Michael Reddington of InQuasive: Giving Feedback; How To Be Honest Without Being Hurtful

Penny Bauder
Authority Magazine
Published in
22 min readNov 10, 2020


My first suggestion is to not force employees to take and defend positions. People react the strongest to what they hear first. I’ve seen too many managers start feedback sessions by confronting employees with either what the employees did wrong, or how they had previously instructed employees of the right thing to do. Employees often perceive these approaches as direct attacks on their self-images which causes them to take defensive positions and resist feedback.

As a part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Reddington, CFI.

Michael Reddington, CFI is a certified forensic interviewer and the President of InQuasive, Inc., a company that integrates the key components of effective non-confrontational interview techniques with current business research for executives. Using his background in forensics, and his understanding of human behavior through interrogation, Reddington teaches businesses to use the truth to their advantage.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

My journey has been both unscripted and unanticipated. I started out as a middle school special education teacher and baseball coach before I was peer pressured into working in the financial industry and returned to college full-time to earn my business degree.

When I went back to school I worked a series of part-time jobs including a job conducting investigations. My investigations job accidentally became a career when I fell in love with the process of connecting with people and encouraging them to tell the truth. Soon interview and interrogation became my passion and I earned my Certified Forensic Interviewer designation. Shortly after earning the designation, I was recruited to join the world’s leading non-confrontational interrogation training and advisory firm.

While I was with them I spent ten years traveling the world conducting investigative interviews and teaching federal agents, law enforcement officers, private sector investigators, and human resources professionals how to obtain the truth with non-confrontational methods.

During this time I began teaching CEOs how to apply investigative interviewing techniques in their roles and arrived at two key realizations. First, the best interrogators and the best leaders capitalize on the same two core skills — vision and influence. Second, the cognitive processes that drive interrogation suspects to commit to saying “I did it”, customers to commit to saying “I’ll buy it” and employees to commit to saying “I’ll do it” are all nearly identical.

These realizations led me to collect research and best practices from across the spectrum of business communication, integrate what I learned with the most effective interrogation approaches, and create the Disciplined Listening Method.

After creating the initial methodology I started my company, InQuasive, and dedicated my efforts to teaching business professionals how to apply strategic, ethical observation and persuasion skills in all of their conversations.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We know the quality of our techniques and services, our ability to resonate with our audiences and the results our techniques deliver will determine how well we stand out.

We designed the Disciplined Listening Method by integrating research and best practices from across the spectrum of business communications with the favored non-confrontational interview and interrogation techniques of Certified Forensic Interviewers. We incorporate our methodology into everything we do at InQuasive — from counseling clients to internal communication.

A colleague and I had a meeting with three members of the leadership group from a company we were interested in creating a training partnership with. Prior to the meeting my colleague and I laid out our goals and she created a fantastic action plan to share during the meeting.

During our final preparations, she asked me how I thought we should ask them for the partnership we wanted. I surprised her when I recommended that we only asked for it if we had to, at the end of the meeting.

We talked through the facts that she created a great plan, we had good relationships with the leadership team and they would most likely feel in control of the meeting because we asked for it and it was at their office. With this information in mind, we felt like we could accurately anticipate the first question they would ask, answer it in a way that would cause them to take the conversation in the direction we wanted it to go and allow them to take ownership of the idea to partner together.

Thankfully the meeting started just as we predicted and the conversation proceeded just as we planned until the head of their leadership team told us that he loved the plan, but he didn’t think they had the capacity to partner with us. As he said this I switched my attention to his two partners just in time to see one of them slightly shake her head as if to disagree. I put that observation in my back pocket and let the rest of the meeting play out in case she took the opportunity to voice her opinion on her own.

At the end of the meeting, I asked her if she had any additional thoughts and she shared a potential partnership alternative that the group had previously missed. This saved the meeting for my colleague and me and gave us all an avenue to pursue our partnership together.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Years ago I had my first opportunity to teach in the Middle East. About a week into my trip I had an open three-hour window in Amman, Jordan and my driver convinced me to take a ride with him, much to my wife’s chagrin. He said he lived in the United States for over 20 years before moving back to Jordan to be with family, and genuinely seemed like he wanted to show me his country.

On our way to the Dead Sea, he asked if I wanted to stop for coffee. I answered “No thank you” and told him that I had never had coffee in my life. He was astonished by my response and told me that he couldn’t live without coffee. When I said I’ve heard a lot of people say that he told me that he was serious. He informed me that he was an alcoholic and drinking coffee was the only thing that helped him to stay away from alcohol. When I congratulated him on his sobriety he thanked me and said that he had to leave Texas and move back to Jordan after his third DWI arrest. I noted that this was an update to his original story…and that this information would’ve been helpful before I decided to ride in his car for the next three hours.

When we got to the Dead Sea we pulled into a parking lot and got out of the car. He told me that his family was originally from Palestine, had been displaced into Jordan, and still owned an olive farm on their original family property. He asked me what I thought about the political situation in that area and I politely told him that I knew many people had suffered and I didn’t know enough to have an informed opinion. I started to ask him a follow-up question and paused. He noticed and asked me why I didn’t continue. I replied, “I want to be very respectful of what I ask.” He laughed and said “American, you can ask me whatever you want.” To which I responded, “Not if you call me American, my name is Mike.” We both laughed and I asked him how his family’s displacement affected him.

We stood there for over 30 minutes talking about world religions, conflicts, people, and peace. By the time we were done, we agreed that most people and religions have plenty in common and felt like we had become friends. After we got back in his car we drove up into the mountains and he talked our way through a military checkpoint (seriously) on the way to his cousin’s house. While we were having tea with his cousins they told him he should take me to a town that had a church and a mosque and bring me into both. I agreed and off we went.

Unfortunately, we were unable to enter the mosque because they were in prayer. However, we did go into the Church where I saw the oldest known mosaic map of the holy land in existence. I often think back and wonder how a kid from New Hampshire grew up to talk world religions in Jordan, with a Palestinian, while looking across the Dead Sea at Israel.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I teach seminars I ask the audience to switch their phone’s ringer to vibrate and tell them if they need to get up and make a call it’s perfectly ok. I also tell them that if their phone rings out loud I reserve the right to answer their phone, which usually gets a few giggles. Roughly once a month a phone will ring, I’ll walk over with my hand out, the attendee will hand me his or her phone, I’ll answer it, and everyone laughs.

On one occasion I was facilitating a keynote presentation at a national conference and had not given the audience that speech because I was only on stage for sixty minutes. About 15 minutes into my presentation I heard a phone ring and saw a man at the end of the second row pull his phone out of his pocket and look up at me.

Like Pavlov’s dog, I walked towards him, held out my hand, and asked him “Would you like me to answer that?” He scowled at me, his neighbors giggled, and I jumped back into my presentation. When my session was over a representative from the conference approached me and told me that the man with the phone was the corporate representative from the title sponsor of the event. Needless to say, he didn’t find my joke as funny as I did. This definitely taught me to be more aware of my audience and avoid using jokes that I haven’t set up with the audience first.

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

Everyone reaches their own state of flow, or optimum productivity, in their own way. Well-intentioned leadership efforts can easily disrupt these processes. The first thing leaders can do is talk to their employees, learn how each employee reaches their flow states, and adapt their leadership approaches accordingly.

  • Avoid adding unnecessary stress to their employees. Ensure they have all of the information, resources, and time they need to complete their tasks. Time is especially important. It’s important for leaders to give their employees as much runway to complete their assignments as possible during stressful times.
  • Provide employees with a framework to complete their tasks, not exact steps. Allowing employees to complete their tasks their own way, within their leaders’ framework, allows them to use their strengths, manage their time, and take ownership of their decisions and results.
  • Adjust to each employee’s new schedule. Some employees may be most productive early in the morning, during normal working hours or later in the evening. The time of day that employees work may be irrelevant as long as employees are completing high-quality work on time.
  • Respect their employees’ time. No one likes getting called during dinner, late at night, or before they’ve had a chance to brush their teeth in the morning.
  • Be available. Leaders should work hard to avoid constantly chasing down their teams to see where they are with their work. It is often far more beneficial to create the time to support your team when they need you.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I believe that the best leaders, regardless of rank or title, share the same two core skills: vision and influence.

They possess a level of contextual awareness that allows them to perceive situations from different angles and the ability to influence their audiences to commit to the processes necessary to achieve their lofty goals. I also believe that leaders can quantify their success, and identify critical opportunities, by answering three questions: Am I calm? Am I consistent? Am I making people better? The answers to these three simple questions pinpoint how teams perceive their leaders and how likely they are to commit to changes their leaders require.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

I subscribe to the belief that any situation is only as big as we allow it to become. Success is ours for the taking when we set aside the stakes, focus on the process, and stay with ourselves.

Confidence can be a great stress repellant. I believe confidence is developed from preparation, experience, and surviving previous mistakes. Whenever possible, I try to focus on getting my preparation and game planning done early which provides me with the time to reflect on my previous experiences and mistakes, anticipate challenges, and avoid feeling rushed.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?

As a manager, investigator, advisor, and educator I’ve had a wide range of opportunities to provide feedback. As a manager, I had to provide feedback to my direct reports, employees, and leaders outside of my scope of responsibility as well as my own supervisors. As an investigator, I’ve had to give a lot of difficult feedback to business owners and business leaders who weren’t excited to learn how their policies, procedures and decisions contributed to the issues they’ve experienced. As an educator and advisor, I’ve been tasked with providing feedback to professionals ranging from new managers to CEOs on a wide range of improvement opportunities.

This variety has taught me that people are far more open to receiving critical feedback and committing to change when they feel like they can protect their self-images. Putting ourselves in other people’s shoes can be more difficult than it sounds. I’ve learned to ask myself two critical questions prior to giving anyone feedback:

  1. “Why shouldn’t they accept this feedback and commit to the change I require?”
  2. “Why haven’t they already changed their behavior?”

Honestly answering these questions forces me to check my ego at the door, accept their perspective on whether or not I agree with it, and develop a delivery approach that is most likely to protect their self-images and generate the commitment I’m looking for. Essentially this process helps me construct my feedback based on what my audience needs to hear, not what I feel like I need to say.

This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?

Leaders have a choice. They can make decisions based on what they do want, or what they don’t want. Leaders who take a fear-based approach and make decisions based on what they don’t want to limit their employees’ and organization’s potential. Delivering honest feedback requires leaders to show vulnerability, which in turn demonstrates that it is ok for employees to be vulnerable, and vulnerability is synonymous with trust. Over time direct feedback, when delivered properly, should enhance relationships, morale and productivity because it shows leaders care enough to invest the time and energy necessary to support their employee’s development.

One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.

My first suggestion is to not force employees to take and defend positions. People react the strongest to what they hear first. I’ve seen too many managers start feedback sessions by confronting employees with either what the employees did wrong, or how they had previously instructed employees of the right thing to do. Employees often perceive these approaches as direct attacks on their self-images which causes them to take defensive positions and resist feedback.

Recently I was working with a manager who was struggling to get the most from his team and he was feeling the pressure from leadership. He told me he had to give feedback to an employee who had dropped the ball on a project and offered me the opportunity to listen to the conversation via speakerphone. He started the conversation with his employee by saying “I told you what you needed to do for this job and you didn’t do it, please help me understand why.” The manager thought he was being constructive, but the employee took this as a direct attack. Not surprisingly the employee answered “No you didn’t” and staked himself to a defensive position. Quite predictably the manager responded with “Yes I did and I need to know why it wasn’t done the way I needed it done.” Not only did the manager double down, but he made the conversation about satisfying himself, not about coaching the employee. The next 15 minutes turned into a debate about what the manager said and when he said it. The conversation finally came to a contentious close with the manager ordering the employee to finish the job and the employee begrudgingly accepting the orders, while still claiming he hadn’t previously received this message. Had the manager started the conversation by asking the employee “Please walk me through where we are on this project and what challenges you’re facing” he would’ve avoided all of the conflicts he experienced.

Which leads me right to my second suggestion. As counter-intuitive as this may sound, leaders should embrace the excuses employees provide them with. One of the lessons I learned in the interrogation room is that it is much easier to get someone to tell the truth than it is to get them to admit it is their fault or to get them to admit to previously lying about it. Leaders can make much more progress by asking employees to discuss topics they are comfortable with such as their thought processes, their goals, and the challenges they face.

Last year I was working with a sales team and scheduled a meeting with the team leader and a struggling sales rep. To prepare for this meeting I spoke with the leader and he told me that his rep had all the necessary tools and information and just wasn’t putting in the necessary effort. I asked the leader how their previous conversations had gone and he said “I keep telling him the same thing, and nothing has changed.” When the meeting started I asked the sales rep to walk me through his plan to meet that month’s sales goals and his plan was pretty good. Next, I asked him to share his best success story from the month and then I asked him to walk me through the biggest challenges he was facing. The sales rep quickly stated that he felt that he needed additional technical support. Over the next hour, I asked the sales rep to help me understand what technical support he needed, wherein the sales process he needed it and how often he encountered this need. I asked him to walk me through where he thought this information was, who could help him acquire it and how he thought he could organize and learn the information. At the end of the conversation, the sales rep accepted responsibility for this performance, acknowledged that his manager had covered much of this information previously, and committed to weekly action plan review meetings with his manager moving forward. After the sales rep left the room the manager looked at me and said “I never would’ve approached it that way. I was so frustrated because I felt like he wasn’t listening to me. I was just going to show him his activity record and reinforce what I already told him. To which I rhetorically replied, “If we keep doing the same thing, why would the results change?”

This approach highlights my next suggestion. Developing employees means teaching them how to solve their own problems. Managers aren’t teaching their employees to think when they constantly tell their employees what to do and how to do it. This approach only teaches their employees how to follow orders and develop resentment. Employees may feel like they face hundreds of problems in their roles, and this may be true. However, most of these problems share characteristics with other problems. The average employee may face only half a dozen unique problems. When managers teach their employees to solve one problem, they are likely to teach them how to solve many common problems. Managers should spend feedback sessions interrogating their employees’ thought process, not giving them orders. Understanding why employees made decisions enables managers to be far more effective in teaching their employees to address their opportunities.

Earlier this year I was asked to work with a project manager who had sent an email that ignited a feud with a sub-contractor. The project manager had witnessed a safety issue, pulled his employees, called in the inspector, and notified the other company involved all in accordance with the accepted protocol. The content of his email, and subsequent responses, unnecessarily fanned the flames of conflict. My goals were to help the project manager understand why he responded the way he did, how his words inflamed the situation, and improve how he handled future situations. I started by asking him to help me understand the situation, tell me what his goals were and walk me through how his emails helped him achieve those goals. After he answered my questions we broke down his email sentence by sentence. After each sentence, I asked him what his intentions were, and how the recipient likely interpreted them. When we reached the end of the email he looked at me and said “So I guess I could’ve sent a three-line email and been good.” He was right, and he arrived at the conclusion himself, which significantly increases the likelihood he recalls our conversation the next time he sits down to fire off an email.

My final suggestion is that managers follow up with their employees after their feedback sessions. Following up is the only way managers can prove they listened to their employees. Employees will often judge how much their manager cares about them based on how much time they perceive their manager spends with them. Failing to follow up with employees after feedback sessions cause employees to view the conversations as punitive, destroys trust and erodes relationships.

I worked with an organization and saw a scenario unfold between two gentlemen who were good friends and had worked together for decades. Their relationship became a little strained when one was promoted to a leadership role and directly oversaw the other. The friend who hadn’t been promoted had a series of performance issues that had gone largely unaddressed for a long time because the leader didn’t want to create any additional problems between the two of them. Problems have a funny way of getting worse over time and it got ugly when they finally did sit down to talk about it. They both felt disrespected and expected more from each other. When their tempers finally cooled the leader realized that his friend was mostly upset because he didn’t believe the leader cared about him anymore. I have to give the leader a lot of credit because he resisted the urge to defend himself. He calmed down and clearly informed his friend of his expectations moving forward and gave his word he would support his friend throughout the process. And he did. Initially, he made the time to talk with his friend once a week, then he bumped it back to once every two weeks and eventually to once a month. He also prioritized his friend’s emails and voicemails. With their argument behind them, he knew the quicker he returned his friend’s messages the more it would prove that he cared. After about six months their friendship was healthy again. While I certainly don’t recommend putting off giving feedback or descending into arguments, this leader did a wonderful job following up and it made all the difference.

Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.

How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

First, leaders should consider whether an email is truly the best method for delivering feedback, or simply the easiest method for them to deliver feedback. There are situations where email is the best delivery method. There are also situations where delivering feedback via email is the only option. However, I would argue these are far fewer than people may think. If managers are truly focused on developing their employees they should make the time to schedule a phone call, video call, or in-person meeting. The time they spend talking with their employees and the uncomfortable emotions they experience together will play significant roles in the employee’s development.

Assuming email is the best and/or only delivery method, managers should remember to focus on the issue, not the person. Employees will interpret emails through their lens, biases and preconceived notions. Employees become defensive when they feel attacked and they look for opportunities to win as opposed to finding opportunities to develop. Managers often don’t realize the damage they cause when they (often unintentionally) take a parental approach with their communications. Statements such as “What you need to do”, “What I need you to do”, “What you need to understand”, and “The best thing for you to do” all-cause employees to feel like they are being treated like children. Especially in email, managers should spell out their goal, the issue, how the issue contradicts the goal, how the employee can change to help achieve the goal and how the manager will provide additional support.

Managers should also focus on the resolution, not the consequences. The generally accepted thought process is that employees will do what their manager wants them to in order to avoid the consequences. Quite often this isn’t the case. Focusing on the consequences creates competition. Employees certainly don’t want to face the potential consequences and they don’t want their manager to “win” either so they set out to create a third alternative. They try to find the minimum effort required to avoid the consequences and get their manager off of their backs, without doing exactly what their manager asked them. In these scenarios, everyone loses and problems continue to reappear.

Everyone knows emails lack context. Employees will often fill in any missing details with the worst-case alternatives. Leaders can avoid this by constructing detailed emails. Before hitting send, leaders should read the email and ask themselves “What may the employee feel is missing?” and “What may the employee misinterpret?” If leaders intentionally leave out information because they don’t want it on the record, they likely shouldn’t be sending the email. They should be picking up the phone or scheduling a meeting.

In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?

How and when leaders deliver feedback should be predicated on the goals they want to achieve, the employee(s) involved and the situation they are working through together. Like most things in life, taking a one size fits all approach limits success.

If it is a real emergency, leaders should give the required feedback immediately, and then follow up with their employees once the dust has settled. Coaching in the moment and giving immediate feedback is often a great approach when managers and employees have good relationships and their emotions aren’t running high. If emotions are running high, or the manager and employee have a strained relationship, it is likely more effective to let a little time pass before providing feedback. Deciding how much time becomes the trick. It should be enough time to let everyone cool off, but not so long that the feedback loses its impact. This could be a couple of hours, a day, a few days. Each situation may be different.

I love it when leaders schedule regular feedback sessions with their employees — and allow for the feedback to go both ways. This benefits the managers and employees in multiple ways. The consistent conversations create the opportunity to build trust over time. Managers who demonstrate that they are open to critical feedback typically find their employees much more open to receiving it as well. These regularly scheduled sessions also allow for continuous coaching and positive reinforcement. Consistently scheduling sessions can also eliminate the “principal’ office effect” that occurs when employees either know or fear, they’ve done something wrong and their anxiety grows as the meeting gets closer.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

When people take on leadership roles they volunteer to take responsibility for others in dynamic and ambiguous environments. Leaders who are perceived to be calm, consistent, and focused on developing their teams will be far more successful surviving the inevitable storms that strike every business and industry.

Perhaps the best example I have goes all the way to my time as an elevator mechanic. John Morris was the head mechanic and my immediate supervisor. He knew I wasn’t really qualified for the job, but he was patient with me. I appreciated his patience and worked hard for him. One morning we arrived at a new job site, ready to install an elevator, and found everything was wrong. The elevator shaft was crooked, the pit was too shallow, there was an issue with one of the landings. It was a mess. While we were cataloging all the problems the third mechanic on our team complained, blamed everyone else, and tried to talk John into pulling us from the job so he could go home early. John finally had enough and sent this guy to the truck to get more tools.

With this guy gone John looked at me, smiled and calmly said “It’s supposed to be screwed up. That’s why we are here. We’ll find a way to make it right.” When the look on my face obviously told him that I didn’t have the first idea how we were going to do that he said “Don’t worry dude, I’ll teach you how.” It took two extra days but we finished that job. John could’ve told us to pack up and leave, he could’ve started a conflict with the general contractor, and he could’ve made excuses. He didn’t. That story is at least 20 years old and I think about it all the time. The line “it’s supposed to be screwed up” has forever changed my perspective, leadership style and approach to problem-solving.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

If I could start one movement I would teach people to put their egos in their back pockets, listen for value and stop making decisions based on singular factors. Unfortunately, society has largely reached the point where everything is binary — either you are in or you are out. Our self-images are so powerful and every label we put on ourselves takes us further away from any opportunity to connect with people who we don’t perceive to share those labels. The discomfort we experience when we violate our own self-images, especially in front of an ingroup, is so strong most people refuse to even entertain the possibility. As a result, many of us would rather die feeling we are right than finding value in a person we perceive to be in an outgroup. I’m afraid real, sustainable change can’t happen until this issue is resolved.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Let the conversation come to you.” It is a slight variation to something my father told me a lot growing up. Unfortunately, humans aren’t wired to be good listeners. We enter most conversations with preconceived expectations of value, we often listen for opportunities to defend ourselves or push our agenda, and we react the strongest to what we hear first. Letting the conversation come to me forces me to listen for unexpected value, stifle my internal monologue and allow my counterparts to share more information. This approach also causes me to enter the conversation later and say less, which increases my impact on the conversation. In the end, I learn a lot more, achieve a lot more and deal with a lot less conflict.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I invite anyone interested in learning more to check out inquasive.com and connect with me on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/michaelreddingtoncfi/ and on Twitter @mreddingtoncfi.

Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.



Penny Bauder
Authority Magazine

Environmental scientist-turned-entrepreneur, Founder of Green Kid Crafts