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The Feedback Formula – Give Feedback in Two Minutes or Less

The Feedback Formula:

1. Introduce the conversation so feedback recipients know what to expect.

2. Empathize so both the feedback provider and the recipient feel as comfortable as possible.

3. Describe the observed behavior so the recipient can picture a specific, recent example of what you’re referring to. The more specific you are, the less defensive he will be, and the more likely he’ll be to hear you and take corrective action.

4. Sharing the impact or result describes the consequences of the behavior. It’s what happened as a result of the person’s actions.

5. Having some dialogue gives both people a chance to speak and ensures that the conversation is not one-sided. Many feedback conversations are not conversations at all; they’re monologues. One person talks and the other person pretends to listen, while thinking what an idiot you are. Good feedback conversations are dialogues during which the recipient can ask questions, share his point of view, and explore next steps.

6. Make a suggestion or request so the recipient has another way to approach the situation or task in the future. Most feedback conversations tell the person what he did wrong and the impact of the behavior; only rarely do they offer an alternative. Give people the benefit of the doubt. If people knew a better way to do something, they would do it another way.

7. Building an agreement on next steps ensures there is a plan for what the person will do going forward. Too many feedback conversations do not result in behavior change. Agreeing on next steps creates accountability.

8. Say “Thank you” to create closure and to express appreciation for the recipient’s willingness to have a difficult conversation.

If you’re giving more than one piece of feedback during a conversation, address each issue individually. For example, if you need to tell someone that she needs to arrive on time and also check her work for errors, first go through the eight steps in the formula to address lateness. When you’ve discussed an agreement of next steps about being on time, go back to step one and address the errors. But talk about one issue at a time so the person clearly understands what she’s supposed to do.

Here’s how a conversation could sound, using the eight-step Feedback Formula:

Step One: Introduce the conversation.

“John, I need to talk with you.”

Step Two: Empathize.

“This is a little awkward, and it may be uncomfortable. I want you to know that while I wish I didn’t have to tell you this, I’m doing it because I care about you and I want you to be successful.”

Just because you’re direct doesn’t mean you’re not empathetic. But remember, these are my words. You’ll need to find your own words that you feel comfortable using to deliver such a difficult message.

Step Three: Describe the observed behavior.

“John, I’ve noticed that you have an odor.”

Step Four: Share the impact or result of the behavior.

“I know this is a very awkward subject (more empathy). We work in a small space. I don’t want others to avoid working with you or say negative things about you. And as awkward as this is, I would rather you hear this from me than from someone else. Sometimes health conditions can cause certain odors, as can eating certain foods.”

Step Five: Have some dialogue. Ask the recipient for his perception of the situation.

“What are your thoughts?”

Give John time to say whatever he wishes to say.

Step Six: Make a suggestion or request for what to do next time.

“Again, I’m really sorry to have to tell you this. Please make sure you shower every day before coming to work and wash your clothes regularly. And please tell me if there’s something else you’d like me to know.”

Because of the awkwardness of this subject, skip step seven, and go to step eight.

“Thank you for being willing to have this conversation with me.”

You Can Say More Than You Think You Can

You might be gasping, thinking there is no way you could ever tell someone he smells. It’s definitely an awkward conversation, one I hope you never have to have. I used one of the most difficult things you will ever have to say to demonstrate that even the most awkward feedback can be delivered empathetically and quickly.

The short and concise body-odor conversation is a lot less uncomfortable for the recipient than the drawn-out, evasive first version. Just think, would you rather listen to someone tell you that you smell for two minutes or for twenty?

You may also think, “I shouldn’t have to tell someone to take a shower and wash their clothes.” That’s true, you shouldn’t. But if you’re working with someone who doesn’t do these things, clearly someone needs to tell him. Remember, other people are not you and don’t do things the way you do, even when those things appear to be no-brainer basics.

Lastly, you may think that telling someone to shower and wash his clothes is insulting and demeaning. It’s true: No matter how you spin it, there’s nothing nice about this message. But which is worse, having your coworkers ask for different desks and be unwilling to work with you, or having someone who has your best interests at heart tell you privately to clean it up—quite literally? When you tell people the truth, you do them a favor.

Here’s another example: A few years ago I had a coworker who was a lingerer. Lisa would hover outside my office until she saw an opportunity to interrupt. She then walked in uninvited and started talking. I was still mid-thought about whatever I’d been working on and wasn’t ready to listen. After a few sentences, I would interrupt Lisa, saying, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Will you please start over?”

Embarrassing as it sounds, this went on for more than a year. I wanted to be seen as accessible and open, yet this “lingering” method of interrupting was driving me crazy. And it was a waste of both of our time. After many months of frustration, I decided to use the eight-step Formula.

Step One: Introduce the conversation.

“Lisa, I want to talk about something I’ve noticed.”

Step Two: Empathize.

“I probably should have said something a long time ago. I’m sorry I didn’t.”

Step Three: Describe the observed behavior.

“I’ve noticed that when you want to talk to me you stand at my door, waiting for a good time to interrupt. When you come into my office, you’re often in the middle of a thought or problem that you’ve probably been thinking about for a while.”

Steps Four and Six: Share the impact or result of the behavior and make a suggestion or request for what to do next time.

“Because I’m in the middle of something completely different, it takes me a few seconds to catch up. By the time I have, I’ve missed key points about your question and I have to ask you to start over. This isn’t a good use of either of our time.

“Here is my request: When I’m in my office working and you need something, knock and ask if it’s a good time. If it is, I’ll say yes. Give me a few seconds to finish whatever I’m working on, so I’m focused on you when we start talking. I’ll tell you when I’m ready. Then start at the beginning, giving me a little background, so I have some context. And if it isn’t a good time for me, I’ll tell you that and come find you as soon as I can.”

Step Five: Have some dialogue. Allow the recipient to say whatever she needs to say.

“What do you think?”

Step Seven: Agree on next steps.

“Okay, so next time you want to talk with me, you’re going to tap on the door and ask if it’s a good time to talk. If it’s not, I’ll tell you that and come find you as soon as I can. If it is a good time, you’re going to give me a second to finish whatever I’m working on and give me some background about the issue at hand. Does that work for you?”

We have just managed “the lingerer”—a challenge you probably have, unless you work from home or in a closet.

You may have noticed that I changed the order of the Feedback Formula during this conversation. It’s not the order of the conversation that’s important. It’s that you provide specific feedback, offer alternative actions, and have some dialogue before the conversation ends.

Summary: Good Feedback Is Specific, Succinct, and Direct.

Provided you have a trusting relationship with someone and have secured permission to give feedback, there is very little you can’t say in two minutes or less. The shorter and more direct the message, the easier it is to hear and act upon. Follow the eight-step Feedback Formula. Be empathetic and direct. Cite specific examples. Give the other person a chance to talk. Come to agreement about next steps. Remember, you do people a favor by being honest with them. People may not like what you have to say, but they will invariably thank you for being candid.

This week’s blog is an excerpt from my book How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide for Building Business Relationships That Really Work. I hope it helps you have the conversations you need to have! Be candid. You can do it!

About 

Shari Harley is the founder and President of Candid Culture, a Denver-based training firm that is bringing candor back to the workplace, making it easier to give feedback at work. Shari is the author of the business communication book How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide to Building Business Relationships that Really Work. She is a keynote speaker at conferences and does training throughout the U.S. Learn more about Shari Harley and Candid Culture’s training programs at www.candidculture.com.

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