5 Ways to Give Difficult Feedback in Writing

No one is perfect. And yet, there’s no place where imperfection (and perfection, for that matter!) annoys us more than at work. When colleagues or direct reports mess up, it’s a reflection on ourselves and our company, so giving direct feedback一even when it’s difficult一can prevent mishaps from happening again.

Of course, difficult feedback means different things to different people. It could mean telling your boss that their idea is not going to work, or telling your coworker that their presentation was sub-par. No matter what the tough feedback is, it often triggers nerves that prevent us from actually providing it. Delivering feedback is a stressful, awkward process, but is necessary to avoid resentment. In many circumstances, putting your feedback in writing can calm your nerves and get your message across more clearly. In this piece, we explain when to deliver difficult feedback in writing and how to go about doing it in a respectful, effective way. 

Why should you give feedback in writing?

So, why choose writing as your format for delivering feedback? Well, there are several reasons. First, writing gives you a chance to process your emotions. Instead of responding immediately and potentially regretting what you’ve said, you can write several drafts to remove any accusatory language. Second, writing allows you to be explicit. You can clearly state the heart of the issue, what you hope occurs in the future, and ask the other person for their thoughts. In the words of X, writing "avoids corruption in translation." Being so straightforward avoids confusion and further tension in the future. In addition, writing gives you a chance to give some history and context that helps illustrate where your feedback is coming from. And last, putting your feedback in writing gives the other person an opportunity to think before they respond as well.

Below, we cover 5 key steps to successfully delivering difficult feedback in writing.

1. Honesty is the best policy

If you’re a manager, it’s on you to tell someone if they are underperforming or acting in a way that’s harmful to others. It sounds scary—no one enjoys confrontation. But before you get too nervous about how the person will react, consider the fact that he or she may not be aware of what they’re doing. In fact, they may feel ashamed rather than defensive. Either way, spell out exactly what you noticed from your perspective. You might even try a framework called non-violent communication. This approach suggests using the following template: “When ____[observation], I feel ____[emotion] because I’m needing some ____[universal needs]. Would you be able to ____[request]?” Starting the conversation is the hardest part, but putting your honest thoughts out there is the only way to make positive change.

2. Be specific about the issue

Don’t you hate when your boss comments on something you could improve, but when you press them for an example they can’t come up with one? Unfortunately, this is all too common. Don’t be that person! When you’re writing your feedback, cite real observations, not just how your feel. Reference things you actually saw or heard. Now, don’t stockpile a bunch of non-related criticism. Pick one theme and use examples associated with it. 

Separate those observations from your emotions, and connect the person’s behavior to negative impacts on others or the company at large. And then, lay out concrete changes to their demeanor or actions that would mitigate those issues, like “I request that you let me finish my thoughts before contributing your own,” or “I request that you notify me a week before you taking vacation so we can plan for your absence.” Work really hard to gather relevant information before you give feedback. Sharing specific details will only help the other person digest and act on the information.

3. Come from a place of empathy

Negative emotions typically arise from an unfulfilled need or fear. Tap into your empathy to determine what the other person’s unsatisfied need might be. Then, approach the conversation with that perspective, letting the other person know you want to help. State that you’ve noticed a certain behavior pattern and have ideas on how to improve or alter the behavior in a way that benefits the other person and your team at large.

But remember, people can’t hear your tone or pick up any social cues like they might over a video or phone call, so be very careful about word choice. Try to restrict your feedback to 40 words. That sounds impossible, but being verbose might imply that you’re justifying your needs or putting them above the other person’s feelings. Reiterate that you’re working towards a common goal and that your feedback is meant to be helpful, not hurtful. If you’re coming from a place of understanding and bringing up the situation gently and clearly, it will only not only benefit your business but the other person as well.

4. Listen to the receiver’s feedback

After you’ve sent your feedback, wait. Don’t expect the other person to reply instantly and don’t pressure them to. Don’t rush. Just like you, they need to collect their thoughts, so allow them to take their time. When they respond, determine whether they understood your feedback and know what they need to do to fix the problem. Perhaps they have more information or context regarding a situation that you weren’t privy to, and you were over-reacting? Maybe they will tell you that you’ve misinterpreted their behavior or overlooked an important piece of the puzzle?

Make sure they know you’re open to discussion. Assure the other person that they can ask for more clarification and you’ll listen. Thank them for taking your feedback seriously and that you’re there to support them. Stay curious about ways you can maximize the chances of meeting their needs and yours.

5. Don’t forget to follow up

Once you feel both of you are on the same page, get buy-in on next steps. Set some goals for the future and get their input on how you can enable their performance. Make a concrete plan and set checkpoints every few weeks to give more feedback as they carry out the plan. Be sure to acknowledge the person’s improvement and progress. Encouraging them with recognition goes a long way!

Lastly, ask for feedback yourself. Be willing to accept what your direct report, peers, or managers say. Few things are as valuable as genuine feedback, so treasure it and work on it just like you’d expect someone else to do.

What happens if the person disagrees?

Now, sometimes, the other person may not understand where you’re coming from or may disagree entirely. That’s ok! Use it as an opportunity to empathize with them even more. What might the other person be feeling? In a private conversation, ask him or her questions like: Are you feeling hurt because you need some understanding? Are you feeling angry because you need your hard work to be recognized? Is there more you’d like to say?

You may not get to a point of agreement, but hearing the other person’s point of view helps you reevaluate how you feel and think of boundaries you may need to set. Finally, keep in mind that no one likes a hypocrite. Be sure you’re consistently modeling the behavior you’re asking of the other person.

Start delivering feedback today

We’ve all seen a manager explode in front of other employees or clients, deeply embarrassing their team in the process. It’s certainly not productive or motivating. You can flip the script by being sincere, sharing with empathy, and being specific about what the other person could be doing better. Pay attention to the receiver’s reaction, and try to mutually come up with a plan to address the issue. And don’t be afraid to follow up.

While delivering difficult feedback can be terrifying, it’s scarier to say something that’s confusing or that you don’t mean. Before you hit send, make sure your feedback is communicated in the best way possible. Homer, an easy-to-use web-app, is the way to go. It points out long sentences and complex words, helping you simplify your message. Request a free trial of Homer to get more comfortable giving feedback today.

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