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Give Feedback Without Freaking Out – Good Business Communication

Last week I was upset, really upset. I worked hard to practice what I preach when giving feedback – wait to talk until I’m calm, ask questions, and no matter what happens, don’t send a text message. It was hard, really hard.

I was mad and wanted to say, “What the *&^#$@?” But I know that when people receive negative feedback they feel judged. And when people feel judged, they become defensive, making it very difficult to hear what the other person is saying and have a conversation.

When my emotions don’t get the best of me, I plan hard conversations by asking myself these questions:

  • What do I want to have happen as a result of the conversation?
  • How do I need to approach the conversation to get that result?

Knowing that if I want to have a good conversation, I need to reduce the other person’s defensiveness, I often start feedback conversations by asking the neutral question, “Help me understand; what happened the other day?”

Last week one of my employees tipped me off that the people who work for me are on to me. They’ve read my book. When I ask, “Help me understand; what happened the other day,” they know that feedback will follow.

You don’t want to approach your relationships and conversations in a formulaic and inauthentic way. Inauthenticity stinks and it can damage relationships more than freaking out will do. But it’s not a terrible thing to put someone on notice. If the people who work with me know that negative feedback follows the question “what happened,” they know the conversation is important. Yes, they’ve been tipped off and perhaps as a result they’re on the defensive, but I still think asking “what happened yesterday” is a heck of a lot better than raising your voice, accusing, and asking questions later.

Asking questions to discuss thwarted expectations is hard to practice. It takes great self-management, which I don’t always have. I mostly practice what I teach, and when I don’t, I clean up the mess I’ve made, apologize and recommit to doing so in the future. And you can do the same.

A Few Practices to Consider:

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  1. Wait to give feedback until you won’t freak out, but don’t let situations fester and become bigger than they need to be. Have the conversation as soon after an event as possible.
  2. If something is important to you, ask for it. Trying to persuade yourself that it isn’t a big deal and might be your issue, probably won’t help. We want what we want. Be true to yourself.
  3. Consider starting hard conversations with “help me understand.”

And when you find that you’ve put the other person on the defensive and s/he feels judged, work to do better next time. But in the end, speaking up is always better than stuffing how you feel, even if you handle the conversations differently than you had planned.


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

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