By Marshall Goldsmith
Most people avoid difficult conversations because they are painful, awkward, and well, difficult. That’s most people. Leaders, managers, and employees who are successful at work have to learn how not to avoid difficult conversations.
Say for instance, you’re a leader and you have to give someone negative feedback about his poor performance on the job. Or look at it from the other side, say you’re an employee, and you need to give your manager criticism about her “soft skills”.
There are a couple of ways to handle these difficult conversations.
- focus on the past, give the historical facts to this person of their problems, challenges, and/or issues. Be careful, if poorly delivered feedback can make people very defensive and angry; or you can
- focus on the future, provide suggestions and solutions for the future, and possibly inspire the person to make constructive changes that will help her, the team, and the organization. The challenge here is that without knowing a bit about the past, there is no context for the feedforward.
The greatest leaders I know employ both feedback and feedforward. This is truly the key to successfully handling difficult conversations of this type.
Feedback is often necessary. While it can be negative, if delivered well, it is very helpful in setting the stage for why change is needed. (The worst leaders I know only give feedback and they often don’t do it well.) Feedforward, on the other hand, is almost always seen as positive because it focuses on solutions rather than problems.
Feedforward is not the miracle cure. As historians tell us if we can learn the lessons of the past, we will be able to avoid making mistakes in the future. We cannot ignore the past just because we are uncomfortable or unskilled in providing feedback. If we provide feedforward without context, it will not have meaning and it will be without impact. The person receiving the feedforward may say “I don’t understand why you are making this suggestion. What relevance does it have to me?” We need to understand and be connected with the past to provide context and then make suggestions for the future.
When providing feedforward, I always suggest that the person frame the feedforward something like this: “Here are four ideas for the future. Please accept these in the positive spirit that they are given. If you can only use two of the ideas, you are still two ahead. Just ignore what doesn’t make sense for you.” This is a forward-looking, positive, non-judgmental statement typical of feedforward.