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  • Writer's pictureDanielle Terranova

How to Give Difficult Feedback

Two people in an office having a conversation.

When it comes to difficult workplace communication, we generally fall into one of two behavioral camps. One group is direct, frank, and forthcoming with feedback, no matter how difficult it may be for someone to hear. They are comfortable managing performance expectations, and while doing so in a manner that doesn’t deteriorate the quality of their relationships may be a challenge, they won’t shy away from delivering tough information others need to improve performance. The other group is highly sensitive to the needs and feelings of others, so they have some difficulty communicating on topics they feel others may not want to hear. While they are generally liked and maintain close connections with colleagues, they find it challenging to be the bearer of bad news and may avoid giving critical feedback until it becomes absolutely necessary.

Then there are a few unicorns who occupy a sweet spot right in the middle - they can deliver bad news and maintain the quality of their professional relationships - yet those communication masters tend to be very few and far between. Perhaps we can change that.

Regardless of which communication style you prefer, most professionals benefit from understanding best practices to manage difficult conversations with colleagues. My direct and between-the-eyes brethren can use a sensitive approach that leaves colleagues feeling unbruised after difficult conversations while the relationally sensitive among us can use a communication method that allows them to overcome conflict avoidance and deliver tough feedback.

In this article, we learn an effective communication strategy from an unlikely source to improve our sensitive communication skills. When used correctly, it works every time to not only provide feedback others need to hear but also maintain the quality of professional relationships at the same time.

When is sensitivity required?

Before we explore best practices on how to deliver sensitive communication, we need to spend some time to understand the workplace scenarios where sensitivity is required. Generally, care and caution are advised in feedback situations when:

👉 colleagues may be caught off guard by the feedback

👉 parties may disagree with the need for feedback

👉 there has been conflict in the relationship in the past

👉 failure to correct behavior could lead to termination

👉 colleagues have shown sensitivity to tough news in the past  

When these conditions are present, it is a strong indication that a sensitive approach to communication is required to achieve positive outcomes with the parties involved.

Using The Sensitive Feedback Formula

The Sensitive Feedback Formula is a communication strategy designed to deliver difficult feedback and preserve the quality of partnerships at the same time. It was designed by renowned couples therapy researchers, Drs. John and Julie Gottman, and adapts beautifully to challenging workplace communication. If it works for couples, it can work for anyone.

1️⃣ State the Facts

In step one, we state the fact of what happened, factually and without judgment. We reiterate the events that precipitated the need for feedback, yet we do so without any personal inflection, bias, or subjectivity that can derail the conversation and inspire defensiveness. Although it sounds simple, this step can be more challenging than it looks. The litmus test is to state the facts in a manner where both parties will agree on the central events that led to this point. State the facts, be as brief and succinct as possible and challenge yourself to retell the central events without inspiring disagreement.

2️⃣ Describe the Impact

Step two is where we describe the potential impact of the events in step one on results and/or relationships. While the impacts described in this step can be actual, anticipated, or feared, it is important to connect the behaviors described in step one to professional outcomes you hope to avoid. Sometimes colleagues lack understanding of the influence their behavior and decisions can have on the big picture goals of a team, department, or company, so this step is crucial to connect them to a broader understanding of the impact of their choices.

3️⃣ Express Your Hopeful Intention

Expressing your hopeful intention is an opportunity to communicate your positive intentions for the long-term health of the partnership. In this step, we make sure those on the receiving end of difficult feedback understand our wish for a positive and productive working relationship in the future, as well as our investment in their continued growth and development. Here is where we paint a picture of what could be if improvement is achieved, so be generous with your wishes for the future of the partnership.

4️⃣ Accept Some Responsibility

When appropriate, it is important to accept some responsibility for our role in the negative outcomes the feedback conversation is meant to correct. Everything from being unclear with expectations to being unavailable for coaching is fair game as we improve receptivity by assuming some level of responsibility for the role we play in unintended consequences. In this step, we share some blame, acknowledge shortcomings and set a good example of personal accountability.


5️⃣ Invite Solutions

If we’ve done our job in steps one through four, we should have laid the groundwork to encourage a willing, non-defensive, and solutions-oriented participant to show up to the course correction part of the conversation. Here is where we invite the parties involved to co-create solutions to prevent similar situations in the future. In this two-way part of the conversation, we face forward, avoid litigating the past and design optimal working conditions for the future of the partnership.

6️⃣ Let it Go

Step six is all about moving on and wiping the slate clean. For parties to feel inspired to assimilate feedback into behavioral change, they have to feel like they can begin again, and release concern their previous choices will be held against them. Shake hands, thank them for the conversation and try to avoid mentally keeping score.

example of sensitive feedback

Tips for Mastering Sensitive Feedback

🔹 Script your communication for each step while you are getting used to communicating with the Sensitive Feedback Formula. Even if you don’t use your script in the conversation, it’s helpful to map out what you’d like to say in advance.

🔹 Intervene early, when the behavior is small instead of waiting for overwhelming evidence to support a problem. It is difficult for those on the receiving end to be receptive and co-create solutions when you bury them under a mountain of evidence of underperformance. Speak up sooner and address molehills instead of mountains.  

🔹 Document your plan when you co-create solutions for future accountability, just do so in a non-confrontational way. Summarize with a follow-up email or jot down a few notes of your own, but it is important to record agreed upon solutions to support future development conversations.


🔹 Don’t forget specific positive feedback if and when the behavior is corrected. Positive feedback is a strong motivator for continued improvement and accountability so celebrate course correction whenever possible.    


It is an act of professional mastery to deliver critical feedback while also preserving the quality of professional partnerships at the same time. While most of us feel comfortable being overly direct or conflict avoidant, both strategies, when overused, weaken perceptions of our competency and limit our effectiveness to create positive results in the organizations we serve. This tool provides professionals with a simple script to encourage and deliver the difficult feedback colleagues need to develop their potential. The goal is to inspire frequent and consistent exchange of information with colleagues, even when it’s tough to hear, because, at the end of the day, it’s our job to help each other succeed.

Headshot of Danielle Terranova

Danielle Terranova is the voice behind Leadership Lessons with Danielle.

She has been an executive coach since 2015 and owner of Terranova Consulting, LLC since 2019.


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