Giving Constructive Feedback: Say Anything to Anyone With This 4-Step Process

06/20/2016 | Roger and Susie Engelau

As a business leader, your company’s results depend largely on your ability to get results from your employees. Which means a lot depends on your ability to communicate effectively with them.

Study after study concludes that millions, even billions, of dollars are lost each year due to poor communication. For example:

  • This recent HR survey reported an average loss of $62.4 million per year, per company “because of inadequate communication to and between employees.”
  • “Poor communication costs business millions of dollars every single day. Most executives and managers understand this, yet they don’t realize how big a part they play in this miscommunication.”  (Solari, Cost of Poor Communications)
  • Actively disengaged employees cost the U.S. $450 to $550 billion per in lost productivity 2014.  (Gallup State of the American Workplace Report)

Most business leaders need to occasionally ask their team members to do something differently. And most of the time, there’s a breakdown in communication that occurs. Often the breakdown occurs between how you think you’ve asked someone to do something, and how they interpreted that information.

It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it

About 30 years ago, I started practicing this 4-step formula – and it still helps me get my point across effectively today. It’s so simple, in fact, that I’ve memorized the beginning statement of each step so I can fall back on it anytime – sometimes several times a day.

You can tell anyone anything if you say it with respect and come from a place of caring.

As they say, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.

Here’s the 4-step formula:

  1. Start with your observation of the behavior or event. “Linda, in that meeting we just left, I noticed that you interrupted Bob 4 times.” State the facts in specific terms, using numbers when you can.
  2. State what effect the behavior likely had. “I think (or I’m wondering if) Bob got all his thoughts out (or if he felt talked over).”
  3. You can either stop here and wait for your listener to respond (silence is extremely effective) or you can Ask what your listener thinks: “What do you think?” or “Thoughts?” or “Did you get a similar sense?”
  4. So next time:  Either suggest what should be done differently in the future, or better yet, come up with a solution together. Either way, be sure to say it clearly and directly. “So next time, we can agree that you’ll let your team members finish their sentences before you start talking, right?”

What not to do

The key is to always start your communications with your observation about the situation – the facts.

Often, we start with how we feel, or our conclusion. For example: “Linda, you treated Bob pretty rudely in that meeting.” This can put your listener on the defense, and it’s much less likely they’ll hear what you have to say. When you start with the facts of the situation, you’re not projecting any critical, evaluative, or judgmental emotions.

Here’s how to memorize this method

To use this process on the fly, memorize this rhythm:

“I noticed… I think… What do you think? … So next time…”

As long as you have the first 3 or 4 words of each step, you have a great starting point for communicating the desired change in behavior.

Feedback is more meaningful when it’s delivered immediately after the observed behavior. If time doesn’t permit, or you deem it more appropriate to do it in private, try to get to it within a couple of hours.

If nothing else, remember this: The next time you want to give someone constructive feedback, start by saying what you observed. You’ll get a more receptive response and a solution-focused result almost every time.