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The Top Three Mistakes We Make When Delivering Negative Feedback

I think we can all agree that giving feedback that’s less than positive is always a challenge.

Whether it’s an employee or a family member, having to deliver a message that you know may not be well received brings up a lot of emotions.

We feel awkward. Uncomfortable. Maybe even a little bit bad that we’re going to tell them something they probably don’t want to hear.

So before we get started, I’ll say this: those feelings are normal. The uncertainty of the reaction is what makes us start to have those feelings of anxiety. It feeds into our fear of the unknown, which is a pretty common human reaction.

Having spent so many years talking to people about how to have difficult conversations, this is something that comes up pretty often. People are looking for the “how” of delivering negative feedback. Knowing how to have difficult conversations makes it less stressful for everyone involved.

While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, there are some things that you really want to avoid, so that’s what we’re going to focus on.

Check this out:

Here are the top three mistakes people make when delivering negative feedback:

#1. We Avoid It

If we’re going to real here, we can agree that nobody WANTS to deliver negative feedback. It’s not a fun or pleasant endeavour.

But it’s necessary.

Now, you may be thinking, “what’s wrong with avoiding it?” because it sure seems like the easiest route to take.

The problem is that when we choose not to give the feedback, we make up all sorts of assumptions. We decide they’re bad at their job. Or that they don’t care about other people’s feelings. Or they’re selfish.

We assign all sorts of motives to their behaviour without actually taking the time to try and understand. As we

build up these assumptions in our mind and the problem gets bigger and bigger.

This creates a situation where when we eventually DO decide it’s time to address it, we’ve already built an entire narrative about that other person. This is pretty much guaranteed to result in a conversation that isn’t productive because all that frustration we’ve held in is most certainly going to color what we have to say.

Doesn’t sound like we’re starting our difficult conversation with an open mind, does it?

The other problem that avoidance brings up is the impact it has on us. Those feelings of anger or frustration just eat away at us and we ruminate on the issue way more than we would if we had just dealt with it.

Let’s not forget about the fact that the longer you wait, the less impactful it’s going to be. Neither of you are going to remember things exactly as it happened. The person getting the feedback is likely going to just brush off what is being said because they don’t remember or it happened long enough ago that it just doesn’t seem like a big deal to them anymore.

#2. We Cushion The Message

This happens when we try and wrap our negative feedback up in lots of positives. We do this because we don’t want to upset the other person or for them to feel bad, so we’re trying to soften the blow. We dance around the issue to avoid those uncomfortable feelings.

Imagine you have an employee in your office who is an amazing salesperson but they’re not turning in their mandatory reports and they’re treating their colleagues poorly.   

In an attempt to cushion the feedback, you start our signing their praises and talking about what a great salesperson they are and how they’re doing such good work out in the field, and so on.

But oh, by the way, there are a few little things here at the office they need to work on.

What do you think the prevailing message of that conversation is going to be for them? What are they going to remember the most?

That they’re an amazing salesperson.

And all that other stuff, the stuff they REALLY needed to hear probably isn’t going to stick.

The other problem with cushioning is it sends mixed messages to the person on the receiving end. Here you are, telling them they’re fabulous, but oh by the way, you stink at this and this and this.

It’s confusing to hear because the person is left trying to figure out what the main takeaways are. If you think they’re so fabulous, then why are you also saying that they suck? (And no, you’re not actually saying they suck, but that’s what they hear.)

Sending mixed messages damages your credibility. It makes us look wishy-washy, and like we didn’t have the guts to speak directly. That’s definitely not the impression we want to leave people with!

#3. We Don’t Anticipate a Negative Reaction

If I had to draw on my years of experience, I would say that this is the biggest and most common of all the mistakes.

For some reason, we assume because we’re prepared, we’ve got a strong message, our information is factual that’s we’re all set. We think because we’re sharing the message without shame or blame that the person on the receiving end is going to be just fine.

We don’t expect that people are going to get defensive. If we’re talking to someone about a behavioural or performance issue, their initial reaction is likely to feel attacked. (Which is entirely normal.)

You’ll hear things like…

That’s not fair.

I did my best.

Nobody told me that.

You misinterpreted my comments.

Then here we are, totally not ready for it. Our knee-jerk reaction when someone gets defensive is to go on the offensive.

Next, we start trying to justify, argue, defend or explain our position.  Then we’re engaged in a back-and-forth that’s not accomplishing anything and our message has been completely lost.

All because it never occurred to us that they wouldn’t be thrilled with what we had to say.

No difficult conversation is going to be perfect. But by knowing the mistake we want to avoid, we can ensure that we’ve done our part to make things as painless as possible.



See Diane's Fearless Conversations Blog for more tips, tools, and strategies for succeeding in difficult conversations and getting what you want need and deserve out of work and out of life.


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