Constructive feedback is a powerful tool for improving performance, enhancing relationships and achieving more together. Giving positive feedback is a joy, but it can be much more challenging to deliver feedback on something that has gone badly. Most people giving feedback fall into traps — either they are eye-wateringly direct and provoke defensive behaviors, or very indirect and create confusion through their mumbling through an apologetic frown. In this article, we will explore the five steps to giving constructive feedback and how it can positively impact personal and professional relationships.

1. Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

Firstly, consider the practicalities of when and how you will deliver the feedback — ensure a private space is available and that enough time is allowed to deliver and discuss the feedback, answer any questions and agree on a way forward. Consider the furniture layout and formality, and how it mirrors the significance of the feedback and your communication norms — sitting opposite ends could suggest opposition, a table could be considered a barrier and giving people a view of the exit could prevent them from feeling trapped. Ensure there is enough space between both parties — being too close could signal aggression or dominance, but being too distant could make the conversation seem unduly formal or suggest a lack of interest. If you are having the conversation using video conferencing, then make sure that it feels as invested in as a face-to-face meeting.

Body language accounts for a huge proportion of our communication; so use this to your advantage. We might consciously tell ourselves not to fold our arms or avoid eye contact, but we might be less aware of distracting habits we have picked up such as clicking pens, foot tapping or loudly chewing gum. Recording yourself can be especially useful, even if it is painful to watch at first.

Before launching straight into the conversation, prepare the recipient with a micro-yes. This is a short but important question for two reasons. Firstly, it is a pacing tool that gets their brain into a feedback-ready state, and secondly, it gives them a feeling of autonomy and control that increases their buy-in. This question can be as simple as “I have some feedback for you — can I share this with you?” This both lets them prepare and also gives them a feeling of autonomy. By agreeing, they are giving you permission to begin and buying into the conversation.

2. State Your Situational Evidence

State what happened clearly and neutrally, firmly concentrating on the behavior, not the person. When our self-concept is under attack, people tend to get defensive and make the person giving the feedback the villain, letting themselves off the hook for their performance. They also may indulge in blaming or justifying behaviors, both of which are unhelpful for improvement.

If the evidence includes what was seen or heard, then be precise and avoid non-objective or accusatory words. Use the past tense to describe the evidence as the use of the present tense may imply that they demonstrate this behavior all the time — which may trigger defensiveness. For example, instead of saying, “You’re a terrible listener and don’t care about what other people have to say,” you could focus on a specific incident and say, “When I was speaking in the meeting, I noticed that you were looking at your phone.”

Consider your tone and nonverbal behaviors — it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. This is where the benefits of recording yourself really kick in. Think about how your tone and inflection can be used to convey sarcasm, doubt, understanding or confidence. When I first listened to myself I realized that I spoke far too quickly — if I could barely follow what was said, then how could the other person? I tried to slow down my speech, and by the next recording noticed I had done this by using filler words. But the “umms” and “ahhs” just distracted from the point I was making. On the advice of a trusted friend, I started to count to two in my head to create a natural-sounding pause. This can give the other person time to absorb the message. Finding what works for you is only possible if you go through the awkward process of watching yourself and continually improving your messaging.

Lastly, throughout the interaction remember to look after their feelings — avoid unhelpful comparisons with others and fixating on things that cannot be changed. Be honest and avoid the temptation to sugarcoat, qualify or layer with irrelevant positives — it can be confusing and dilute your message.

3. Consequence Without Catastrophe: Communicating Impact

Describe the impact of the specific example — this gives a sense of purpose, meaning and logic to the conversation. This specificity also helps to avoid misunderstandings or misinterpretations, which can lead to further problems. Frame the feedback — what issue has it created? How is it holding back the employee? Include a maximum of three key points when explaining consequences, as any more may be overwhelming and can either weaken the point or blow it out of proportion.

Remember, your attitude influences their response — stay calm and use nonverbal communication to your advantage. Leaning slightly forward with an open posture and maintaining good eye contact is usually best for expressing interest and gauging their response. Emphasize impact using appropriate gestures, pauses and inflection.

Remember that the other person is likely to have their own memory of the event and intended outcomes of their behavior, and reconciling what they are being told now with this may take a few moments.

4. The Power of Dialogue

This is their time to talk — give them room to comment and answer your open questions. It is equally important to actively listen to their answers. Be generous with your time and patience; they might have questions or strong emotions to work through. Consider if they need more from you: Do they need more training, tools or time? Align their improvement commitment to shared goals. If the problem was caused by an inappropriate attitude, then focus on understanding the underlying reasons why, so that you can address them specifically. Take time to consider their viewpoints and be prepared to reevaluate your position — are expectations unrealistic, or have new facts come to light during the discussion?

5. From Understanding to Commitment

Move the conversation to a joint problem-solving situation to develop their ownership over the problem. Offer specific suggestions to help the person see what they can do differently to improve their performance. For example, “Next time, try to put your phone away during the meeting so that you can be fully present and engaged in the conversation.”

Memory is unreliable, so it can be helpful to take notes. This will also help to reinforce that you are investing time and effort in resolving the problem. When commitments are written and shared, they can seem more concrete.

Ending on a positive note is crucial to leave the person feeling motivated to improve and continue doing good work. If the person has been willing and open to receiving feedback, then acknowledge this sincerely and reaffirm any commitments you have made to help their development.