Good intentions - the art and science of getting feedback heard


I have often heard leaders say that they are only responsible for delivering feedback and can’t be responsible for how it lands on the other person. It’s true—they can’t control anyone’s behavior but their own. However, I’ve seen a few leaders deliver very difficult feedback so masterfully the receiver hears it and acts on it, without a lot of drama…so what is their secret? 

Most models for giving tough feedback, including mine, emphasize using specific examples of problematic behavior. But delivering sensitive feedback requires both science and art. In my opinion, it’s the science that gets feedback delivered correctly, and it’s the art that gets feedback heard. 

Defensiveness raises its ugly head when the receiver feels they have been misjudged or wrongly accused. They jump to their own defense because they feel blamed. (“All I was trying to do was…” “But I did that because…”). Typically, the receiver launches into defending their good intentions to justify their actions.  

The skillful coach preempts that defense by acknowledging their well-meant intentions upfront. The receiver’s defenses lower and they are more willing to listen. From the perspective of the receiver, as long as they are acknowledged for trying to do the right thing, they can put down their shield and try to understand why the outcome went wrong. 

Are good intentions good enough? While giving the benefit of the doubt about someone’s intentions goes a long way, that’s not to say you should let them off the hook—you must still be specific about what they did or said and why it was inappropriate. Recognizing intentions doesn’t mean condoning the act. 

Some leaders take this too far—that is why this is art; it’s hard to get it just right. For example, they will acknowledge that the person’s intentions were good and then let them off the hook. 

Sometimes this is perfectly fine (Giver: “You have been cutting off your peers and talking over them in staff meetings, and that is shutting down conversation.” Receiver: “I am excited about this new project and I have a lot of ideas…I meant well. I wanted to show my experience and knowledge about the topic.” Giver: “I understand your intentions but you need to listen to other’s ideas, too.”) 

Here’s an example of why good intentions are not enough. (Giver: “In today’s team meeting, when you said, ‘Charlie, your department has a bunch of deadwood and you aren’t doing anything about it,’ you embarrassed and attacked him in front of his peers.” Receiver: “Yeah, but it’s true! I am only trying to make him accountable for doing his job!” Giver: “I’m not questioning your intentions but I do think your approach is out of line. Let’s talk about how you are going to repair the damage with Charlie and a more appropriate way to handle this going forward.”)  

Here is some language for being preemptive about intentions:

I believe you have good intentions…

I don’t think you would have done this intentionally…

You probably don’t realize… 

Here is some language that leverages a caring relationship:

I’d want you to tell me if I were doing something that was getting between us, so I want to tell you…

I care about our relationship, so I want to talk to you about…

Here is some language that is career oriented:

You’ve mentioned you would like to advance in your career, so I think you would want to know if there was something getting in the way of that…

The skill of X is important to be successful in your position, so I would like to help you improve in that area. I have noticed… 

Like with any kind of art, there is no one best practice, but understanding and acknowledging good intentions is a good place to start when you want to get past defensiveness to action. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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