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The Simple, 4-Step Method to Giving Helpful Negative Feedback

Learning to give great feedback--both positive and negative--completely alters the effect you have on others.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash
Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

The following article is an adapted excerpt from my new book, EQ Applied: The Real-World Guide to Emotional Intelligence.

While praise and commendation motivate and inspire, negative feedback is necessary for growth. That’s why you should view most negative feedback as a gift. 

But when it comes time to deliver criticism, you should realize most people won’t see things this way. People tend to view negative feedback as an attack, leading them to respond in kind. Fear of this type of confrontation can hold you back from telling others what they desperately need to hear. 

To deal with this fear of confrontation, many resort to the sandwich method of delivering feedback. You begin by sharing something positive, followed by criticism, and conclude on a positive note. But there are problems with this strategy: Some will see through your attempts at commendation and tune them out. They know it’s not the real purpose of the message, so the positive feedback goes to waste, even if it was sincere. For others, the opposite happens: they only hear the good, and the points that need improvement don’t even register. 

But if you ditch the sandwich method, how should you deliver negative feedback?

Over the years, I’ve found the following method effective: 

1. Give the other person a chance to express themselves.

By giving your communication partner a degree of control, you put them at ease. Additionally, you’ll learn details regarding how they see the situation, which can help you moving forward. 

2. Acknowledge their feelings and empathize. 

If they admit to running into difficulty, you can share your struggle with similar circumstances and how others have helped you in the past. 

3. Use appropriate questions. 

The right question can help you learn more about what’s going on in the other person’s mind and indicate knowledge or perspective gaps. If there is something wrong and they can’t see it, you can ask permission to share what you or others have noticed. 

4. Thank the other person for listening. 

Rather than commend the person for something unrelated, simply thank them for being open to hearing your feedback. 

By helping the recipient to see your comments as helpful rather than harmful, you transform your feedback from destructive to constructive. 

What might this look like in real life? Imagine the following scenario. 

You hold a management role at work and Jenny, a member of your team, recently delivered a presentation with some major flaws. You set up a time to discuss. 

You: “Jenny, thanks for your presentation yesterday. I wanted to get your thoughts. How do you feel it went?” 

Jenny: “To be honest, I struggle so much with presenting. I always do lots of prep, and I know this stuff like the back of my hand. But I get so nervous in front of a group. My confidence drops, I start stammering . . . the next thing you know, I’m second-guessing everything.” 

You: “I see. Sorry to hear it was such a tough experience. You know, I still get nervous giving presentations myself.” 

Jenny: “Seriously? But you seem so polished up there.” 

You: “Thanks. I’ve had a lot of practice over the years. You mentioned taking enough time to prepare; that’s great– it’s probably the single best thing you can do. Can I ask: How did you prepare this time?” 

Jenny: “For one thing, I did all the slides myself–because I had a very specific vision for how the message should come across. I was done weeks ago, other than minor tweaks. I must have gone over those slides a thousand times in my head.” 

You: “I see. Did you ever practice the presentation out loud, before we heard it?” 

Jenny: “Um . . . no, I didn’t.”

You: “I never used to do that either, until someone advised me to. I’ve found it really helps–a presentation always sounds differently in my head than the first time I say it out loud. Also, as I hear myself speak I realize that some things may make sense to me, but not to others who aren’t as familiar with the topic. If you can get someone to hear you go through a dry run, that’s even better.” 

Jenny: “Wow. That’s very helpful, thanks.”

You: “You’re welcome. Thanks to you, too–for expressing yourself openly and being willing to take in feedback. Not everyone’s able to do that, you know.” 

Jenny: “Thank you!” 

Remember, this isn’t a specific formula for every situation; hopefully, it’s a starting point. 

Additionally, when sharing your concerns, you should give the other person the chance to respond. Be open to the possibility that you’ve missed something or even that you may have contributed to an undesirable situation. (In the above conversation, Jenny could have shot back: “I wanted to practice, but with all the extra work you threw on me, I had no time!”) Don’t focus on whether or not the other person is wrong; rather, concentrate on how to make things better. 

Once you’ve established a certain level of trust in the relationship, you can be more straightforward when it comes time to offer corrective feedback. Since the recipient already sees you as someone on their side, they’re more likely to understand that any comments you share are in their best interests. When speaking to these individuals, you could simply ask: 

“Would you be willing to hear some constructive feedback?” Then, keep it short and sweet. 

Finally, don’t forget: if you see someone making progress, be sure to tell them so. This will reinforce the positive behavior. I learned lots about the power of good feedback from one of my first bosses. Marc was good-natured with a great sense of humor–usually focused on the positive and looking for things to commend. 

But when we messed up, he had no problem letting us know. Sometimes it was: “Let’s go for a walk.” Other times it felt more like getting called to the principal’s office. But I always felt that Marc cared. He wanted the department to succeed, but he wanted me to succeed, too. Years later, as I talk to some of my old colleagues, we all feel the same way. 

Learning to give great feedback–both positive and negative–completely alters the effect you have on others. You’re not the clueless boss who doesn’t “get” your people, the spouse or parent who’s impossible to please. Instead, you’re the one looking out for those under your care, the one who’s got their backs, the one who makes them better. 

Enjoy this post? Check out my book, EQ Applied, which uses fascinating research and compelling stories to illustrate what emotional intelligence looks like in everyday life.

A version of this article originally appeared on Inc.com.

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