INTRO: The art of giving constructive feedback and when advice is helpful

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When is advice actually helpful?

There’s nothing worse than unsolicited advice. Maybe hidden insults disguised as compliments, like “Have you changed your hairstyle?” Today I’d like to reflect on the thorny yet important topic of feedback – both giving it and receiving it.

In a recent tango dance class, our instructor asked the followers (mostly women) to give feedback to the leaders (mostly men) on their technique. Talk about opening a can of worms. This was essentially an invitation to criticize each partners’ performance by sharing how well they were doing (or not). Yikes. Do you say something and risk hurting the leader’s feelings if they take it the wrong way or shut up and watch them perpetuate bad habits when your input might improve the way they relate to others?

Does this situation sound at all familiar?  

As leaders, when should we share our opinion or keep our peace? And as followers (or receivers), should we ask for feedback or do our best to figure things out on our own?

This challenge has perplexed me frequently throughout my working life.  In my early career, I would have benefited from manager feedback that could have helped me up my game and advance professionally. And on the giving side, as a communications executive, I was often tasked with telling leaders how to improve their presentation styles to help them better represent their company.  In all cases, this often involves dancing around fragile egos. I also remember when I provided my unsolicited input on business decisions that seemed important to express but weren’t appreciated and sometimes got me in hot water (Kill the messenger is a real thing).

Providing Constructive Feedback

I appreciated my fellow tango leaders response to his partner’s critical feedback: “You know it helps to compliment what we’re doing every once in a while.”  This perspective helped inspired these guidelines along with my own experiences. Criticism, unless it’s delivered well can be demoralizing and yet giving (and receiving) feedback is a powerful way to drive growth and change.

So how to give meaningful and inspiring input without causing harm?

  • Clarify your intentions.  Know why you want to share and make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. Helping someone improve is valid, while cutting someone down to bolster your own ego is less productive (not to mention obnoxious).
  • Be thoughtful.  Focus on one primary area to improve at a time. Don’t overwhelm the person with multiple things to change
  • Be positive. Think of a hamburger – the buns are holding the meat in place. Share one good thing they’re doing (the bottom bun), provide the area they should change (the meat) and close with another strength you noticed (the top bun). Some used to joke this was more like a sh*t sandwich, but I do think it’s important to share what is working and not only what’s not.
  • Be gentle. Monitor you tone of voice and bring caring energy. If you speak from your heart, the impact will be completely different than if you’re on a strike mission out to kill.
  • Get consent.  Arguably this is the most important element which is to consider your timing and find out if they are actually open to hearing what you have to say.
  • Be timely.  Share your input shortly after the situation you want to reflect on while the experience is still fresh and relevant. Don’t wait weeks after the fact when it’s likely fallen out of memory which could be seen as harboring a grudge or holding judgment.  
  • Be specific. Provide something tangible for the person to act upon that they will clearly understand and can actually change.
  • Minimize judgment.  Check that you are actually giving input on something that actually matters and not just your opinion.  People are unlikely to appreciate your comments about their appearance or other personal things that may not be appropriate to address.
  • Check in. Review that they actually understood what you shared by asking them to reflect back to you what they heard, so you can confirm or clarify anything.


Okay, so how would this work? Here’s an example of how you might phrase feedback to a subordinate on your team who just completed a big presentation to an important business prospect you were pitching.  The presentation didn’t go as well as planned (or perhaps you would have liked) and you were disappointed.

Hey Joe, nice job preparing that client data. May I share some input for the next time we have a client presentation together to help you be even more effective?  I’m glad that now is a good time to speak. I’ve found that clients often appreciate knowing what to expect up front through some key highlights so they have the big picture. Including a summary in the beginning would have set Jane’s mind at ease about what we planned to review so she might have had less questions from the start.

Would you agree with my suggestion?  Do you have any questions?

I appreciated how much effort you put into preparing the deck and I know that including highlights in the beginning will help our future presentations go smoothly . Please run the next client deck by me before we present so we can prepare and really ace those pitches.”  

In the situation I’ve shared, you need to give feedback because it’s impacting your business, the bottom line and you are accountable as the boss.  Other situations may be less cut and dry. What if it’s a peer for instance?  Or someone from a different department?  When do you speak up and when do you shut up?

Say Something or Don’t

While you could say nothing and let others figure it out for themselves (and often that is the best thing you could do), don’t avoid saying something just because you don’t like conflict.  Providing valuable input can actually transform someone’s life or career, not to mention having the potential to improve your relationship and allow you to share your knowledge. The invitation is to be a warrior, not a wimp.

At the same time, “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” is an important guideline. I would modify this to “if you have something challenging to convey, saying it nicely will help it be received better.” That is assuming the person does in fact want your input.

Sometimes we do need to speak up. To stand up for ourselves and what we believe in, so we can share our truth. This gives us an opportunity to help others better understand how they need to show up. Certain things are important to say. Other times, our words may be ignored and unappreciated.  While we want others to take our advice, sometimes it’s important for us to name what we see because it demonstrates that we cared enough to share, even if they can’t hear it.  In this case, it’s about you, not them. Hopefully they will come around and sometimes people need time to reflect. There are no hard and fast rules.

Just because it’s not easy to say the hard things doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. In fact, learning how to have challenging conversations may be one of the most important skills you can develop. This is one of the many strategies that conscious leaders need to cultivate to be more effective and can be done in an intentional and heart-centered way. Reach out to for more information about coaching. I would love to support you in sharing your gifts, speaking your truth and building stronger connections.