Feedback is Personal

This month we are focusing on the Voice and Ears of a leader, or in other words, how we talk and listen to each other. There is a mounting body of evidence from researchers and practitioners that tell us positive words and interactions with others are at the heart of engagement and strong performance. And yet, sometimes we have to give feedback that is not always a positive experience. It’s simply part of being a leader. So a question we’ll explore in this article is “how do we say the hard stuff while also engaging others?”

First, we have to understand the power of our words. Whether we are aware of it or not, our words either encourage or discourage others. The word encourage means to inspire courage in others. The word discourage means to cause someone to lose courage. Take a moment and imagine someone who you respect and look up to, someone who is important to you. Imagine sitting in front of this person and they say these words:


“You are incompetent.”

“I don’t trust you.”

“I’ve lost respect for you.”

What emotions do you feel now? How do you feel about yourself? What are you motivated to do as a result of these emotions? For most of us, when we hear this kind of feedback from someone important to us, we feel angry, sad, misunderstood, and betrayed. Our natural response is to fight back, flee from the situation or freeze in place. But the last thing we want is to believe it’s true or do something about it. I remember the last time I got feedback from a friend that wasn’t pleasant to hear. I felt deeply betrayed and angry. The more I thought about it the angrier I got. I wanted to justify my behaviors, I wanted a new friend, I wanted to rewind and pretend I never heard the feedback. The last thing I was ready to do at the time was actually accept the feedback and do something about it.  Now, imagine someone important to you says these words:

“I believe in you.”

“You’ve got this.”

“You are amazing.”

What emotions do you feel now? How do you feel about yourself? What are you motivated to do as a result of these emotions? Contrary to my friend who gave me harsh feedback, I had a boss who was very good at giving positive feedback. He told me how important I was, he shared how confident he was in my abilities and he communicated his trust for my decision-making ability. This is a boss that I would have followed off a cliff.

Here is the thing about feedback. It is personal. Even when we don’t intend for our words to be personal, they are. Feedback is our way of describing how the other person shows up in our world. Even when we use factual data in our feedback we strike the emotional chords of the other person. Our words have emotional weight.

When we give feedback, no matter what our message is, our goal should be to encourage – inspire courage – in others. Therefore, the skill necessary to inspire courage is: Say what needs to be said in a way that others will hear it, with respect and concern for the other person while staying true to the virtue of the message.

Some specific things we can do to increase our skill in giving feedback include minimize the threat we represent, show empathy, use exploratory languages rather than absolutes and demonstrate compassionate persistence. What are some other ways of sharing tough feedback that have worked well for you? Send us your ideas and they might end up in our next newsletter!

~Personify Leadership

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Personify Leadership

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