Delivering Bad News: How to Give Negative Feedback

April 29, 2015

coaching through negative feedback

Having a tough time communicating with your employees? Coaching expert Michael Bungay Stanier has great advice to give to managers and employees alike. He is the founder and senior partner of Box of Crayons, one of the world’s largest innovation agencies. Michael sat down with AMA to talk about employee success through coaching.

AMA: “How do you handle coaching that has a negative message rather than a positive one that enhances your success?”

MBS: In the context of coaching, it can sometimes be more about, how do I support this person to figure stuff out, have new ideas, and get stuff done? Sometimes you may have a negative message to pass along.

Now, there are a bunch of things out there about how to lead with strong feedback. There is some very interesting stuff about neuroscience because, quite frankly, when you come up to somebody and say, “I’m going to give you some feedback,” the brain is basically starting to freak out. It’s moving into fight or flight mode. People are already backing away. They’re not even hearing the feedback properly. However, we can use the neuroscience of engagement when giving feedback. We need to understand that communication has four parts to it. There’s data, that’s the facts. Then, there’s your feelings about the situation ‑‑ not their feelings, your feelings. Next, is your judgment. This is your interpretation or subjective reading of the data. Then, finally, there’s what you want and what you need.

Now, what happens normally in communication is those four things kind of get mushed together and presented in a horrible mix. If you’re giving feedback, then you’ve got to get clear on what the data is. Make sure it’s not what you think happened, but what the actual facts are, and get clear about the request you want to make. One of the reasons people procrastinate about tough conversations is that they actually know what they want to ask for; what’s the request. So if you get clear on what you want and you get clear on what the data is, that’s the foundation for spending less time just worrying about this conversation, because you can prepare for this quite quickly, and spend more time staying grounded in the conversation.

AMA: How do you deal with superiors who can be bully-like and humiliate others in public

MBS: So that’s a tough question. How do you deal with a bully — a bully with power? One of the fundamental questions you ask yourself is, “Am I going to have this fight or not? Is this a fight I can have, or is it not a fight that I can have?” One of your options is to go, “How do I get out of the sphere of working with this person as fast as possible, just so I’m not trying to fix it or save it or change it?” It’s about asking, “How do I minimize my contact with them?” If you can’t leave or you can’t get transferred to a different part of the organization, part of it might be, “How do I minimize my way of interacting with this person so they have fewer opportunities to bully, to shame, to humiliate me?”

Then, of course, there are questions you ask need to ask yourself, such as, “So, where could I find allies to help me manage and think about this?” There’s a reason people say that you join an organization, but you leave the manager. Sometimes leaving the manager in the organization is the thing to do.

Learn more from Michael Bungay Stanier with this free podcast.

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The ability to give negative feedback is an essential management skill. Learn how to effectively handle difficult conversations through these AMA resources.

About The Author

Michael Bungay Stanier is the Senior Partner of Box of Crayons, a company that gives busy managers the tools to coach in 10 minutes or less. He's the author of five books, the most recent of which is The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. Dan Pink calls it "simple yet profound". Brené Brown says "practical and inspiring."

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