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  • Bruce O'Brien

How to give life-changing feedback

Telling someone that their work is below the expected standard; telling someone that their attitude stinks; telling someone that they stink. These can be really difficult situations to handle – and often because they are difficult, we avoid them. But what’s really happening is that we are lying. If you can’t tell someone that they are not good enough for promotion, they are soon going to work it out when they do not get promoted. All that happens is you leave the unhappy person confused (your words and actions don’t match up), and you are denying them the chance to improve if only you had given them some feedback. So if you want to tell lies and get away with it – well you can’t! So why not read on instead and hear some thoughts about giving good feedback.



Feedback is used to tell someone what you think about an action they have taken. Feedback can be positive or negative – in the case of negative, you also need to be clear about what you would like the person to do instead. It is free (often billed as a gift) and gives someone the opportunity to grow and develop. So here’s my take on a popular feedback tool (the situation, behaviour, impact, next model) with a few extra bells and whistles that can make it really easy for you to give powerful and motivating feedback.


See it:firstly spot the opportunity. You can give feedback about something you witnessed. You can’t give good feedback about something that was reported to you. That can end up in an argument and as you debate the facts of the situation you did not witness you will wish you never agreed to fire someone else’s bullet. If someone else asks you to deliver feedback on their behalf, coach them to use this model.

Check it: before you go anything further you need to check your motivation. If you are looking to get something off your chest, then check yourself. Feedback is giving someone else an opportunity to improve. It’s not about making you feel better! So check your motive. Only when your motive is pure (ie it’s about them and not you) should you proceed. If you’re not sure, don’t do it. If it’s important, then the situation will arise again. Don’t get it wrong as that will destroy trust.

Prepare it: now you’ve established a need, then prepare. Good feedback is a gift. Bad feedback can turn into an argument and set two people against each other. So, life choosing a really good gift for someone, take care in your preparation. You need to consider the following:


  • SITUATION: feedback must always be about a specific situation. That means that you can pinpoint the day and the time that it happened (eg;. Last Tuesday afternoon). It should also be recent. You should give feedback at the first opportunity. If it’s three months old, drop it - your learning is to get closer to the work/ to your people and talk to them regularly so that this doesn’t happen again. Wait until the next time the situation reoccurs. And if it doesn’t reoccur, then maybe you didn’t need to give feedback after all? If you are giving feedback about something that occurs regularly then use your intuition as to whether citing the other examples is going to help the conversation, or provide complexity that may distract.

  • BEHAVIOUR: now that you have identified the situation, you need to describe the behaviour that you are giving feedback about. Take care here – you should describe the behaviour in factual and neutral terms. You are looking for the other person to recognise what you are talking about. So be precise and brief. For example: “you were rude to a colleague when you said “go screw yourself””. A few important things to note: do not judge – so don’t add in words like “horribly” – stick with the descriptor. Rude. Secondly, don’t be afraid to quote them. Don’t dance around it. If someone said “screw you” then quote them directly. You want to be factual and unemotional. You want to avoid getting in an argument about what happened. So be brief. Be factual. No opinions.

  • IMPACT: impact needs careful preparation. In the example above what was the impact of X saying “screw you” to Y? You want to be thinking about impact on objectives, relationships etc. You could say that Y was not able to gather complete information about a certain matter; or that Y was so upset and felt bullied that he is afraid to come to the office. This is really important to get right. Think about the impact to your business. If it just annoyed you, then go back to the motivation. If you can’t articulate a business impact, then check your motivation.

  • NEXT: the point of all this is what happens next. Next time the employee finds themselves in a similar situation. Your best approach here is to engage the employee and get their views (you could use the GROW coaching model if you know it and if you don’t shout and I’ll explain) or in some cases you might want to be more directive. Up to you. But this is about growing the other person – not making them feel degraded. So appeal to their intelligence and get them involved in the solution.

Once you have completed your preparation (yes, all of that above was preparation), then it’s time to practice. This is particularly important if you have feedback that may be surprising or be met with resistance. Make sure that you have the right words. Particularly the behaviour. Practice saying it out loud so that when you are in the moment, you are confident and clear. You want to avoid “er” and “um” while you are wondering what saying “you were rude” will feel like coming out of your mouth. So practice. If necessary, role play with someone else.


Now you’re ready to deliver the feedback. Ask the recipient for a moment of their time and find a suitable place for a sensitive conversation. Avoid small talk (how are you/ how’s the family etc) and go straight into it. Talking about something else can open you up to delay tactics from a slippery employee or just confuse the person you’re talking to. Situation. Behaviour. Impact. This shouldn’t take much more than a minute.


Now comes the gold. The best part of feedback is what comes afterwards. It’s the bit when two minds start working out how to do better next time. So help the conversation move to this environment. Having delivered SBI, now it’s time to move to N. Next. “I’d like to talk about how can you approach this next time this situation occurs”. That sort of thing. Don’t spend any more time in “SBI” – your counterpart may feel like they are being told off (and few people are at their best when being told off) – move into the bit where you both start thinking. If you did SBI well, then N will naturally follow. On occasion you will find some people unable to get to “N”. Perhaps they were shocked or can’t think or something else. So give them some space. But arrange a follow up meeting to close out (ideally next day).


Finally, consider a follow up accountability conversation to revisit the action taken and the commitment to uphold the new behaviour. Consider doing that – ie. think about the impact – will it help the individual, or make them feel like they are being watched?

By the way, all of the above steps work for positive feedback – if you take the time to think this through, then not only are you telling someone that you appreciated what they did, but you are also appreciating how they did it (which is much more personal, insightful and likely to inspire more of the same).


Imagine an organisation where people felt able to freely give and receive feedback – an organisation where people trusted that feedback was well-intended, well-prepared and always focussing on how the organisation could improve and succeed. Imagine all that brain power focussed on solving business problems instead of getting frustrated at each other. If you do not give feedback to your colleagues, then you are telling lies. You are withholding information. Information that could be valuable. And worse still, they will know. So you risk have under-performing team members who are also dissatisfied. And all because you didn’t dare to give feedback.


Oh and if you're wondering why there's a picture of a man with a man bun and a dog...well what's he doing??

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