Bracing for Giving (and Getting) Difficult Feedback When You Can’t See Eye to Eye

If I ask you whether my presentation that I’ve labored over for weeks was any good, your slight nod after a long hesitation tells me that I pretty much bombed, despite your verbal assurance that “it was fine, really.”

I really can’t tell if you are trying to spare my feelings or if you have a low-key way of doling out praise. In any event, I’ll probably replay the conversation many times over, wondering how I really did.

Now, imagine if my manager and I almost never have a chance to speak in person. Let’s say I just finished leading a team meeting that was a resounding dud. I send her an IM for feedback, and she replies: “Don’t worry about it.”

Since I obviously am worried about it, I call her to get specific feedback. She assures me that I “did as well as anyone else, under the circumstances.” What the %$^#@ does that mean?! Was she too rushed to give it much thought? Was she afraid to hurt my feelings? Did she really think I did okay? In any event, I missed a chance to learn what I can work on for next time.

Candid communication, where we bravely seek and speak the truth, is hard enough when we sit across the table, looking into each other’s eyes. In a world where we have few such visual cues to go by (unless you count tiny boxes full of pixelated images), it’s so much harder to decode what’s really being said, what’s not being said, and what’s behind the words, or the silence.

In this edition of Communiqué, I offer some tips for restoring authentic communication in a world where many of us are desperately seeking ways to restore lost connections.

💡Ask yourself who or what you’re trying to protect by holding back. If we’re honest, we often withhold the truth to protect ourselves. After all, no one likes to be seen as an unkind person who cares little about others’ feelings. Given the choice, most of us would rather be liked than being known for scrupulous honesty. (We somehow assume it’s impossible to be both!) But consider the consequences of not telling the truth. Where’s the kindness in bypassing an opportunity to offer helpful guidance that can get a struggling team member back on track?

💡The truth doesn’t have to hurt. Some leaders think that the most effective best way to offer feedback may take the form of a scolding, a stinging rebuke, or a lecture. (Yes, many old-school managers still do this!) Not only is this humiliating, but it doesn’t help the other person learn anything. There are ways of being frank and assertive while preserving the other’s self-esteem. Finding the right balance takes time and practice.

💡Think carefully about what you most want to get across. Parcel out a bit of the tough truth at a time, making it easier to hear, absorb and act on later. Start with an observation or two and then pause, listening for a response. Remember that both of you have perspectives important for each of you to hear, regardless of position or title. For example, you might start by saying: “I’ve noticed that the last few times you have led team calls, a few of the dominant participants managed to hijack the call. As a result, everyone else seemed to shut down.” Pause to let it sink in. “Did you notice the same thing?” This type of opening allows for a more productive conversation, where the person is less likely to feel defensive and more willing to work with you to brainstorm possible solutions for next time.

💡 Choose a time and place conducive to a safe open discussion. Schedule enough time for the conversation, and make it clear that it’s important enough to make sure that both of you find a place that’s private and free from distractions. Ask them to bring a pen and notebook to capture important parts of the conversation, and you do the same. (Avoid typing during the discussion, as the sound can inhibit a free-flowing conversation.) Some people can listen more deeply when they can’t see each other, and for others it’s the opposite. Discuss and honor each of your preferences.

💡 Tune into cultural differences. Some of us (notably, Americans) are used to hearing a bit of praise in advance of negative feedback. (And we tend to look for feedback far more frequently than most other cultures!) Contrast this to other cultures, where it can be downright confusing when positive feedback precedes criticism. Some cultures appreciate blunt comments, while others far prefer a diplomatic version of the truth to save face. Know which is which as you plan your conversation.

💡 Don’t obscure the truth with fancy language. Keep your language simple and to the point. Don’t leave room for ambiguity. When the window of opportunity for real-time conversations is small, the chance for misunderstandings is great. Instead of tiptoeing around the truth (“You may want to think about using a different approach to keeping track of your time…”), be clear: “You seem to have trouble managing your time. I say this, for over the last month, you were at least 10 minutes late to each call.” Pause. “With your permission, I’d like to introduce some tools that may help.”

Communication works best when we combine appropriateness with authenticity, finding that sweet spot where opinions are not brutally honest, but delicately honest…the upside of painful knowledge is so much greater than the downside of blissful ignorance, observed Sheryl Sandberg in her book Lean In. In a virtual world, we have to listen exceptionally deeply to know when we’ve really hit the mark.

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