The Benefits of A Difficult Conversation

Summary: If being judged makes you uncomfortable, here are some ways to structure a feedback session for success.

Who do you think has the most challenging time with feedback? Is it the giver or the receiver?

Most leadership development programs focus on how the giver, the leader, discusses feedback with the receiver, the employee.

The team leader comes into the meeting armed with a pre-thought-out performance review, feedback from others on the team, and the comforting fact that they are in charge.


What about the individual under review?

Over the years, many in our Total Leadership Connections program have said, “I hate this situation. I feel like I’m back in school. Teachers judged me without much chance to stand up for myself. I learned to take the hits and get out fast.”

Why is getting feedback so nerve-wracking?

Do you hate to be judged? And more to the point, what happens to you now when you know you will be under the microscope?

This situation is when the idea of feedback becomes, even more, complex and exciting.

Self-doubt is the elephant in the room.

Self-doubt goes both ways. It invades the emotions of the receiver. Yes, we know that. However, did you know the giver often must reach for anti-acids before, during, or after a feedback session?

Here is a memory Janet shared in a leadership coaching session that gives a clue.

Find out where self-doubt started to create “feedback fear.”

“When I was nine, we did multiplication tables at school. The teacher would say nine times seven and then randomly point to one of us kids. I wouldn’t say I liked the finger-pointing and the need to perform like a circus animal. She would snap her fingers, and we had to perform to her expectations.

If I got the answer wrong, she would keep moving on. Yet, the kids would snicker out of their discomfort. I began to shut down emotionally, which has stayed with me. So, I want to puke when it’s time for feedback!”

Fast forward 30 years, and there is Janet, filled with anxiety and self-doubt when her boss tells her what she did or did not do correctly.

Self-doubt is a two-way street.

I also coached her boss, who shared this with me about feedback sessions.

“Twice a year at feedback time, I sleep little and eat lots. Eating is my go-to reaction when I’m stressed. If I had more direct reports, I think I’d end up on TV’s “The Biggest Loser” because of excessive weight. I’m not particularly eager to give negative feedback, yet, to be honest, I have to say things that will upset others in my job. Yet, I can’t tell anyone this. They’d shrug and say, “Tough, that’s part of being a leader.”

Feedback can work constructively.

Both the sender and the receiver can become aware that a real, live human being is sitting on the other side of the table. Yes, even when one has, it seems, more power than the other. 

That is NOT the point.  The point is that each side needs to be sensitive to the self-doubt sitting in the room, like a great big yet very quiet elephant.

Acknowledge that the meeting is stressful and anxiety-producing. No, that won’t make the nervousness go away. It will, however, shrink the elephant to a smaller size and make the situation more honest.

Use these four significant ways to set up a feedback meeting.

There are ways to make difficult conversations more productive. 

Here are four significant aspects of feedback that need to be in any discussion:

  1. Make sure you are both clear about the present debate.
  2. Keep it simple and stay on the subject (no ‘furthermore’ or ‘in addition to’).
  3. Be respectful (no unnecessary jokes, leave that for having a snack together).
  4. Agree to the next steps together (the key here is to decide the next steps with each other, not with one dictatorial and the other submissive).

This checklist is the first step in a communication model I have used to help thousands of high-achieving leaders and those aspiring to leadership positions find common ground for effective dialogue.

The best way forward is to be open to the outcome (not attached to it).

You don’t have to let the self-doubt voice in your head become a tsunami of negative thoughts repeating that you will mess up or disappoint.

Once you finally see the old behaviors that get in the way of success, you can tame and transform them. It starts with understanding your stress triggers and how to keep them under control.

When you make what was invisible more prominent, you, not the patterns, are in charge.

Feedback becomes what it is to be, a learning situation. Nothing more.

Here’s to your success,


PS. Please accept a complimentary copy of the introduction to my book “Invisible Stress (It’s Not What YOU Think!). Click the link here and learn what to do more effectively when giving or getting feedback.

Creative Energy Options

Sylvia Lafair

Creative Energy Options