In my early days as CEO, I would be scared to give feedback because it would often result in people being really upset and angry - and for good reason.
Giving feedback is hard stuff. When to give it. How to do it. What words to use. It can be like playing with fire. You can burn down bridges. I used to dread it.
Things have changed, though. A few weeks ago, I gave someone very difficult feedback. I also asked them to leave the company. But when we left the room, we were laughing and smiling together. An interaction like that isn’t always so cheery, but I have found two core principles can help. They can do more than that: they can transform your words into powerful energy that can literally change someone's life.
Here is the basic idea:
Imagine a human being has a “core engine” that is the foundation for how they operate. This core engine has the ability to receive inputs (i.e. feedback) and recode itself to create fundamental change. We each have this core engine, and it’s vital to how we grow and develop.
However, this engine is covered with protective walls that stop inputs from making their way into it. These walls are not necessarily good or bad. They can be useful -- they can protect you. They often form out of a desire to prevent a repeat bad outcome in the future, or to repeat a positive outcome of the past. They’re defense mechanisms that come from your self-esteem, your ego, your trust in others, and beliefs you’ve built up over time.
It makes sense that we need to protect ourselves from some scenarios; but these walls tend to block too much. They can also prevent what’s good for us, from making its way in. As a result, we are left in a bit of a bubble—creating an “illusion of happiness” at the expense of making real progress over the long term.
So how do you get your feedback into this core engine, so your words have impact? You will have to pass through two major walls… Imagine each wall has a gate and a guard that you must gain entry too. How? Let’s start with the first one.
Passing Through the Gate of Respect
The guard at this first gate wants to know if you have respect for this person. It wants to know if you see their greatness. If you see and believe in their superpowers. They want to be validated. Do you see their strengths and what makes them great? Do you see the things they can do, that most people cannot do? This guard needs to believe you do or else you are locked out. Fake compliments will not work. Only genuine respect and affirmation.
In your conversation, this can manifest in a few ways. One has to do with more subconscious cues you are giving off...your body language, your energy, your disposition. If you don't respect this person’s greatness, they will see it (unless you are a professional poker player or sociopath, they will know). So before this discussion, it’s helpful to center yourself around your respect for this person. Write down a few of the things you really think this person is great at or record yourself saying it and listen to it back a few times.
I approach this by closing my eyes and thinking about their strengths 60 seconds—it really works. Another way to represent this is in your choice of words, and this is much easier to control. Make it very clear to this person that you respect them and you believe in them. These words must be sincere. Be very specific about what makes them exceptional. When you do this right, this gate will open and let your words through to where it matters.
But you are not done yet: we are onto gate and guard number two…
Entering the Gate of Intention
This guard will not open this gate unless they decide your intentions are to genuinely help the person grow. Why are you sharing your feedback? Do you really want to help? Are you giving this feedback because it's going to make you feel better? Or because someone else is making you do it? Or is it because you genuinely want this person to improve and you know you can help them? Do you care for this person? In order to pass this gate, you have to be 100% committed to your desire to ONLY help this person. Otherwise, you will be blocked.
So how do you do this? I wish it was as simple as using a canned sentence or just a few of the right words. The truth is it happens at a much deeper, almost meta level. You have to find a way to clear out your negativity and your judgement. You have to give up your desire to vent or feel good. You have to get it out of your system before the feedback is given. When you get there, you will know. You’ll feel clarity that you have the right intention and are coming from the right place.
This may sound crazy, but what I do before these conversations is close my eyes and keep reminding myself that I just want to help them. I say it over and over: I just want to help, I just want to help. I am here to help. I’ll even meditate on the idea of them growing and improving - visualizing them improving in my head. I try to think about what may be causing me to push my own agenda (vs theirs), and get it out of my system. After I do this, I feel much more confident going into the discussion and the other person can really see my intention is good.
What’s on the Other Side of Good Feedback
For better or worse, this is what it takes for your words to drive real change in other human beings.
If you are giving feedback with a pure intention of helping that person ...and with deep respect for their greatness, you will pass through all the walls. Your feedback will enter their core engine, giving your words a chance to have a real, potentially lasting impact.
Don't judge your success by their immediate reaction; this approach doesn't mean they won’t get upset or be defensive or reactive. Sometimes, that's the only way people know how to respond. It’s normal and does not mean you failed - so don't react back to it. In their own time, your words will enter their everyday self. Over time, they will likely thank you. And you will get the reward and energy back from having done something great for them.