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We recently wrote about dealing with difficult discussions at work. Now it’s time to delve a little deeper into the conversation.

You can’t improve your business or your team without feedback, but giving it can feel like walking a tightrope. Too pleasant, and they’ll walk away believing nothing needs to change. Too brash, and you’ll at best demotivate, and at worst offend.

So how do you walk the tightrope, and create improvement without sacrificing someone’s ego?

How do you make a negative conversation into something positive?

1. Fry up a feedback burger

No, this doesn’t mean take them out to lunch (although that works too – no one likes criticism on an empty stomach.)

The burger method is known by a variety of names, such as two stars and a wish, Positive-Improvement-Positive, and feedback switch. It essentially involves sandwiching the meaty criticism between two pieces of tasty burger bun praise.

The second piece of praise can be new or a re-iteration of the first points. This is particularly useful for giving feedback on a project: praise the parts you like, point out what needs to be improved, then round up by emphasising the good points and the positive results that your suggested improvements will have.

This technique works so well because it relaxes the listener, minimises defensiveness, and lets them know that you’re on their side before you move on to the harder-to-hear criticisms.

Plus, by rounding things off with more praise, you’re ensuring they leave the conversation feeling positive and ready to make a change, rather than resentful and reluctant.

 

2. Be specific and actionable

When you’re giving criticism, it can be tempting to beat around the bush in order to try to soften the blow. However, being vague will only hinder your efforts and confuse your listener.

Point out concrete examples of where they’ve gone wrong, then suggest how they can improve in clear terms. This is the key to making your criticism constructive.

If you can’t think of any reasonable actionable steps they can take, you might need to rethink your feedback. Are you critiquing something they can’t do anything about, or something which is unrealistic to ask them to change? Use this as a starting point for considering alternative steps they could take. For example:

‘Your voice is irritating, Angela. Please replace your vocal chords’ is not useful to anyone. ‘Would you mind taking your personal calls in the hall? I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate lately’ is going to make your day better without harming poor Angela’s larynx. It's also a perfect example of our third point.

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3. Attack the action, not the person

Moving your criticism away from the person themselves and onto their actions or the situation is a great way to get your point across without seeming accusatory. This is particularly effective when you follow up by sharing how it affected you or the people around you.

‘You’re so boring when you drone on and on’ becomes ‘your points are great, but you could deliver them in a more concise manner so that the meeting doesn’t run over time’.

‘You’re immature’ becomes ‘some of your actions yesterday were a little inappropriate for the workplace, and they made me uncomfortable.’

Sandwich inside a feedback burger and you're good to go.

 

When giving feedback, it really is worth it to take some time to plan out what you want to say. It's easy to get anxious about uncomfortable interactions, so practice a few times in the mirror to put your mind at ease.

Still dreading it? Just imagine how happy you'll be once the problem is resolved. Angela's vocal fry will never bother you again.