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How to Give Feedback and Handle Tough Discussions at Work

Jun 13, 2024 | Coaching Skills, Emotional intelligence, Leadership

Giving feedback is one of the most challenging aspects of working. Often, we give feedback without considering the perspective of the other person. Sometimes, we soften our words and avoid telling the complete truth. 

However, being relational at work means having difficult conversations in a compassionate manner. In essence, feedback should build a person up, not break them down. If you have ever felt broken by feedback, you might have experienced a bad feedback loop. In this blog, I will shed some light on how you can use a coaching approach to have tough conversations with your team. You can also watch our on-demand masterclass on how to navigate difficult conversations

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The Importance of Giving Feedback

When coaching senior leaders, I often ask them about the hardest part of their job. Most of them say it’s having difficult conversations with their colleagues.

This is also true for senior doctors, who frequently deliver tough news to patients. But when it comes to giving feedback—like telling a colleague they were rude to someone on the team—they find it hard! It’s uncomfortable to say something that might upset another person, especially at work.

However, it’s important to note that research indicates that the most effective leadership teams are those that have the courage to disagree, address difficult issues, and provide feedback.

These teams tend to be more successful and outperform those that hold back, even when the feedback is challenging to accept. This approach benefits both organizations and individuals.

We deserve honest feedback. I want to know if I’m not doing things well, if I’m upsetting someone, or if my work isn’t up to standard. I want to be told how I can improve. Learning to give feedback and share difficult messages fosters a bit of tension initially, but it ultimately leads to honesty and the greater good of others.

That is why developing the art of giving good feedback is a skill we need to foster. We can learn how to reduce conflict and enhance connections and growth among employees if we learn how to give good feedback. This is essential for truly effective leadership.

What Neuroscience Says About Feedback

From a neuroscience perspective, simply saying “Can I give you some feedback?” can trigger the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response. This instinctive defensiveness can hinder learning and growth from the other party. Learning how to manage this reaction and also anticipate the reaction from the other party is important. We have a free masterclass you can watch to learn more about neuroscience and how it impacts our responses to triggering situations and ways to manage it. 

Therefore, it’s important to learn how to give feedback effectively to minimise these defensive reactions and promote positive development. Our ability to do this well has a direct impact on people’s physiology, benefiting both ourselves and others.

I’ve also learned that some people genuinely appreciate feedback, even when it’s difficult to deliver. While I might worry about saying, “When you did that piece of work the other day, there were a few areas that could be improved,” fearing a negative reaction, the recipient might actually be grateful. They could respond with, “Thank you. That’s so helpful. I really want to learn how to do this better.”

What a Good Feedback Session Looks Like

When it comes to handling difficult conversations effectively, I’ve found that adopting a coaching approach is a great start that benefits the individual. Naturally, I would vouch for this, but here’s why it works. By approaching these conversations with listening, curiosity, questioning, and empathy, we can navigate them more successfully.

Here’s a simple framework I like to follow. 

  1. Start by sharing your understanding of the situation and then check in with your colleague to see how they perceive it. 
  2. Reflect back on what you’ve understood and confirm it again. This empathetic, growth-minded approach aligns perfectly with coaching principles.

The goal is to transform a challenging situation into an opportunity for growth, fostering fresh thinking and new actions. In coaching, we focus less on the past and more on the future, and the same should apply here when giving feedback. Instead of dwelling on what went wrong, we aim to move forward with positive action.

By embodying a coaching approach in our conversations, we can create a constructive environment where both parties feel heard and motivated to improve. This shift in perspective helps to make difficult conversations less daunting and more productive.

How To Prepare for a Feedback Session

Before a feedback session, it’s important to prepare for it. Thoughtfully approaching the situation means considering the best way to handle it. With a growth mindset, we prepare, believing that every interaction has the potential for learning and growth—for both ourselves and our colleagues.

  1. Before the conversation, practice empathy. Try to stand in their shoes and understand their perspective. Consider the factors that might have contributed to the situation. Even in difficult circumstances, like job losses, empathy is key. Try to connect with what they might be experiencing.
  2. Preparation also involves anticipating their reaction. Think about whether they might already be aware of the feedback or if it will come as a surprise. Understanding this can help you tailor your approach to be more sensitive and effective.

Step 1 – The Johari Window – Which Domain Do the Feedback Sit?


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Many of you will be familiar with the Johari window developed by Joe and Harry, and I’ve shared this model on a previous podcast episode on receiving feedback.  What they said was that there are four quadrants that particularly relate to feedback. Each of these quadrants relates how much I share of myself to the world and how much I keep private.

1. Public Domain

The first quadrant is the “public domain,” encompassing things both you and others know about yourself. For example, it’s common knowledge among my colleagues that I’m an extrovert and have poor attention to detail. When someone points out a mistake in a slide, even though it might sting due to my natural defensiveness, I acknowledge it’s true. 

I know I’m not strong in that area, so receiving feedback here isn’t surprising. I can respond with, “Oh, yeah. Okay, let me fix it. Or can you fix it? Or can somebody help me? Because I’ve clearly got this wrong.”

2. Private Domain

Next is the “private domain,” which includes things we know about ourselves but haven’t shared with others. For instance, when I struggled with low confidence, I didn’t want many people to know. Close friends knew, but I kept it from senior leaders. Receiving feedback in this area can be surprising and startling because it reveals something I’ve tried to keep private. I might feel embarrassed, thinking I had hidden that side of me well.

3. Blind Spots

The third quadrant is our “blind spots,” which are things others see about us that we don’t see. This is the trickiest area for giving feedback because it’s often the hardest for the recipient to accept. Their first instinct, like mine, might be to reject it.

For example, when my friend told me I was a perfectionist, I initially denied it. Over the last 15 years, I’ve seen how perfectionism influences my work and style. When someone is unaware of a trait, we need to be cautious and give them time to process the feedback. 

4. Subconscious/Unconscious

The last quadrant involves our “subconscious” or “unconscious.” We generally won’t give feedback here because these traits are hidden from everyone. While they impact other areas, we can’t directly address them. 

When giving feedback, it’s crucial to empathise with the recipient and consider these questions: 
  • Which quadrant is this feedback likely to be?
  • Is it in the public space? Do they already know about it?
  • Is it private? Are they likely to feel embarrassed?
  • Is it a blind spot? How can I help them slowly see it with evidence?

Once you’ve understood the domain, you can also do a bit more preparation about yourself. There’s a really good opportunity here to think about how you feel about the situation and how you feel about raising the conversation. 

Maybe you’re feeling nervous about actually bringing up the conversation and maybe you’re feeling angry about what happened or maybe you’re feeling let down or disappointed. It’s so important to name those feelings so that they don’t rule us in the conversation. So when we go into the conversation, we can be as calm as possible. We can also be thinking about:

  • Why is it important to us? 
  • What matters for us in bringing this up? 
  • And maybe which of our values are aligned with us raising the situation?
  • And it’s always good to ask, what did I contribute to the situation? Was there any part I played in this? And many times there won’t be, but sometimes it may be that somebody didn’t deliver well enough on a job and maybe if I was delegating the job, I could have done a better job at delegation. 


Step 2 – Mastering SBI – How Do We Approach the Conversation?


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After going through the Johari window the next part of preparation is just thinking about how I am going to talk to the person. I love the model from the Center for Creative Leadership: Situation Behavior Impact (SBI).

The SBI model helps structure feedback to make it clear and constructive:

  1. Situation: Describe the specific situation where the behavior occurred. Be precise about when and where it happened.
  2. Behavior: Describe the observed behavior without interpretation or judgment. Stick to factual, observable actions.
  3. Impact: Explain the impact of the behavior on you, others, or the organization. This helps the recipient understand the consequences of their actions.

This is really about explaining what happened. So, for example, let’s take something that people may encounter often: timekeeping. 

Situation: Let’s talk about your clock in time at work

Behavior: Three times last week, you arrived an hour late for work.

Impact: This means that the rest of the team are picking up your calls and covering for you.

And you can see that that’s really clear: I’ve given an overview, I’ve described exactly what’s happening and I’m talking about the impact on others or me or on the work because that also is helpful for a person to see things in context. It makes it less personal.

You can prepare by writing that out if you think that will be helpful, and even saying it out loud so that you know you’re ready for the situation.


Step 3 – Feed Forward by Marshall Goldsmith

Another piece of preparation links to something that Marshall Goldsmith created called Feed Forward. So we’ve talked already a lot here about feedback, and feedback is often past-focused, but his suggestion is that we aim to move to future focused as much as we can as quickly as possible. 

Right after the SBI model, we can move into forward thinking questions to coach for action and accountability“So what can we do in the future for this? Let’s not wallow in the past, let’s move into the future.”  

Step 4 – Prepare to Give Respect

Finally for preparation, think about going into the conversation with an open mind, looking for win-win if possible and remember to see the person as a human. They’re a person and something just didn’t go right and or something difficult has happened and we need to move beyond it.

Even if you’re going in to raise something that you think is going to create conflict and set you up at odds with each other, you can do that in a way that means that you see each other as humans. 

Conducting The Conversation 

After preparing your way for the feedback using the 4 frameworks, it’s time to go into the conversation. 

I prefer to take a quite blunt, direct approach to this. I would suggest going in and saying, “I’d like to talk to you about something, and I’d like to have a conversation about how we can find a way forward.” 

There it is: I don’t mess around, I say “Let’s talk about it.” 

Then I will share the situation, behavior, feedback, and again stress that we can look for a way to move forward. Here are more coaching questions you can ask during the process. 

  • “How do you see the situation?” 
  • “What else might have been going on?” 
  • “What was happening in your context?” 
  • “Here’s what I think you’re saying to me.”

I’m going to reflect back, and then we can have a discussion and ask the questions:

  • “So how could we do this in the future?” 
  • “How could we come to an agreement?” 
  • If we’re at disagreement, “how do we move forward into the future?”

Make sure you summarise at the end and leave the person feeling okay, that you have some way forward. Also agree to come back in a few days to pick up the conversation. If the person is particularly upset, you can check in with them.

Maybe they want more time before they want to carry on talking and, if you do that, if you pause the conversation or you say, okay, let’s come back to it, make sure you do come back to the conversation and come back to it as soon as possible. 

Either give them a choice and say, “shall we meet again this afternoon?” Or say to them, “let’s catch up this afternoon or tomorrow.” And then after the conversation, follow up and book the time to talk again. 

If you’re having this conversation virtually, Try and make sure you’re both on camera, and before the conversation, ensure the person is in a confidential setting.

If we’re doing these things in the office, we always find somewhere quiet to do it, but, if it’s on Zoom or Teams, then it may be that we don’t know that there’s another person sitting in the room with the person, with this individual, and we want to help them to be in a private confidential space.


To summarise 

I think that we can all learn to get better at this and to learn to be more honest with each other and to learn to see that when we do this, we’re actually helping people. We’re helping people to improve. So, a few final tips on how to do this well:

  • Don’t forget to breathe when you’re in the conversation. You’ll possibly be feeling a bit nervous, so be aware of it, slow down your breathing. This will also help the other person who may also be feeling nervous, and so just by calming your breathing down a little bit will help to create more calm in the situation. 
  • It’s good practice to use “I” statements wherever possible. So we move from blame focused to things like: “I noticed the impact on your colleagues when you shouted”. 
  • And wherever possible, use examples and evidence. There’s times when you can’t, but if at all possible, wait so that you can share practical examples. Because if somebody receives feedback that says: “Yeah, you’re just not very effective in meetings”, they’re going to want to say, “Can you tell me what that means? What are the examples? They have a right to evidence-based feedback. 
  • And finally, always use this as a learning opportunity for you. Think about yourself. What is it about you that maybe created the situation? How have you done in giving the feedback? And how can you help to create a learning environment and a growth culture moving forward?

All the best with those difficult conversations and please let us know how they go! If you have a chance, watch our masterclass on how to give difficult feedback and our podcast on receiving feedback even when it hurts. Check them out and share them with your team. 

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Jean Balfour ICF Accredited Professional Coach and Managing Director of Bailey Balfour

Jean Balfour

Founder & Programmes Director


About the Author

Jean Balfour is Managing Director of Bailey Balfour and Programme Director of our ICF Accredited Coach Training Programmes. Jean is passionate about helping people to have good conversations both at work and at home. She believes that coaching is a life skill and that you never regret learning to coach.

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