I’ve observed the most well-meaning leaders make some basic mistakes that effectively shut people down in feedback conversations and make alignment, collaboration and accountability almost impossible and definitely very painful.

Giving constructive feedback is often messy and awkward, especially when it is towards a direct report who is underperforming or seems disengaged. We also worry about how they will react — if they’ll get angry, very upset or defensive — and whether we will be able to handle ourselves should the conversation get emotionally charged or stuck.

Time for 5 hacks for leaders in feedback conversations.

I’d like to share with you the 5 most common mistakes and show you what you can do instead to invite people into the discussion and release positive, generous exchanges into the feedback conversation.

Don’t discount them, ask them to speak more

Discounting is when we flatly disagree with what the other person says by responding with “Yes but…”, “I disagree”, “That’s wrong”, “You can’t say that” or “We’ve already tried that and it didn’t work.” In no way, does that response equal an invitation — it simply raises cortisol (stress) levels.

Hack #1: Give them the mic and ask, “Can you say more about that?”

Watch for body language shifts or speech changes

While we can choose our words carefully, it’s much harder for our bodies to disguise our real thoughts. If someone disagrees with us, they will have a reflex impulse that causes them to change their posture towards closed positions — turning their body away, crossing their arms or legs, or pushing back in their seat — or to hesitate before speaking, sigh deeply, slow down or speed up their speech and so on.

Hack #2: When you notice a shift, pause and ask “What’s coming up for you?”

Loaded language and leading questions are counterproductive

We tend to use loaded language and leading questions when we’re trying to convince someone of our point of view. The reality is, it generally has the opposite effect — even if someone goes along with what we’re insisting on, deep down they will continue to disagree.

Especially in feedback conversations, loaded language and leading questions have 2 very harmful effects — they erode trust towards us and discourage the other person from speaking up again in the future.

It’s okay to express that you have a strong opinion but keep it brief and give them a chance to respond, disagree or explore. This way, the channels stay open and your direct report feels valued.

Hack #3: Notice your own strong emotions, choose your words carefully and say something like “I’d love to convince you of my way but I know you have an important perspective we need to consider”.

Stop being the fixer

Driven by our desire to fix problems quickly, we too often tell our direct report what to do. We’ve experienced this ourselves and we’re keen to pass on knowledge quickly. In some situations, it’s important to be tactical and give clear direction by telling someone how to fix something, especially when we’re under time pressure.

But in a feedback conversation, we have an opportunity to promote more robust thinking, stress test ideas and nurture growth within our direct report. Think of your role as helping them to get clear on their priorities and approaches.

(Plus, telling someone what to do can disempower our direct report and reduce their confidence — this is a nuance in conversation that Leaders Who Coach™ learn to recognise and handle strategically and skilfully.)

Hack #4: Ask lots of questions like, “Why is that important?” and “What would that approach give you?” and trust they will come up with the best answer that works for them.

They’re not lazy or uncommitted, they’re blocked

It’s easy to mistake disengagement or a lack of enthusiasm for laziness or a lack of commitment from our direct report. In my experience, people want to belong and be part of something wonderful or innovative — they want to feel useful, valued and that they have a chance to contribute their passions and skills. But something seems to be getting in the way and demotivating them — they’re blocked.

Again it helps to see your role as creating a safe space for them to explore what may be happening and check yourself for judgmental thoughts or when you feel the urge to disagree.

Hack #5: State your concerns briefly and then say, “Help me understand what’s happening for you there” and hold the space for them to think out loud and explore with you.

Want more tips on giving feedback?

Download the Feedback Conversations Infographic with video tutorials covering effective questions & phrases, creative alignment to build generosity, contracting to secure commitment, giving feedback remotely, body language & non-verbal cues, defensive & switching off signals, mental health, our brain & hormones in conversations, conflict & strong misalignment, team meetings & online group chats, and common mistakes to avoid.

Feedback Conversations Infographic with Video Tutorials
Feedback Conversations Infographic with Video Tutorials

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