How to Give Critical Feedback

Five tools that will bring you greater confidence and improved results when providing critical feedback.

Whether you are giving feedback to direct reports, colleagues, vendors, customers, or even your boss, it is likely that some of those conversations will feel a bit intimidating. But there are several tools you can employ that will bring you greater confidence and improved results when giving critical feedback.

  1. Prepare and get your facts straight. Feedback is not a time for personal opinion. What were your expectations and how were they originally conveyed to and agreed upon by the person receiving the feedback? What actually happened? What observable behaviors were involved?
  2. Set time and place. Set up a meeting (whether in person or by phone) at a time that is best for you, when you are least distracted and at your strongest biorhythm time of day. Choose a location that is private and comfortable for both you and the person receiving the feedback.
  3. Use positive psychology. When someone receives less-than-welcome feedback, his or her ego is designed to defend against what it perceives as an attack. Receptivity is the key for having the unwanted behavior change to more ideal behavior. A phrasing that bypasses the protective ego is: “What you did well was…,” followed by: “What you can do even better is…” Your own ego will not want to use this method, but if you want best results from the conversation, you need to bypass your own ego, too.
  4. Reverse the talking time. Most people have learned from those who don’t know how to successfully give critical feedback. The biggest mistake you can make is to talk too much. Telling the other person what is wrong to the exclusion of inquiring why things went wrong doesn’t work well. If you really want people to do something differently (and not just let your ego have the floor to make them wrong), that means you have to get them to plead guilty; to own what caused the need for the feedback (for whatever the problem area is). So asking open-ended questions works best. And when they answer, ask a follow-up open-ended question. Use the “Five Whys” method until you drill down to the cause (again, they are likely to try and wiggle out of taking responsibility). Change the percentage of you speaking and their responding to get them to talk 70 percent and you talking only 30 percent of the time.
  5. Separate fact from fiction. If you listen closely to the daily language used by most people, it is filled with subjective terms. Simply put, these are words and phrases that leave things open to interpretation. We think we know what each other means, but too often, we really don’t. For instance, if you gave feedback saying, “You were late too many times,” that is unclearly defined. Objective criteria are at the heart of giving critical feedback. “You were late by 15 minutes or more three times in two weeks” (and you need to be able to prove that) is clearer. But subjectivity runs both ways. You are likely to hear opinion (not fact) or vague language in return, too. Here is where you probe for understanding. Again, open-ended questions or requests for information help you get to the facts. When general/vague language is used to avoid taking responsibility for something you are giving feedback about, explore further. For example, if the person says, “It wasn’t my fault I was late,” then “fault” is the subjective term to probe. You can say, “Tell me more about what has gone on to lead to your being late.”

Giving critical feedback can take a bit of courage, but if you practice and employ these five tools, you’ll improve communication, and ultimately, performance.

Manager-leader specialist Jim Hornickel is the CEO of Bold New Directions, Inc., a training and executive coaching firm. Along with a B.A. in Management, Hornickel’s professional experience includes 25 years as a manager-leader in several industries; life, leadership, and relationship coaching; and authoring “Negotiating Success” and “Managing From The Inside Out (16 Insights for Building Positive Relationships With Staff).” For more information, visit and