Minimising the sting: Setting the tone for sharing feedback

Juan Cortés has three simple rules for effective feedback.

Despite assertions from business journals and organisational development research about its positive effects, the mere mention of the word ‘feedback’ throws most of us into a tizzy. It’s tough enough having to tell a colleague that they’ve messed up – never mind having to hear that we did. Whether on the receiving or giving end, ‘feedback’ is laden with negative perceptions.

If feedback is so helpful yet feels so crappy, how do we change our perception and the experience of it? I believe the answer lies in clarifying what it is and creating the right milieu to make the experience more palatable.

What is feedback?

In its purest form, performance feedback is nothing but information about behaviour. Positive feedback is information about the type of behaviour we want to encourage. For many of us, the biggest challenge that comes with giving positive feedback is making the time to do it.

Feedback for improvement, which is about the behaviour we need to modify, is where we are usually stumped. Both types are valuable because they lead to improving performance. That is, if – and that’s a big IF – we are willing to share it and hear it.

Setting up the right tone and environment can help us move beyond the typical wincing that comes with having to give or receive this type of feedback.

Much has been written about ways to share the dreaded improvement feedback. SBI, STAR, and AID are but a few of the myriad acronyms corresponding to models that have been devised to help us navigate those often-difficult conversations.

But while those models might help us deliver and receive appropriate (and even helpful) information, the sting is often still there. After all, we are dealing with emotions and, as much as I’ve looked, there just doesn’t seem to be a formula for perfect human interactions.

Having said that, setting up the right tone and environment can help us move beyond the typical wincing that comes with having to give or receive this type of feedback.

Make it conversation

Feedback is often delivered as a monologue, sputtered uncomfortably in outbursts fed by frustration. What if we were to make it a conversation? A dialogue framed by any of the aforementioned models enables us to consider more than one viewpoint. Conversations foster understanding.

Understanding leads to behaviour change. And isn’t that the ultimate goal of improvement feedback? How do we create the conditions for that conversation to go as smoothly as possible? My suggestion is to make it frank, kind, and transparent.


Guided by Goldilocks’ degustation rubric, brutal honesty would be Papa Bear’s porridge: too hot to eat. Receiving corrective feedback is tough enough. Why make it more unpalatable by peppering it with brutality?

Sugarcoating the message would be Mama Bear’s: too cold to be of much use. If you’re giving me feedback for improvement, start by being clear about what I did incorrectly. A diluted message breeds uncertainty and that is no path to bettering myself.                                                                                                                                           

Frankness, defined as ‘the quality of being open, honest, and direct in speech or writing’, is Baby Bear’s porridge: just right. A clear message that expresses what I’ve done incorrectly, combined with a conversation about how to make better, lay out a clearer path to improvement.


Enter kindness, a behaviour ‘marked by ethical characteristics, a pleasant disposition, and a concern for others.’ What’s the purpose of giving anyone feedback? Is it to make them feel shitty or is it to help them get better at what they do? Unless you’re a spiteful asshole, the latter would most often be the case.

Make it known. Establish a clear purpose for giving feedback. And be kind.


Transparency is about readily sharing what you know and admitting what you don’t. Most times I’ve had to deliver difficult feedback, I’ve started the conversation by sharing its purpose, which is to see the person improve and succeed. This tends to diffuse tensions, particularly if the person and I don’t already have an established and trusting relationship.

Another aspect of being transparent is sharing the feedback model you will be using, so you are both clear on how you’d like to share that information.  

Being clear about the purpose of feedback and engaging colleagues in a conversation that is frank, kind and transparent will set you and your team up for success and minimise the funkiness traditionally associated with that exercise.

Make it a habit

One more actionable step we can take is to incorporate these conversations into our daily routines. Establish a cadence for feedback. Agree with teams to share at least one thing that went well and one that could improve at the end of every meeting or sprint.

Making feedback a regular practice takes away its ugliness and stigma, allowing what’s valuable to shine through.


About the author

Juan Cortés is global learning and development director at POSSIBLE


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