How to Frame Negative Feedback as Forward-Facing Guidance

by Liron2 min read9th Feb 20207 comments

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Communication Cultures
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Your employee Fred always talks too much during your weekly staff meetings. It's been an ongoing issue. Everyone on your team is annoyed, and so are you. At this point, you have no choice but to give Fred some... negative feedback.

You sit down at your computer and start drafting what you're going to say to Fred:

Listen Fred, we think you're talking too much in our staff meetings and it's lowering the quality of the discussion. Can you try to talk a little less and let other people talk more?

But wait... let's be tactful here. Your goal is to optimize how you criticize Fred to maximize expected positive behavioral change. In that sense, your rough draft isn't super tactful yet.

I challenge you to try this now as a 5-minute exercise: What communication technique would you apply here? What exact words would you say to Fred?

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The "shit sandwich" technique comes to mind, i.e. sandwiching your negative-feedback turd inside two slices of positive feedback. But let's use a much better technique: framing negative feedback as guidance. Here's how I'd do that:

Fred,
I think you have some room for improvement in the way you present ideas at our staff meetings. Sometimes I notice that you're making a valid point, which is a great contribution, but it doesn't get fully appreciated by the rest of the team. I want to share some techniques with you that I've seen our senior staff use to be perceived well in meetings.
For example, today when you brought up how our flux capacitors don't last long enough, no one really engaged with that topic. And that was probably frustrating for you, right? If you could tweak your communication style to easily get everyone to appreciate your ideas, that would be great for you and the team.
My advice on how to do this is basically to limit the number of points you bring into each staff meeting. And whenever you're going to say your point, try to first make other people feel like you've heard their point. Right now it feels like you're making a lot of different points and you're not acknowledging other people's points enough, so your points aren't getting fully appreciated. Do you agree with my perception?

A lot of what I've done here is explained in other books and articles: I follow the CORE structure (context, observation, result, expectation) explained here. The "observation" component of CORE is a specificity power. Framing negative feedback as guidance is Step 3 of this blog post.

There's just one part of my technique that I haven't seen explained anywhere else: How to frame negative feedback as guidance. The aforementioned blog post only says to "engage in a way that shows vulnerability and understanding" in order to show that "the feedback is meant to help, not harm". Ok, but how do you operationalize that into a deterministic procedure for writing a paragraph of f̶e̶e̶d̶b̶a̶c̶k̶ guidance?

The Forward-Facing Frame

I use a simple but powerful technique to reduce the question of "how to frame feedback as guidance" into a rule for crafting sentences of language. I call it the forward-facing frame technique.

Imagine you're in a room with someone who smells terrible. You could tell them directly to their face, "P U, you stink!" This feedback won't come across as "guidance" because it only describes their current state of smelling bad, not the target state of smelling good. I would call this a backward-facing framing of the situation.

In contrast, here's what a forward-facing frame would look like: You walk over to them, put your arm around their shoulder, and then as both of you gaze out the bay window unto the flower garden, you say:

I know you have the potential to smell a lot better than you do right now. You could eventually smell as pleasant as those fresh flowers out in the garden. But even just smelling like the rest of this house would be a big improvement. I generally expect everyone to smell at least as good as the rest of the house. Do you think that's a fair assessment and a worthwhile goal for you?

When you're thinking about how to tell Fred that he's talking too much in staff meetings, start by asking yourself what it would look like if Fred were exceptionally awesome at that instead of deficient. This helps you visualize a complete forward-to-backward axis. Then you can frame your message to Fred in terms of moving forward on the spectrum toward awesomeness.

I didn't just imagine Fred not talking too much, I imagined Fred employing a more developed toolkit of communication skills that would get his points across in a way that his team members appreciate. Then I made each of my sentences "face forward" toward that desirable state. My feedback was thereby framed as guidance.

So next time you're giving someone negative feedback, why not frame it as forward-facing guidance? Just scan your first draft, look for anything backward-facing, and turn it around to face forward.

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