When should I give negative feedback?

There is plenty of discussion about negative feedback, and why not? While we have all gotten plenty of it, it isn’t often very effective, so leaders and coaches always look for ways to improve in this area. While there is plenty of good advice about how to do it, there’s far less conversation about when to give negative feedback. In many ways, when is as important as how.

Keep the goal in mind

Remember that the goal should be for the receiver to accept and apply the feedback. In the case of negative comments, the person must first hear about/be aware of something they did wrong or could do better, and understand it. They will only accept and apply feedback if they hear and understand it.

That means if we want negative feedback to be accepted and applied by the other person, we must start with them, not the situation or the specific comments.

A quick example

That makes sense, but it isn’t how it often goes. Imagine this situation …

You are a parent, and one of your children does something wrong. Let’s say they broke something. You are angry, so you give them some “feedback.” You tell them they need to be more careful; you tell them you are disappointed; you tell them [insert your own messages]. And because you are angry, you might give that feedback in a raised voice and with angry body language.

Difficult People D

How successfully will those comments be received? Could they have been relayed more effectively?

I do not need to imagine this story because, as a parent, I did something like this far more often than I would like to admit—it wasn’t adequate by nearly any measure. I might have been correct and justified, but the feedback wasn’t effective, and I ran the risk of damaging my relationship with my child.

While common, that isn’t the best approach. Here are some ideas on how we can improve in this area as a parent, spouse, teammate, or leader.

Think about the recipient

Focus less on what went wrong or needs to be corrected and more on the person you need to give feedback to.

Ask yourself these questions.

  • Do they realize the error or that they could have done something differently/better?
  • Are they upset, embarrassed, or otherwise not yet ready to receive feedback?
  • Do they have time to hear it now?
  • How and when can you deliver this in a way that they will best understand and accept it?

When we stop to think about the receiver, we’ll make better decisions about when and how to give any negative feedback.

Think about yourself

Let’s look back at the story above. As the giver, you were angry (I know I was). When we are upset, are we likely to give feedback in a clear, measured, and balanced way? In other words, are we ready to effectively give that negative feedback? Not so much.

So here are some questions for you to ask about yourself before these difficult conversations.

  • Am I emotionally ready to give the feedback now?
  • Do I have time to do it effectively?
  • Does it even have to be done right now?
  • What are they doing well—do they need to hear that too?

Key takeaways

To crystallize what we have just talked about, consider this advice when giving negative feedback:

  • Proceed when you are ready and able to give it successfully, and they are willing and able to receive it successfully.
  • Refrain from giving it in the moment unless it creates an immediate safety concern. While feedback needs to be timely, that doesn’t usually mean bestowing it immediately.

When you apply this advice, chances are the negative feedback you give will be far more effective and will improve your relationship and the trust between you and the receiver.

What more could you ask for?