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Feedback Conversations: Pitfalls and Solutions for Effective Feedback Conversations

By Erin O’Malley

“Can I give you some feedback?” might be six of the most fear-inducing words said in a business setting. Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of those words and heard feedback that was out of touch or irrelevant or that made you feel defensive. Perhaps you’ve said these words and found the person seemed to agree with what you said, but you saw no behavior change.

Intense reactions and lack of results are two reasons leaders let feedback conversations fall by the wayside. However, these conversations are imperative for development, growth, and team retention. 

Feedback conversations are not destined to be disasters. With awareness of the pitfalls of feedback delivery plus practice, feedback conversations can change behavior, improve performance, and create the kind of connections that leaders seek to create. Here, we’ll explore three feedback pitfalls and the solutions you can employ instead to deliver effective feedback conversations. 

Pitfall: Plunging In without a Plan 

Sound familiar? You walk into a feedback conversation with the intention of talking to Joe about his attendance. When you walk out, Joe has convinced you to change the schedule to make it work for him, you’ve agreed to sign him up for a training class he’s been asking about, and now you have to talk to Sue because multiple times he brought up the fact that she missed more meetings than he did. 

What was supposed to be a conversation about Joe’s attendance resulted in a lot more work for you and no action on Joe’s part. This is what happens when we walk into a conversation without a specific plan or outcome in mind. We get distracted with off-topic concerns. The other parties point their finger at other people as a way to deflect attention from them. We leave the conversation frustrated and confused about what just happened.  

Solution: Set Your Intention

A deceivingly simple practice to guide the conversation and keep it on track is to define what you want the person to do, think, and feel after the conversation. In other words, set your intention.

Before your conversation, clarify what you want them to do: the action or behavior change you’re seeking. 

What do you want them to think about or know? The most productive feedback conversations are tied to the impact of the person’s behavior. What impact do you want them to think about? 

How do you want them to feel at the end of the conversation? Hint: Answers should be along the lines of empowered, cared for, supported, or responsible—not guilty or shamed! 

In the case of Joe, we want him to attend the meetings he’s scheduled for, think about the impact on the team when he blows off meetings, and feel ownership and responsibility for his role on the team. When he deflects by bringing in Sue’s attendance, we can tap into our intention and reply with, “I appreciate your concern about Sue. However, we are here to discuss your attendance and the impact on the team.” 

Think of your intention as the guide, guardrails, and grounding start for your conversation. 

Pitfall: Judgment Passed Off as Feedback

Imagine your manager called you into a one-on-one and started the conversation with one of these statements:

  • You were extremely rude during that Zoom call. I’m going to need you to work on that, OK?
  • How you handled yourself during that meeting was beyond unprofessional and will not do you any favors with the board.

Chances are, upon hearing either of these comments, your defenses will go up and your ability to hear anything beyond those words will shut down. Rightly so! 

The issue lies in the fact that these observations, while delivered as feedback, are statements of judgment. Words like “rude” and “unprofessional” are open to interpretation. They are not tied to any specific behavior, so the receivers of these comments are confused about what behavior needs to change and what action they should take. 

Solution: Objective Perspective

Feedback statements are based on observed behavior. When sharing feedback, be as specific and objective in describing the behavior as possible. A helpful hint in keeping feedback objective is to eliminate adjectives and stick to nouns and verbs. “You were extremely rude during that Zoom call,” changes to, “During the Zoom call, I observed you roll your eyes and then shut off your camera.” 

With a specific behavior described, we now share our perception of the impact that behavior had on their performance, the team, the client, etc. Actions and behaviors affect people differently. The key here is to share feedback on how we interpreted their behavior. Use phrases like:

  • From my point of view
  • The way I experienced your action
  • The story I made up was 

When we share our observations objectively and from our point of view, we open up space to let the conversation flow. 

Pitfall: Telling, Not Asking   

Old-school feedback models insist on one-directional feedback. The result of these one-way conversations is a lot of head nodding by the receiver, superficial agreement with what the giver said, yet no change of behavior. The reason is simple: The receiver didn’t get to share their side of the story, paint the whole picture, and feel heard. They nodded in agreement but had no buy-in. 

When we enter these conversations, assumptions, judgments, and emotions cloud our thoughts. We only see our point of view. We need to ask more and talk less to get the complete picture. 

Solution: Ask More, Talk Less

An effective feedback conversation has the receiver talking as much, if not more, than the giver. As you prepare for your conversation, consider how to turn your statements into questions. “You need to do [X] going forward.” shifts to “What could you do differently next time?”

Keep a curious mindset and use phrases like: 

  • Tell me more.
  • Could you help me understand?
  • I’d love your thoughts on what happened.

These phrases invite conversation and a chance to hear the other person’s perspective and interpretation of events. 

By focusing on asking and not telling, we open ourselves up to information we might not have known, make the person feel heard and understood, and allow them to come up with a solution. From that understanding, there is solid ground for behavior change and growth. 

When we replace these three pitfalls with these practices, then “Can I give you some feedback?” will be a welcome, not scary, question in the office. 

Erin O’Malley is a leadership advisor, communications specialist, and the founder of ErinOConsulting. She works with leaders and their teams to create cultures of connection that drive your business forward. Reach out to Erin here to keep in touch. 

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