How to deliver tough feedback to sensitive employees

Grace folds in a second when she thinks I am disappointed in her. When she's afraid, it shuts down her ability to think differently about her actions. She is a constant reminder to me to be compassionate and caring in the way I provide feedback.

Grace folds in a second when she thinks I am disappointed in her. When she’s afraid, it shuts down her ability to think differently about her actions. She is a constant reminder to me to be compassionate and caring in the way I provide feedback. I’m grateful to have such a reminder.

Do you ever feel like you’re walking on eggshells around some employees?

I know the feeling. Grace is so nervous and sensitive; it’s a constant reminder that I have to be careful how I communicate with her. She can think I’m upset even if I’m not. Expressing dissatisfaction is a very tricky proposition. Luckily for me and for her, she doesn’t chew our household items nor does she get into the trash, some of the common dog-related no-no’s. There isn’t much to be upset with. But last night, as she raced through a newly planted garden, kicking up mulch and spraying it joyfully all over the place, I hollered at her. She melted into a ball of shame. Ugh, I thought. She was just having fun and I made her feel awful. But I don’t want the new garden to be destroyed, either.

What do you do when you have something to say, but feel stymied to say it?

First, it’s important to know that you should say it. The best relationships are built upon the ability to voice those things that are important. Sure, there are some things we can let slide, but only if you can truly live with it, or it doesn’t impact the work or other team members negatively. Avoiding a needed conversation is the worst course of action you could take.

Once you have identified that something is important enough to discuss, I suggest you take into account these factors:

  • Consider the timing. Immediate feedback is generally best, while the situation is fresh in everyone’s mind. But it’s not necessary, and can be counter-productive, to tackle a tough topic in the heat of the moment. It’s more important that you are prepared and calm. Don’t try to squelch an emotion that you’re feeling, but make sure you are in control enough to be balanced to take in information instead of only spewing it. Work to have the discussion as quickly as you can, within reason.
  • Be clear on the desired outcome. Instead of focusing on your frustration, get centered on what you want to accomplish through the conversation. So instead of going into the meeting thinking, “He needs to know how upsetting that was to me,” shift your goal to “I’d like to understand how we can make this work for both of us.” When you enter the discussion trying to leave with a mutual understanding of needs, you’ll have a better chance that things will change.
  • Know yourself. It’s immensely helpful to understand how you approach a difficult conversation. Are you direct? Will you race to get to the point? Or are you naturally diplomatic, creating a softer delivery of your message? Having that awareness will allow you to adjust more easily if necessary.
  • Know your audience. Are you and the other person similar in how you approach a conflict? Or are you at opposite ends of the spectrum? If you approach things differently, it will help to come to the middle. You might be better served to lighten up, or perhaps you’ll need to be more assertive, depending on the players involved. Assessments will help you learn an effective approach.
  • Have compassion. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. How will your words, tone of voice, body language be received? How would you react if someone came to you with this message? Be aware of the atmosphere you are creating and make sure that environment will be conducive for the other person to respond and participate in. This should be a two-way conversation, not one-way.
  • Understand the motivation of the other person’s action(s). By seeing the situation from the other person’s perspective, it will allow more creative problem-solving to change the dynamic next time.

Perhaps you have someone like Grace in your organization. Instead of feeling trapped and unable to speak your mind, try expanding your thinking and work with this person to learn new ways to offer feedback. When you can effectively deliver feedback to a sensitive person, you will also be improving skills to deliver tough messages to anyone.

The next time Grace races through the manicured garden, I’ll work to stop myself from the immediate impulse that wants to jump out of my body. When I observed her negative reaction to my outpouring, it was clear that I was harming the outcome instead of enhancing it. It’s a reminder for me to change my approach. I can still act very quickly; I can jump in with her to have fun OUTSIDE the garden instead of IN it. I am glad she is telling me that there are better ways to handle exasperating moments.

What has been your experience? What advice would you share to others to help create better outcomes when you provide feedback?

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  1. Laurie Bartolo on June 7, 2013 at 7:50 am

    Hi Robin! I enjoyed reading your post! I’ve been having the same problems trying to keep my dogs out of my garden! 🙂 These are excellent tips and the most important one is that you MUST have the conversation. All to often, particularly with sensitive people, we avoid these important conversations because we don’t want to deal with their reaction. I’ve found that certain behaviors just escalate/worsen over time as it goes unchecked – and once you reach that point, the relationships are often not salvageable.

    • Robin on June 7, 2013 at 4:20 pm

      Laurie, it really is common for people to avoid the conversation, isn’t it? And as you noted, the situation gets worse, not better. Thank you for adding your thoughts which makes us think about the ramifications if we don’t step up and talk. And here’s to finding ways to get the dogs out of the garden!!! Take care and thanks again for stopping by.

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