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4 Tips on giving bad news or constructive criticism

Why is it that we find giving constructive criticism and feedback such a daunting task?  Feedback is the breakfast of champions, according to Ken Blanchard, so what stops us feeding our colleagues so they can perform better?

Fear of reprisal

I think it is our own inadequacy that makes us fear repercussions or rejection.  We’re thinking, “What if he gets angry?” “What if she’s hurt by my comments?” and then we’re assuming that the other person will blame us, or attack us, or withdraw, … all of these are unpleasant consequences we don’t want to experience.  So instead we say nothing but suffer due to the other person’s performance or behaviour.

The result is a poor relationship and poor performance – lose/lose.


constructive conversation

constructive conversation

Tips and techniques on handling bad news /constructive criticism

To have an effective constructive criticism or bad news conversation there are some techniques you can use to manage the situation and open up a helpful discussion between you.

1.        Is it about them or me? 

Start by asking yourself whether your reaction to this individual is actually down to how you are in this moment.  Are other people responding to this person the same way?

Yes – then the issue is about their behaviour;

No – then maybe it’s about where you are right now.  Are you stressed or tired?  Is there something on your mind?  Are you under a deadline?  Are you in a bad mood?

These are examples where you would respond differently from when you are balanced and calm.  STOP and take a moment to check this out and do something about your state, if you are not calm.

Mindfulness techniques are very helpful here – see my earlier blog on mindfulness.

2.       MRI

We often jump to conclusions about other people’s behaviour, we tell ourselves a story about what is going on for them, without stopping to think that there may be other reasons for this behaviour.  Then we react emotionally to the story we’re imagining, not to the raw facts of the situation.

When you find yourself thinking negative thoughts about why an individual has done something, find the Most Respectful Interpretation for their actions.  Try to see things through that person’s eyes and think from their perspective.  You will be surprised by how this opens your own mind about the situation.  It is possible that the person is malicious, but more often they will be behaving according to their understanding of the situation and their priorities – these just don’t match yours.

Once you have that perspective you will be much better informed for addressing the situation and will be able to construct your comments in a respectful way that opens up the potential for dialogue.

3.       Mutual respect and shared purpose

If you just launch into giving feedback, especially constructive criticism, you will take the other person by surprise and they are likely to respond as if attacked and could become defensive.

You need to set the tone for the conversation with your opening message, so you create the right circumstances for the other person to listen to you and accept what you’re saying.

Make a statement to demonstrate your respect for this person and to show your intention.  This makes it clear that you are on their side and want them to succeed.

“John, we’ve been working together on this project for a month now and I really value the focus you have brought to the plan, we both want this project to be a trailblazer in the company.”

“Sue, you’ve put a lot of effort into this, which demonstrates that we both want this to go well”

 4.       Don’t want / do want

This technique is a really clear way of setting the tone for the conversation as you will state what you want from the conversation.  If you think there is a risk of the other person misinterpreting your message, then you can say so right up front and say what interpretation or action you do intend.  This is a respectful acknowledgement on your part that the message may be difficult to hear and that you want to support this person.

“I don’t want you to limit your enthusiasm for this project and I do want us to talk about how this energy can best be used.”

“I don’t see this as your problem, I see it as our problem and want to work with you on it.”

By opening with these statements, you can set the other person’s mind at rest, they now know the situation will be handled with care and respect and the feedback will help them perform better.


Create safety

These techniques are aimed at creating a safe and secure space for you to have the conversation you need to have with the individual.  You want to be able to share constructive criticism, not judgement and self-defense.  You are ensuring that you are both in a receptive and open frame of mind, ready to share facts and consequences and to have a dialogue on the issue.

“Negative feedback is better than none.  I would rather have a man hate me, than overlook me.  As long as he hates me then I make a difference.” Hugh Prather

“True intuitive expertise is learned from prolonged experience with good feedback on mistakes.” Daniel Kahneman


I’ll continue this theme of how to handle those difficult conversations in the next blog, please share your comments and questions below.


  • Mo says:

    Useful tips, particularly helpful to think about preparing the other person to hear what you have to say.

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