacts the quality of every aspect of our lives. But a lot of us don’t know how to communicate.

Good communication requires us to be vulnerable, honest, and real. It doesn’t come naturally to most people, but it is something we can learn. And when we know how to say what we need to say, our lives change for the better. Immediately. We engage with one another in a way that creates a real sense of community, connection, and belonging.

I’ve watched my clients and organizations learn and apply these practical and life-changing skills again and again. And as a result, I’ve seen their lives and relationships improve dramatically in many ways. It’s meaningful, impactful work because everyone deserves to feel heard.

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

At The Relationship Protocol®, we have a proven and practical model for teaching people how to communicate with one another in a way that reduces conflict, honors the needs of both people in the relationship, and focuses on moving forward. My communication model is based on my extensive field research and 20+ years of experience working professionally with all types of relationships, both personal and business. I’ve worked with thousands of people, some who are struggling and some who simply want to stop avoiding conversations and resolve everyday problems. Through my work, I’ve become a conversation and relationship expert, and I’ve combined that experience with my training as a licensed clinical social worker and certified trauma therapist.

I’ve taken my expertise and translated it into helpful and actionable tools that everyone can use. The Relationship Protocol® communication model is transformative and actionable. It teaches the fundamentals for how to have the conversations that people want and need to have.

Good communication is a necessary life skill. Most of us did not learn how to communicate when we were growing up. Our parents didn’t know how to resolve their differences or have open and honest conversations because it wasn’t modeled for them. And no course in school teaches us how to be more confident communicators or deal effectively with conflicts. Yet communication is how we connect, and it is all too easy for us to fall into unhealthy patterns at home and work. The good news is that effective communication is a skill that everyone can learn.

When we launched The Communication Protocol™, an online professional development program for companies and teams, we brought our practical approach to communication to the workplace. We knew we were giving those who worked with us the skills they needed to defuse conflicts and create stronger, more positive relationships, but we didn’t fully understand the bigger impact the program would have on the companies we work with. Many of our clients report an increase in productivity, collaboration, engagement, and overall job satisfaction.

We recently had a follow-up call with a media company that went through our program. Like many companies, they have had frequent disagreements amongst team members during staff meetings. These disagreements were a long-standing and frustrating problem for both management and the teams. They decided to use the material they learned in our course to resolve their differences, and quickly, they got great results.

They realized they needed to change how they spoke to each other because it stopped others from feeling heard and led to fast-growing arguments. Now, for the first time, they have a plan for how to handle their differences productively for future meetings. They created communication rules for how to talk to each other going forward, and they are excited to see how much more productive their meetings will be!

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

When I first wrote my book, “The Relationship Protocol: How to Talk, Defuse and Build Healthier Relationships,” I didn’t want to be in the spotlight. I didn’t want my name or picture on my book. (I was overruled on that request!) I wasn’t on social media. In truth, I was happy to go about my day in relative anonymity and maintain my world as it was.

But I started to see people really respond to my book. I heard story after story about how my book changed someone’s life. And then it hit me: this is bigger than me. And by shying away from the public eye, I am standing in the way of reaching more people and helping them to become more confident communicators.

That realization changed everything. That’s when my work became my mission, and I pushed through my fears and stood a little taller. While it’s still not my favorite place to be, I’ve embraced the role as best I can, and I’m proud of myself for continuously stepping out of my comfort zone for the sake of reaching more people. Since then, I’ve been featured in The New York Times, The Cut, Real Simple, and Well + Good. I’ve also appeared on podcasts, television, and I’ve even become a columnist with Inc.com. It’s not what I expected, and it’s still a bit unreal, but it’s very exciting!

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?

Early in my career, I worked with a very animated person, and I imitated him without thinking. I leaned in towards him and I waved my finger in his face, just as he had done to me. My imitation of him was lighthearted, and at that moment, I asked him what he was hoping to accomplish by pointing his finger at me.

The second it came out of my mouth, I thought, “Oh boy, what did I just do?”

Thankfully, he thought it was hilarious and immediately started laughing. No one had ever done that to him. He was someone who imitated other people, not someone whom others would joke with. I learned that I need to be more grounded and present when I work with clients and not be impulsive. I was lucky that time. I got away with it, but it could’ve been a disaster!

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

Leaders have a responsibility to teach their staff how to be more effective communicators. Basic communication is key to the long-term success of an organization. It reduces stress and increases staff morale. Good communication helps people feel connected and cared for, and when people feel connected and cared for, they are more engaged and happier in the workplace.

Employees must be given the tools they need to express themselves in an open, honest, direct, and kind way. They need to know that their opinions and feelings matter. It is up to us, as business leaders, to create a space where these conversations can happen. We have to set the tone and lead by example.

That also means that we are responsible for creating a sense of connection and belonging within our organization. Periodically, a manager or supervisor should contact every employee in the organization to connect with them, check in, and determine if they need any support. The conversation has to be a meaningful interaction, not just something to check off the list. By taking the time to talk with their team and get a true sense of how they are coping, business leaders can help stave off burnout by redistributing work or supporting their team in coming up with a plan. Over time, these conversations build a relationship based on trust, which allows their team to truly thrive.

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

Leadership exists when the person at the helm is honest, communicative, inspiring, and intelligent. A leader is thoughtful in their decision-making, and curious about the people who work with them to build their business. They care about the people on their team, and they show it.

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?

Before an important conversation or public appearance, I take a minute to become very aware of my breathing. I sit up straight and breathe until I feel grounded. Whenever possible, I go for a walk to release some of the stress. I prepare ahead of time, and I use the same techniques that I teach.

I have a worksheet called “How to Prepare for an Important Conversation” that I often share with attendees when I give a talk. I want people to feel prepared for all types of interactions, but particularly high-stakes conversations where they might not get a second chance with their audience. This resource helps them prepare for a conversation by planning how they want to come across, start the conversation, and navigate through it.

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?

I’ve been consulting with individuals and businesses, working with business coaches and advisors, and managing a team of employees and freelancers for many years. Teaching people how to give and receive feedback is at the core of what I do. I’ve helped teams communicate better with each other and with other teams within an organization. My work focuses on teaching people how to bring up topics and address conflicts to have more productive conversations and positive outcomes.

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?

To build and sustain a thriving business, leaders must be effective communicators. A big part of being an effective communicator is learning how to give feedback. Honest and direct feedback is critical, but it will only be effective if the leader has established trust with their team. To establish trust, the leader must temper that honesty and directness with kindness, compassion for the person receiving the feedback, and a focus on finding a solution instead of placing blame.

When leaders understand how to give feedback in a thoughtful, direct, and respectful way, it builds trust. It also leads to fewer mistakes and misunderstandings. Everyone knows what is expected of them because the guidelines and expectations are clearly laid out. That reduces stress and increases productivity and engagement, which improves both the company culture and the bottom line.

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.

Good communication is even more important when you’re giving constructive criticism to a remote employee because neither you nor your employee has the benefit of body language to help gauge the other person’s reaction. Here are five suggestions — really more of a sequence of five steps — for navigating that conversation:

  1. State your intentions up front. For example, tell your employee, “We need to have a serious conversation about how we can help you to improve your time management and work product.” When you give someone the heads up as to why you are having the conversation, it puts their mind at ease. They stop wondering about your intention for the conversation.
  2. Reinforce their value. Say to your employee, “You are an important part of our team.” Everyone wants to feel valued, connected, and important. Saying those words are just as important as showing that they matter with your actions. A meaningful interaction holds way more importance to them than you may realize.
  3. Speak to the facts whenever possible. If there are any doubts about the information you are discussing, or it is an emotional topic, talk about the facts. That reduces the chances that the other person will object to your comments. For example, you can be prepared with actual dates, if relevant, or an accounting of what took place during an event without editorializing the details.
  4. Give them a chance to respond. Feedback and constructive criticism shouldn’t be one-sided. Allow your employees to ask questions and express their feelings about the information you are sharing. You may hear a different perspective or understand more about why their work has not been up to par. And that information might help determine the best path forward.
  5. Give them the benefit of the doubt. Go into the conversation believing that your employee is interested in what you have to say and that together you can come up with some solutions.

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?

Email is an imperfect form of communication at the best of times, and giving feedback over email is especially tricky. The more emotionally charged the interaction, the more important it is to have the conversation in person or over the phone.

Even minor suggestions are subject to misinterpretation over email. But, if you must provide feedback over email, start by writing something positive about the person or situation. That will engage them so they can read and begin to digest the rest of your email. Then follow the same steps outlined above: state your intentions, reinforce their value, and speak to the facts. If you fear a misinterpretation, mention your concern in the email. You can say something like, “Please don’t misinterpret my words as being angry or upset. I’m merely making a strong point.”

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?

Everyone deserves to receive some feedback, whether formal or informal, regularly. When your team is working day to day, offering some feedback can be motivating and helpful in gauging how they are doing. Otherwise, they may think they are functioning well while their supervisor gradually becomes more and more annoyed at their lack of attention to certain projects.

If there’s been an incident, it is best to address it as soon as there is an opportunity to do so. The longer you wait, the easier it becomes to push off the conversation. And if you wait too long, the conversation loses its context, and the other person might feel like it’s coming out of left field. They might focus their attention on why it took so long to receive feedback instead of how to resolve the matter and move forward.

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

A great boss is someone who cares about their employees and acknowledges their team’s efforts and commitment. One of the CEOs I’ve worked with makes an effort to have small group lunches with different members of her 100+ staff every week. Her goal is to check in, get to know her team, and take the pulse of her company. She wants to hear their feedback and ideas as much as she wants to connect with them as individuals.

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 love empowering people by providing them with simple and effective communication tools. As a part of that, I am a big proponent of being kind and giving others the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t cost us anything to be kind to one another and think about the person on the other side of the conversation. And doesn’t everyone deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt? When we do, we are more open to listening to the other person. In turn, they receive us more positively.

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

Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, wrote an article where she described listening to Dr. Martin Luther King’s orations in the chapel at Spelman College when she was a young lawyer. She quoted Dr. King as saying, “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

That quote really resonates with me and is at the core of my work and my life. You can plan all you want, but sometimes you just have to get started.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can learn more about my work on my website: the relationshipprotocol.com. I am on Instagram and Facebook at @therelationshipprotocol, and I enjoy connecting with people on LinkedIn. Finally, you can read my biweekly column on Inc.com

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

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