While many would agree that giving and receiving feedback in the workplace is important and necessary, it can feel really uncomfortable, possibly even leading to avoidance. However, avoidance is not the answer, especially when there are recurring issues arising, or formal review processes in place that require completion.

Sometimes speaking the truth, holding another person to account, calling out undesirable behaviour or sharing difficult information feels awkward and may even feel risky – as you cannot control or predict how the other person will react. What you can control, predict and even change, is the defensiveness these conversations may bring up. This can be achieved by building awareness, preparation and learning some practical techniques.

Recognising defensiveness when it shows up
While it’s normal to possibly feel defensive when giving or receiving difficult feedback, most often it doesn’t lead to effective problem resolution, clarity or commitment, and if done poorly, can erode trust in a relationship. Understanding your pattern of defensiveness when giving or receiving feedback, is useful to learn from.

Think back to a conversation when you received difficult feedback.

What physical signs may have suggested you were becoming defensive eg. folding your arms, a dry mouth, slumping shoulders, leaning forward, fixing your eyes into a hard gaze?
What defensive thoughts may have come up eg. listening for what you didn’t agree with or noticing critical thinking like “they’re not seeing the big picture or hearing my side of the story”?
What emotions may have suggested you were becoming defensive eg. feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, angry or shutting down?
Reading between the lines
To be open and engaged when receiving difficult feedback, and to become a daring giver of feedback, it’s important to spend time in reflection and preparation beforehand. As part of this process, it is useful to know that in any feedback or hard conversation, there are in fact, three conversations taking place:

The ‘what happened’ conversation: Many difficult feedback conversations include disagreement about what has happened or what should happen; who said what and who did what; who’s right, who’s wrong, and who’s to blame.
The ‘feelings’ conversation: Many difficult feedback conversations also ask and answer questions about feelings. Are my feelings valid or appropriate? Should I acknowledge or deny them? Should I put them on the table or leave them at the door? What do I do about the other person’s feelings? What if they are angry or hurt? These feelings may not be addressed directly in the conversation, but they filter into the coversation anyway.
The ‘identity’ conversation: This is the conversation we each have with ourselves about what this situation means to us. We conduct an internal debate over whether this means we are competent or incompetent, a good or a bad person. The conversation might negatively impact our self-image and self-esteem. Our answers to these questions have a big impact on whether we feel balanced and open, off-center, guarded or anxious during the conversation.
Engaging successfully requires learning to operate effectively in each of these three areas. Managing all three simultaneously may seem hard, but it’s easier than facing the consequences of engaging in difficult conversations blindly.

Preparation and pressing play
Often, starting the conversation is the most awkward part, a bit like starting up your computer – it takes a bit of time and effort to get it going, but if it takes too long, we can become frustrated. Writing down your opening statement and practicing saying it out loud, or at least rehearsing it in your head, is essential. This way, when the meeting starts, or the virtual camera goes on, you won’t be surprised by what you say.

Try out this conversation-starter structure (taken from Susan Scott’s “Fierce Conversations”):

Name the issue
Select a specific example that illustrates the behaviour or situation that needs to change
Describe your emotions about the issue
Clarify what is at stake
Identify your contribution to this problem
Indicate your wish to resolve this issue
Invite the other person to respond
Unpacking the steps
To avoid overwhelming your listener, it is recommended you take no more than 2 minutes to position your feedback.

Name the issue you want to give feedback on
Name the behaviour that is causing the problem and what the impact is of this behaviour is. If there are multiple issues, find the common thread.
Select a specific example that illustrates the behaviour or situation you want to change
Don’t give a detailed list of examples, just pick one and keep it succinct.
Describe your emotions about this issue
Telling someone what emotion his or her behaviour evokes in you, lets them know that you are affected, and helps them connect to the impact of their behaviour.
Clarify what is at stake
What is at stake for you, for the other person, others, for the customer, for the team, for the organisation? What is at stake for the relationship? Use the words at stake. Those words have an emotional impact.
Identify your contribution to this problem
Before we confront somebody else’s behaviour, it is essential that we first look at ourselves. A brief acknowledgement that you recognise any role you may have played in creating the problem and let them know what you intend to do to rectify it.
Indicate your wish to resolve the issue
Use the word resolve. This communicates good intent on your part. That way you will have come full circle, beginning and ending with absolute clarity about the issue being discussed.
Invite the other to respond
For example: ‘Please share with me what is happening from your perspective, so that I can understand this better.’
Closing out and following up
Don’t forget to close out the conversation with appreciation for the courage it took to have the conversation as well as next steps and/or commitments
Agree to have a follow up meeting to check in with each other again.
Sidebar: Checking in with yourself
Ahead of any feedback conversation, it is helpful to make sure you are well prepared and that your intention is to move the relationship forward in a positive direction and to resolve the challenge.

A few steps to check readiness:

I can put the problem in front of us and not between us
I’m ready to listen, ask questions, and learn
I’m open to owning my part in this
I can hold you and myself accountable in a respectful way
I’m ready to acknowledge your positive contributions
I can talk about how resolving these challenges will lead to growth and opportunity
It is important that you can tick off at least one of these points before the feedback discussion.

Julia runs Lumminos, a full-service coaching and culture change consultancy which dares its clients to lead, learn, live, love and parent with awareness, skills, compassion and humour. She is an ICF PCC-level coach, seasoned change and organisational development consultant and speaker. In March 2019, Julia Kerr Henkel studied with Brené Brown in Texas and is now one of very few fully Certified Dare to LeadÔ facilitators in Africa, commissioned to deliver work on her behalf. In January 2020, she also launched Dare to Lead #daringclassrooms – an extension of this work tailored for educators – our most important leaders. She runs a program at GIBS aimed at supporting newly certified coaches called Kickstart your Coaching Business.

By Julia Kerr Henkel