The Daily Challenge: Give direct, but empathetic feedback


 It takes skills to be honest yet kind.


Be direct but empathetic in your feedback

Read Time: 4 Minutes

Feedback helps people know how to be successful. However, when feedback is unclear, vague or unsaid, it makes it harder to reach success.

It seems that these days some people argue that we should all be more direct, while others suggest a more subtle approach. If you’ve ever been called “too direct” in your feedback, this one is for you. 

Being direct means being straightforward in expressing your thoughts, opinions, and motives. The Radical Candour approach to feedback suggests that directness is a positive quality for a leader and a necessary component of constructive feedback that supports a productive environment and inspires inclusion.

The Situation Behavior Impact model of feedback explains how to deliver feedback in a direct way:

  • State the situation

  • Define the behavior

  • Explain the impact.

The place most people avoid being direct is in the behavior portion of this process. 

When you say, “You did a great job on the project last week,” it only comments on the situation and impact. The direct feedback on behavior would be something like,  “Your timely and effective data analysis of the results last week helped us move the project closer to success.” This feedback is more direct because it makes it clear what you did correctly and how you can continue to be successful in the future.

Direct feedback might come across as harsh when it does not invite dialogue or discussion. However, if you clarify the intention of your feedback, deliver it in an empathetic way, and create the room for discussion, you can reduce the probability of being perceived as harsh or rude.

You may already be giving feedback openly and inviting others to join a discussion, but it is always useful to analyze whether you can create an even better balance between honest but empathetic feedback.

Think about the feedback you want to give (whether to the team member who called you “too direct” or to any of your coworkers). When preparing for delivering your feedback, consider the steps below to make sure your message is honest, constructive, and positive.

Step 1: Write down the outcome you want to achieve in the conversation. What is the message behind your feedback? What do you want them to do, reinforce, change, or to know? 

Step 2. Make sure your message is objective and non-accusatory. When you address people’s work, comment on what the person did and not the person themselves. In this way, you can direct your feedback to the specific actions or decisions and separate it from the person’s identity. Such a focus will help the person receiving the feedback constructively think about what you say without feeling attacked.

Step 3: Be constructive. If you are pointing out an issue, suggest a solution to address that issue. That will help make sure the tone of your message is positive and will allow you to bring more value with your feedback. If you don’t have a solution, communicate that as well. It’s okay to say, “I’m not sure what the exact solution is but I would be happy to think through it with you.”  

Pro-tip: Give them space to share their thoughts. It’s important to ask what the person receiving the feedback thinks about your message. Do they understand your perspective? Do they have questions? Do they disagree? Opening the conversation for them will show your team member you are ready to listen. 

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