How to Deliver Feedback with Compassion and Clarity

A feedback notepad on a white desk next to a pen and gold paperclips

Giving constructive feedback is an art.

Whether you’re a manager, editor, teacher, or member of a writer’s group, you’ve had to deliver feedback at some point. 

If you’re unaccustomed to giving feedback, it can feel unnerving at first. It’s a delicate balance of offering critiques and suggestions, while also trying not to hurt the recipient’s feelings or put them on the defensive. 

Some people try to work around their discomfort by cushioning the feedback with positive words or being indirect with their critique. But this sugarcoating approach might do more harm than good. You might be trying to spare the employee’s feelings, but you’re also potentially preventing the employee from having a valuable learning opportunity.

Getting or receiving feedback definitely isn’t the easiest thing, but you can’t grow unless you know what to improve.

Luckily, there are things you can do to give constructive, empowering feedback. 

By being intentional with your critiques and delivering your feedback from a compassionate place, you will find that giving feedback isn’t as stressful or fraught with emotion as you may have thought.

Below are suggestions to help you deliver feedback in a clear and compassionate way, which, in turn, will positively impact your employees and further their professional growth. 

Put yourself in the person’s shoes 

If you’ve ever given unintentionally harsh feedback, you know that sometimes you’re not aware of the impact of your words until it’s too late and you see your employee’s face crumpling. No one wants to hurt anyone’s feelings, but you also can’t go through your work life without communicating.

Before delivering your feedback, take some time to reflect and ask yourself “How would I react if I received this feedback?”.

You can even think back on times that you’ve received harsh, severe feedback and make a conscious effort to avoid the language, both verbal and physical, that was used. By being mindful of your words and tone, you’ll have a better chance of communicating your message in a clear and thoughtful way.

Focus on the performance, not the person 

It is so hard not to take criticism personally. And when we're taking something personally, we stop listening effectively and the message can't get through.

The key, then, to giving constructive feedback is to not make it completely personal; instead, focus on external factors, not the person.

So instead of saying “You’re bad at giving presentations,” which sounds like an attack on the employee’s personality or skills, try commenting on the situation, the process, or the product--all things that an employee can modify and improve on. So to go back to the presentation example, you can say, “I think the presentation could be more dynamic. You can try doing X and Y.” 

Here’s another example: Instead of saying, “You’re not contributing enough in meetings” try saying “You’re so great at pitching ideas. You should do more of that in meetings.” With these little tweaks, you’re pointing out potential areas to improve, while also offering suggestions to help the employee move forward and succeed. The employee will be much more receptive to the feedback, and they will have an easier time incorporating it.

Try a variation on the sandwich method 

You may have heard of the “compliment sandwich,” a type of feedback technique in which you give a negative comment sandwiched between two positive ones. While the sandwich method seems like a good way to soften the blow, it’s risky in that it may not give the employee any useful information. Plus, your positive feedback can come across as disingenuous because the employee is aware that you’re using the sandwich method.

Instead, try a variation on the compliment sandwich by using the “What if?” method, a feedback method that creatives at Pixar have used

“An animator working on “Toy Story 3” shares her rough sketches and ideas with the director. Instead of criticizing the sketch or saying ‘no,’ the director will build on the starting point by saying something like, ‘I like Woody’s eyes, and what if his eyes rolled left?'”

Here’s how you can use this method in workplace feedback:

  • I noticed you added text to the powerpoint slides. What if we turned some of those ideas into a graphic?
  • I like the logo you used in the design. What if we played around with the color?
  • I liked your marketing proposal. What if the intro paragraph was condensed?”

These are all starting points to a collaborative conversation, rather than a harsh one-way criticism. Try fine-tuning the language and see what approach feels most organic and comfortable for you.

Start with a question 

Rather than giving a critique, try starting the conversation with a question. For instance, instead of saying “your presentation needs work” try asking “What do you think is the best way to edit it?”. This way the employee can feel more invested in the work while also holding themselves accountable to find ways to improve. You’re also critiquing their work but in a way that doesn’t dampen an employee’s creativity or enthusiasm.

Critique with empathy 

While it may be uncomfortable and one of the hardest parts of the job, sometimes it’s unavoidable to deliver negative feedback. Nobody ever wants to be the bearer of bad news or be seen as the bad guy, but if a situation starts negatively impacting the organization or the well-being of the team, it’s time to have a constructive conversation.

The key is to approach the conversation with empathy. If an employee has been consistently missing deadlines or having interpersonal conflicts with other teammates or clients, you can try putting yourself in their shoes. Could their personal life be affecting them? Are they unhappy with their team? Are they unable to cope with their current workload?

Of course, you can't know exactly what's going on with anyone, so it is best not to go into the conversation presuming you know how to fix it. Instead, start the conversation simply by observing and asking a question. "I've noticed some conflict between you and __" or "I've noticed you missed the last few deadlines."

Then offer them the floor by asking a question like, “Is there anything I should know about?” or “Am I missing something?”.

That way, you welcome an opportunity for the employee to speak up and say what’s on their mind. They can feel heard (rather than feeling berated), which means you’re more likely to have a constructive conversation with the employee that leads to a real solution.

Give regular feedback 

When a performance review is only given once a year, it’s bound to have a lot of weight and pressure attached to it. Instead of letting issues escalate or waiting an entire year to address an employee’s performance, try having regular performance check-ins with employees. Plus, if you’re delivering feedback on a weekly or monthly basis, then the employee won’t feel blindsided when they receive their yearly performance review. 

Try incorporating feedback in your one on one meetings or right after presentations or meetings. And remember: feedback doesn’t always have to be something to improve, it can also highlight an employee’s strengths! For example, if you liked the way an employee presented at a meeting, be sure to say something positive right away. The positive feedback allows the employee to take note and continue performing well in that area, and they’ll be more receptive to other kinds of feedback in the future.

How to process feedback

Sometimes receiving feedback can feel overwhelming and a lot to take in, especially if you’re receiving inputs from multiple managers or coworkers. Taking notes is a really smart idea during any review session; our brains cannot process a large quantity of information during an emotional moment, so having your notes to review later will ensure you get the maximum value from the feedback.

You can use the Ink+Volt Feedback Pad to help organize and assess your feedback in a structured way.

Our brains love to focus on the negative, but remember that positive feedback is also important. Reflect on your wins. What are you doing well? What are your skills and talents? Simply put: We need to know what our strengths are so that we can keep doing them. 

Reflect on negative feedback and then step back 

Even though it can seem painful and hard at first, see if you can parse through the negative feedback and extrapolate any valuable lessons. How can you course correct? What lessons can you take away from this experience?

Remember to be gentle with yourself during this process--you’re only human and you’re allowed to learn from your mistakes. Give yourself time.

You can even use mindfulness techniques to help you feel less reactive and self-critical. If you received negative feedback from a client or manager, try to separate yourself from the critique and remind yourself that it’s nothing personal. Then, make a list of action items to work on so that you can improve. 

Have an action plan

What are small steps that you can take today towards improving? If you received feedback that you need to speak up more in meetings, what can you do to work on that? Maybe that means going over the meeting agenda beforehand and coming up with five questions. Or spending a half hour before the meeting to research and prepare.

Did you get a note that you need to be more detail-oriented? Maybe that means slowing down your work instead of feeling pressured to turn it in quickly. Or maybe it means getting a second pair of eyes on your work and asking a coworker for feedback.

It’s okay to start small and build your skills over time. Remember to check in regularly to measure your progress and to celebrate all your wins, big or small.

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