How to Deliver Constructive Feedback in Difficult Situations

Thoughtful, empathetic language can make or break your business relationships

Dave Bailey
Apr 8 · 9 min read
Illustration: Leigh Wells/Getty Images

“We are dangerous when we are not conscious of our responsibility for how we behave, think, and feel.”―Marshall Rosenberg, Nonviolent Communication

As a founder, my biggest regrets revolve around not having difficult conversations sooner. I could have helped team members improve faster, fired people with the wrong fit earlier, had so many more productive meetings. I could have created a more open company culture.

I was guilty of making excuses: It will sort itself out; they’ll eventually stop doing it; there are more important things to focus on. Of course, delaying these conversations always made things worse. And, sometimes, it even led to crises.

The side-effect of empathy

Empathy means tuning into the feelings of others. Like many founders, I’ve always had a lot of empathy for people — after all, founders focus their lives on understanding the feelings and needs of their customers. But when it comes to difficult conversations, I’ve found that empathy has a side effect. I can focus so intently on how the conversation might affect the other person’s feelings that I lose sight of why we needed the conversation in the first place.

Without a healthy amount of self-empathy, we often find that our own needs — and the needs of the business — take the passenger’s seat.

Nonviolent communication

“Nonviolent Communication” (NVC) is an awful name for one of the most powerful communication courses I’ve ever taken as a manager. NVC helps you to be honest without criticizing, insulting, or putting down other people.

At the core of NVC is a straightforward communication pattern: “When ____[observation], I feel ____[emotion] because I’m needing some ____[universal needs]. Would you be able to ____[request]?”

At first glance, this looks easy. But in practice, it’s extremely difficult to pull off. To grasp the complexity, NVC makes some subtle but critical distinctions: observations versus evaluations, emotions versus thoughts, universal needs versus strategies, and requests versus demands. Understanding these nuances is key to handling difficult conversations. Let’s go through each one.

1. Observations versus evaluations

Indian philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti noted, “The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence.” An observation is something you actually saw or heard in the past. You can think of it as raw information.

The majority of observations fall into two categories: what you heard (e.g., direct quotes), and what you saw (e.g., visible past behaviors).

Our brains are hardwired to take raw information and instantly create simple stories to explain them — good or bad, right or wrong, hero or villain. These stories are evaluations, and they are very hard to separate from observations. Here are a few examples to illustrate the difference:

  • Evaluation: “You are lazy” (which is a character attack). Observation: “You said that you’d send the document last week, and I haven’t received it.”
  • Evaluation: “Your work is sloppy” (which is a criticism). Observation: “Three of the numbers in the report were inaccurate.”
  • Evaluation: “You’re always late,” (which is a generalization). Observation: “You arrived 10 minutes late to the meeting this morning.”
  • Evaluation: “You ignored me.” (which implies intent). Observation: “I sent you two emails, and I haven’t received a response.”

An easy way to check whether you’ve made an observation or an evaluation is to ask yourself, “What did I actually see or hear?”

2. Emotions versus thoughts

The usual reaction to talking about feelings is “Oh God, really?” But being aware of and communicating our emotions can have a powerful effect on other people. When we need to have a difficult conversation, we might say we feel scared, annoyed, anxious, confused, embarrassed, hurt, sad, or tired. These words are important because, often, what comes after “I feel” isn’t an emotion — it’s a thought. Compare these examples:

  • Emotion: “I feel frustrated.”
  • Thought: “I feel that you aren’t taking this seriously.”

If you can substitute “I feel” with “I think” and the phrase still works — because it’s a thought, not an emotion. And sharing your thoughts in difficult conversations can get you into trouble, especially if the other person disagrees and wants to correct you.

Behind every negative emotion lies an unmet universal need.

A few emotions require extra attention and curiosity before sharing them. One is anger, which often masks more painful emotions like hurt and shame. It’s important to figure out what’s underneath the anger before having a difficult conversation, because when you’re angry you’re more likely to speak impulsively and forget NVC altogether.

Other emotions that need attention are evaluative words. Consider the phrase “I feel blamed.” It sounds a lot like the evaluation “You blamed me.” To reduce the chance of a defensive response, like “I didn’t blame you,” NVC holds that you should identify the evaluation and recognize how it affects you emotionally. For example, feeling blamed might leave you feeling scared. Here are some others:

  • Evaluation: “I feel judged.” Impact: “I feel resentful.”
  • Evaluation: “I feel misunderstood.” Impact: “I feel frustrated.”
  • Evaluation: “I feel rejected.” Impact: “I feel hurt.”

At this stage of the NVC course, I began to realize how bad my emotional literacy was. I found it pretty hard to get past “upset” and “pissed off.”

3. Universal needs versus strategies

NVC asserts that all human beings share the same universal needs and that behind every negative emotion lies an unmet universal need. For example, if a certain comment in a meeting left you feeling embarrassed, you might realize it was because your need for consideration wasn’t being met.

The pairing of emotions with universal needs has a transformative effect in difficult conversations. Common universal needs that come up a lot in difficult conversations are these:

  • Autonomy
  • Collaboration
  • Consistency
  • Clarity
  • Integrity
  • Recognition
  • Respect
  • Reassurance
  • Security
  • Support
  • Understanding

Not everything that follows the words, “I need” is a universal need. Maybe you “need” a sandwich, but that doesn’t mean sandwiches are a universal necessity. NVC distinguishes between our universal needs and the strategies that would meet our needs. Eating a sandwich is a strategy to meet your need for nourishment. Another example might be a strategy of “I need you to copy me into every email” while the universal need is “I need some transparency.”

There’s a subtle but important point here. Compare “I need support from you” with “I need support.” As soon as you include “from you” in the need statement, it stops being universal. The first version could be more easily interpreted as a veiled accusation and implication that “You aren’t supporting me.” To minimize the chance of defensiveness, NVC instructs us to leave other people out of our needs.

Identifying my universal needs can have a powerful effect. Once you uncover the universal need, it’s much easier to identify new strategies that can meet everyone’s universal needs.

Great communication isn’t just about what you say, it’s about what other people hear.

4. Requests versus demands

What is the difference between a request and a demand? Both are strategies that would meet a need. Unlike demands, requests are invitations for another person to meet our needs — but only if it doesn’t conflict with one of their needs.

Three principles can help you make clear requests:

  • Make it specific. “I request that you be more respectful” is vague because what signals respect to you may not signal respect to someone else. Spell out the concrete behaviors that would meet your need for respect, such as “I request that you arrive to meetings on time.”
  • Say what you want, not what you don’t want. “I request that you don’t dismiss other people’s ideas straightaway” explains what you don’t want, but it doesn’t spell out what you do want. Clarify the behaviors you want to see. For example, you can say, “I request that when a team member shares an idea, you ask two or three probing questions before sharing your conclusion.”
  • Stay curious. There are many ways to satisfy your underlying needs, but is there a way of satisfying everybody’s needs? To maximize the chance of having your needs met, treat “no” as an invitation to explore the needs stopping someone from saying “yes.”

Remember, great communication isn’t just about what you say, it’s about what other people hear. Even something as simple as “I’d like you to be on time for the next meeting” can have an unintended meaning depending on the context. Don’t be afraid to check in and ask someone to recap what they heard. You don’t want to patronize them, but you can diplomatically and politely ask, “Just so we know we’re on the same page, could you play back what I’m asking of you?”

In conflict, empathy is more effective than insisting or convincing.

The 40-word rule

During difficult conversations, it’s important to be extremely concise. Aim to describe your observations, feelings, needs, and requests in fewer than 40 words. Using more words suggests you’re justifying your needs, and that decreases their power.

It’s also worth noting the importance of having these conversations face-to-face. NVC loses some of its power when it’s in an email.

Here are some examples of the kind of feedback needed in startups:

— To a co-founder: “When you said, ‘I’m not happy with your work,’ to me in front of the team, I felt embarrassed because it didn’t meet my need for trust and recognition. Please, could we set up a weekly one-on-one session to share feedback in private?”

— To an investor: “I haven’t received any responses from the last three monthly updates. I’m feeling concerned because I need input. Please, would you mind getting back to me with responses to my questions in the last update?”

— To a teammate: “You arrived 10 minutes late to the last three team meetings. I am frustrated because, as a team, we have a need for efficiency. Please, could you help me understand what’s happening?”

All the preparation for under 40 words may sound like a lot of work, and it is a lot of work. But the result is clear, concise, and powerful: No naming and shaming. No waffling. Just clarity about what you’ve observed, how you feel about it, and what needs are not being met. And at the end, you have a clear, actionable request.

How to react when your request is met with “no”

You’ve said your piece and made a request. In a perfect world, the other person would say, “Yes, of course.” However, even the most careful feedback can be met with defensiveness and hostility. Responding can be a challenge.

Just as you figured out your feelings and needs before the difficult conversation, hearing a “no” is your chance to empathize with the other person. Think about how the other person is feeling and consider what unmet needs may be stopping them from saying “yes.” This is the hardest part of all: to see past their evaluations, thoughts, and strategies in order to remain focused on clarifying their underlying needs. In conflict, empathy is more effective than insisting or convincing. As the author of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg, put it, “Empathy is the gift of hearing someone without taking it personally.”

To empathize, ask questions that aim to clarify the other person’s feelings and needs:

  • Are you feeling hurt because you need some understanding?
  • Are you feeling angry because you need your hard work to be recognized?
  • Is there more you’d like to say?

You don’t have to get it right; you just have to be curious. Silence is often more powerful than words, and when you uncover the needs that stop someone from saying “yes,” you’re much closer to finding a strategy that meets everyone’s needs.

Similarly, if you’re on the receiving end of a request and have to say “no,” state the underlying need that stops you from saying “yes.”

Boundaries and consequences

The outcome of a difficult conversation isn’t necessarily an agreement. We hope we can get our needs met, but sometimes it’s not possible. The sad truth is that no one can meet our needs all of the time. Ultimately, the responsibility of meeting our needs is our own. So, we need to set boundaries and outline the consequences of crossing them.

Outlining consequences is one of the most uncomfortable parts of being a manager, especially for people who want to be liked. What if the other person thinks we’re being unfair? Keep in mind that appropriate consequences are those with a purpose to protect your needs, not to punish the other person. In other words, consequences should be protective, not punitive.

Let’s say an employee continually misses their sales quotas. As a manager, you are responsible for the effectiveness of your team — and every team needs effectiveness. If deadlines continue to be missed (the boundary), you might have to switch their responsibilities or move them on (the consequence). It’s not personal, it’s just what you’ll do to protect your need for effectiveness.

Compassionate leadership

The art of compassionate leadership is in being able to empathize with others while also empathizing with yourself. This helps you to communicate more directly and to better manage healthy conflict. It can even make you a better designer, marketer, and salesperson.

I still feel vulnerable when exposing my emotions. It still takes time to identify what I need. And it’s still easier to identify what I don’t want than what I do want. But I’m persevering, and it’s having a massive effect on my relationships by making difficult conversations just a little bit easier.

The Founder Coach

Practical articles and how-to guides for founders, investors and startups.

Dave Bailey

Written by

Coach, serial founder, angel investor, speaker. Visit Dave-Bailey.com for more resources for startup founders.

The Founder Coach

Practical articles and how-to guides for founders, investors and startups.

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Please Advise

Notes on leveling up your professional life, selected by Medium’s editors.

Notes on leveling up your professional life, selected by Medium’s editors.

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