“How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful” with Yana Carstens

I’m a very blunt person and not intimidated but rather inspired by conflict. I love solving problems and in-depth discussions. I learned that I could come across as too aggressive or too opinionated to conflict-averse folks who don’t enjoy disagreements but would rather avoid it.I knew that taking and providing feedback is critical in solving […]

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I’m a very blunt person and not intimidated but rather inspired by conflict. I love solving problems and in-depth discussions. I learned that I could come across as too aggressive or too opinionated to conflict-averse folks who don’t enjoy disagreements but would rather avoid it.

I knew that taking and providing feedback is critical in solving problems and can, at the same time, strengthen relationships, so I wanted to master that craft to be able to continue to have discussions around touchy areas in a respectful way.

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

Yana is the Founder and Chief Design Officer of Sentio Design, a boutique mobile and web application design agency in Chicago, IL. Sentio was founded with the mission to help companies create and transform digital products into experiences customers love. Yana believes in the transformative power of design and that human-centered principles used to enhance human computer experiences also apply to human to human interactions and can lead to a better world for all.

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?

Hello, thank you for taking the time to interview me on this topic. I got my start as a user experience designer ten years ago, and it was my “third career.” I used to work in sales for a little bit, and I also spent several years working as a dealer for a forex and futures broker. My passion for creativity and psychology eventually caught up with me, and I went back to school to study design. That’s where I first learned about human-computer interaction, and it was love at first sight. I knew from the moment I heard a former alumn talk about his experience and current role as a UX designer that it’s what I wanted to do. It is a perfect mix of creativity, psychology, and organization, all the skills and traits I am passionate about.

Fast forward ten years later, and I’ve accumulated a plethora of experiences and knowledge that I then wanted to apply and build a company.

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

What makes Sentio Design stand out is that we apply design principles and design thinking to everything we do, not only on the delivery of digital products. I use the design principles to create experiences customers love.

A human-centered approach is also used to create an onboarding experience clients love, culture employees and partners love, and sales outreach prospects love. I only hire partners and collaborators on projects who share the same values, which results in continuously delivering high-quality experiences.

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

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?

In the beginning, I felt I needed to know everything before I took any action. I was studying up on marketing, sales, finances, etc. I found it was a never-ending cycle. I started feeling like I’ll never learn it in time, and it was feeding the doubt and fear monster that’s been chewing on my leg.

On an early morning run, one day, it dawned on me that I don’t read about running or how to run a marathon; everything I learn is by doing. I can’t keep studying and expect to win the race. So since then, I’ve learned to acquire just enough knowledge to orient myself, and then I take action and follow my instincts.

I found it funny because it’s such a simple concept, yet a lot of us get paralyzed by the unknown. The lesson learned is to not wait too long and to create from action–just do it.

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

To help employees thrive and avoid burnout, I prioritize staying focused on being present. Working from a grounded state of mind puts my team and me on a trajectory to take actions that set my team and me on a course towards success and well-being.

Too many of us focus on productivity when we should shift our focus on presence instead. Being in the now fully present will inspire actions that are 100x more potent. I think burnout comes from trying to achieve something no matter what, and eventually, we either run out of gas or break. Working on getting connected to our inner strength and source of power leads to knowing when to step off the gas or taking a different route without losing sight of the finish line — presence over productivity.

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

I define leadership as teasing out clarity and enabling others to reach desired goals. In a sense, it’s using one’s light to ignite or make others light shine as bright or even brighter so they can make an impact on the collective good.

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 get nervous all the time. About everything. As in my previous example I finally realized that it’s not about getting rid of those emotions but accepting, normalizing them and then rephrasing. I tell myself, I’m not nervous, I’m excited. I’m not scared, I’m thrilled. Then once I tell my brain that’ “It’s ok.” through rephrasing, it is then open to letting me shift my state of mind. I find my center through breathing, meditation, and prayer.

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 have managed product design teams within consultancy and enterprise environments. I learned to give useful feedback through leadership mentoring and self-education.

I’m a very blunt person and not intimidated but rather inspired by conflict. I love solving problems and in-depth discussions. I learned that I could come across as too aggressive or too opinionated to conflict-averse folks who don’t enjoy disagreements but would rather avoid it.

I knew that taking and providing feedback is critical in solving problems and can, at the same time, strengthen relationships, so I wanted to master that craft to be able to continue to have discussions around touchy areas in a respectful way.

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?

  • It’s a communication and relationship enhancer. People providing feedback effectively are viewed as mentors and people receiving feedback gracefully are viewed as being growth oriented and humble. It’s a win win for both.
  • Effective feedback is a gift that helps others grow.
  • Giving honest, constructive feedback, shows the other person you care about them and about your relationship.
  • Giving feedback is hard and most people avoid it or repress it which leads to frustration. By putting effort into providing honest and direct feedback is a strong form of showing respect and care imo.

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.

  • Connect before you provide feedback. Create a strong relational foundation. That can be done remotely just as well as in person. The person should always feel that you have their best interest in mind and it’s easier to take feedback from someone whom you trust.
  • Follow a proven method such as SBI (Situation, Behavior, Impact) or OAR (Observation, Action, Results). It keeps the conversation objective.
  • Don’t only focus on the negative. Constructive feedback should also include the positive aspects of what a person does or which traits they bring to the team. For example always point out what is something well they are doing. That will ensure you are not viewing their performance through a biased lens and it will also make them more open to receiving the constructive pieces.
  • Confidently communicate the feedback with empathy and grace. Many find this part so uncomfortable they put on the master slave facade, which only makes it more awkward for all.
  • Invite feedback from them. Ask for feedback in return. Giving feedback constructively is a gift. Asking for feedback is a reciprocity but also puts you in the seat of being human yourself with many blindspots.

Example: “Joel, thank you for presenting the concept in the client presentation yesterday. It looked like you put a lot of effort into it and I appreciate it.

While you were presenting your concept the client had some questions, and you responded in a suprising way. It seemed that you took the questions as negative feedback and took them personally.

Let’s keep in mind that feedback is their perspective and opportunities for education and improvement. Strong designers take feedback as an opportunity to improve the design and if they don’t agree with client comments they take them with grace and explain their reasons behind design decisions. ”

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?

Yes, body language is very imporant to help put someone at ease. When I provide feedback remotely or over e-mail I keep it short and succinct and follow the SBI method. State the situation, behavior and what impact it had on you or others.

For example, yesterday in our all hands meeting (situation), you brought up that drinking coffee from a pink cup is girly and you smirked. The fact that many folks laughed indicated that you intended to make a joke and lighten up the mood. (Behavior) However, the tone that it was said in did leave us women (girls) feeling like we are the ones being made fun of and it may have left some of us feel belittled. (Impact). I would be surprised if you intentionally meant to do that. (Empathize) What are your thoughts? (Ask for their input)

Another example could be. Yesterday in our leadership presentation, as Jamie was presenting the team accomplishments (Situation), she was interrupted a few times (Behavior). You may not have done it on purpose but you didn’t do the same with the rest of the group who were presenting their teams numbers for the quarter (Behavior). She approached me after the meeting to tell me she felt it was disruptive and as a result lost her train of thought a few times making her speech less impactful (Impact). Moving forward please be mindful of your colleagues during discussions as so not to unintentionally minimize their contributions. What are your thoughts?

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?

I believe that critical feedback should be given sooner rather than later. To avoid bad surprises having a monthly, bi-monthly check-in with employees where feedback is regularly given and received as part of normal conversation sets a precedent and normalizes it.

Worse than not receiving any feedback is being given feedback during yearly reviews when there is a huge time delay and can come across as impersonal. Also, what is worse than not receiving feedback is not providing proper training to employees on how to give it effectively. Many well-intentioned feedback sessions can have an inverse effect if not delivered gracefully and with care.

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

Providing guidance, and support when needed. Having empathy and always advocating and shining the light on her or his employees.

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. 🙂

Design thinking will save the world. I believe that human-centered design practitioners are uniquely positioned to start and build companies that would have human centered principles weaved into its DNA. Those are the businesses that genuinely solve user needs and can have an immense impact on the world.

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

“If you believe it will work out, you see opportunities. If you believe that it will not, you see obstacles.” I tend to remind myself of that whenever I face problems and challenges. It helps me prioritize where to put my time and effors.

How can our readers further follow your work online?




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

My pleasure!

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