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Stop Avoiding It: 4 Tips for Delivering Tough Feedback

Feedback can motivate people and teams to move beyond the status quo, but only if it's actually delivered.
Stop Avoiding It: 4 Tips for Delivering Tough Feedback
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As business owners and team members, we all have to deliver tough messages. At some point, we will have to say the equivalent of that dreaded line, "We need to talk . . ."

Related: Five Steps for Giving Productive Feedback

Why are such conversations so difficult that we'll do anything to avoid them?

I'll admit, I don't like having tough conversations. Even though I am a leadership development expert and teach others these skills every day doesn't mean that I don't get nervous and sometimes keep quiet when I should speak up.

I get that knot in my stomach, the racing heart, the sweaty palms. However, I have also learned that if I do nothing, if I avoid the conversation, the situation rarely improves.

I believe that if we didn't care on some level about our relationship with the other person, we wouldn't struggle with this in the first place. But avoiding the conversation only allows things to build up to the boiling point.

When we finally have no choice but to confront the issue, we run the risk of damaging the relationship with the other person, rather than addressing the issue at hand and preserving the relationship.

Whether your definition of a tough conversation is asking for a raise, saying "no" to a client or giving feedback to a colleague who has missed your expectations, here are four tips to help the conversation go more smoothly.

1. Change your mindset.

If you're gearing up for a conversation you've labeled "difficult," you're more likely to feel nervous and upset about it beforehand. Instead, try framing it in a positive way. For example, you're not giving negative performance feedback; you're having a "constructive" conversation about development.

You're not telling your boss no, you're offering up "an alternate solution." A difficult conversation tends to go better when you think about it as a normal conversation.

2. Prepare.

This may seem obvious. The problem is that you can't overlook your emotions. You need to deliver your message calmly and clearly, and to appropriately respond to the behavior of the other person in the meeting, no matter what that person does. In other words, you have to be able to hold it together.

Let's face it. It's comparatively easy to tell someone that he or she made a mistake and as a result won't receive the hoped-for promotion if that person willingly acknowledges what you say and accepts your decision without disagreement. You both heave a sigh of relief and move on to other things.

What's challenging is when the person comes off his or her seat, shouts and threatens in menacing language or does the opposite -- breaks down and sobs uncontrollably.

Sometimes, emotions can get the best of us, but with a little awareness and preparation, you can avoid the risk. Spend a few minutes planning what you want to say, jot down notes and key points before the conversation.

Drafting a script, however, is a waste of time. Your strategy for the conversation should be flexible and contain a repertoire of possible responses. Aim for language that is simple, clear, direct and neutral.

Related: Giving and Receiving the Gift of Feedback

3. Pick your time and place.

While you don't want more time to elapse between when the need arises for negative feedback and when you actually give it, you also don't want to rush into it. You'll have only one chance to do it right. Make sure that it works well for both of you.

The right time will depend on the severity of the feedback. Where possible, you want to give it as close as possible to the date of the infraction. The goal is to correct the problem, not to inflict pain on the person who is guilty of it. In fact, you'll increase the chances of successfully fixing the problem if you make this your rule of thumb.

The "right place" doesn't need to be your office. Maybe it's in a coffee shop. Maybe it's on the job, out of earshot of other workers, but at the place where the problem occurred.

If your office is the right place, then keep things as informal as possible. If you can get your point across by sitting on the same side of the desk as your colleague as you would by sitting behind it, then choose the former. The added authority of a desk between you can make things seem bigger than they are while making the person feel unnecessarily incompetent.

4. Stop stalling -- just do it.

How do you overcome your reluctance to give feedback or have the tough conversations? The answer is by treating these events as part of an ongoing conversation. If feedback is seen as nothing more than a part of everyday communication, it won't be misinterpreted as being something special.

In other words, undue emphasis will not be placed upon it.

If it's natural, regular and informal, it will rarely be thought of as anything more than that; and that's a good thing. You have to keep this in mind. Communication is the means that you use to keep people informed, make improvements, provide encouragement and accomplish 101 other things that you may not have thought of.

Managed well, feedback, especially tough feedback, can stimulate creativity, motivate people to stretch themselves, encourage peer-to-peer learning and help teams move beyond the status quo. Your task, as a leader, is to conduct tough conversations in a way that builds people up and doesn't knock them down.

Related: 6 Rules For Effective Feedback

It begins with you. Make sure that it doesn't stop there.