Make a plan for difficult feedback

How do you make difficult feedback even harder? By not showing up prepared.

Communicating effectively takes skill and savvy, but it also requires a plan of action — an intentional effort to understand what others need and how you intend to meet and manage those expectations.

If you need to share difficult feedback and want your feedback message to land smoothly, you need a plan for success. Through my work helping leaders design and deliver feedback without fear, I’ve seen the positive effect of having a feedback “entry point,” a well-designed plan for sharing your message. And the best place to start is at the beginning.

Define your desired outcome.

It’s critical to define your goals and objectives up front. Spend time before the conversation getting clear about your larger purpose: Are you sharing critical feedback? Asking your boss for more flexible hours? Defending an unpopular decision with members of your team? Different situations demand nuanced shifts in communication, and gaining this clarity will help you convey your message with conviction.

The act of perspective taking, or seeing something from another person’s point of view, has been shown to produce numerous benefits, including increased altruismdecreased stereotyping, and stronger social bonds

To widen your view of others, ask yourself:

  • Who else will be impacted by this conversation?
  • What would others say or do if they knew about this conversation?
  • Will the effects of this conversation ripple beyond the organization?

Words take on new meaning when you’re clear about who and what is at stake. 

Anticipate what will be seen and said.

Mental preparation helps, too. Brain scans show that people use the same neural networks whether they are actually moving or simply thinking about movement. And there’s research that suggests that merely rehearsing the steps and sequences of an action can lead to concrete improvement — all the more reason to think through these conversations ahead of time.

Before entering into a highly charged conversation, try engaging in shadow practice. Imagine you’re in the moment. What are you saying and doing? How do you look and sound? Does your message seem to be landing or falling flat?

Envision yourself in prime communication form:

  • Is your voice calibrated?
  • Is your tone measured and calm?
  • Is your body language open and controlled? 

Besides establishing your presence, plan for contingencies. Draw up a list of talking points and positions others may use to counter your message:

  • What objections will be raised?
  • What evidence will be shared?
  • What experiences or expectations are they bringing to the table?

Laying out the conversation ahead of time will help you stay calm and focused, even if the exchange turns tense. Why? Because you’ve “been there” before.

Script before you speak.

NFL coaches draw up their team’s first 15 offensive plays before they take the field. They don’t wing it. If you are bracing for a particularly rough conversation, it may be helpful to play offense and script what you plan to say, especially if you’re worried about finding the right words under pressure. 

For greater impact, prepare with a feedback WRAP — a four-part feedback sequence that matches candor with collaboration. The WRAP model fosters greater authenticity and action, enlisting others as partners in the process of their own progress.

Make sure to vent first. 

Don’t let pent-up emotions get in the way of positive dialogue. Over time, these feelings build up until they burst, and the emotional leakage leaves us unprepared to communicate in top form. It’s no surprise that so many conversations quickly fly off the rails with pain, blame and shame.  

To avoid overheating, find a productive outlet for venting. Maybe it’s a trusted colleague or loved one. Or a reflective exercise, like journaling. The release will help you feel more grounded and clear-minded during tough conversations, and it might just prevent you from saying or doing something you’ll later come to regret.

While we can’t guarantee how others will take to our feedback, we can position ourselves for success with a proactive communication plan. By clarifying our goals, anticipating our moves, scripting our message and broadening our perspective, we can deliver the kind of constructive feedback that people need — and want — to hear.

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