Tips for giving feedback without causing defensiveness

“Giving negative feedback is difficult. I never know what words to say. So, I end up sugar coating it or avoiding it altogether.” Sound familiar? If you struggle with the words to say—and who doesn’t—here are some handy templates you can use: 

Template: “I’m sure you had good intentions when you (insert a description of what the person did). But I felt (insert your emotion: “insulted,” “patronized,” “hurt,” “ignored”.)” 

Example: “I’m sure you had good intentions when you made the decision to go directly to my employee about this. But I felt slighted that you would take action on something in my area of responsibility without getting my input first.” 

Analysis: Starting with “good intentions” gives the person the benefit of the doubt without blaming him or her and invites them to explain their actions. 

Template: “We’ve had many conversations about this problem. I feel it’s only fair to tell you what could happen if you don’t improve in this area. (Insert real, possible consequences—no threats).”  

Example: “We’ve had many conversations about your interpersonal skills. I feel it’s only fair to tell you what could happen to you if you don’t improve in this area. It may have an impact on your performance review and your raise this year and in the future it certainly could limit your ability to get promoted.” 

Analysis: Often, people don’t realize the real impact of their performance problems. They interpret feedback as a difference of opinion, or “picky.” In fact, when many people are terminated they often say, “I had no idea I could lose my job over this!” You’ll notice I use the words “could happen” instead of “will happen.” You don’t want to back yourself into a corner and force yourself into an inflexible position.  

Template: “I don’t know if you’re aware of this—or if it’s true—but I heard (insert feedback about the person). What do your think?” 

Example: “I don’t know if you’re aware of this—or if it’s true—but I heard that you and Jan are not getting along. Is that true?” 

Analysis: If you jump in and assume that everything you hear is accurate, you will alienate people and damage your own credibility. The rule of thumb is to always get first-hand information before you bring something up but if that is not possible, you may need to use this approach. It allows the person to present their side without judging him or her before they start. 

Template: “You are usually so (insert their strength: “efficient”, “tactful,” “customer focused,” “accurate”). That’s why I’m concerned about (insert what they did that was a problem).” 

Example: “You are usually so careful about satisfying our customers. That’s why I’m concerned about these three customer complaints that say you were short and irritated with them.”  

Analysis: If someone is normally good at something, they deserve to hear that first. If you ignore their good performance and only comment when they have a problem, they will resent it and their overall performance will dip. 

Template: “I know you want (insert their goal: “to get promoted,” “more responsibility,” “your project to succeed”). So I know you’d want to know if I was seeing you do something that was getting in your way.” 

Example: “I know you want to be promoted to a supervisor position. So I know you’d want to know if I was seeing something in the way of that. When you tell people in other departments that you will get back to them and then you don’t call them back, it destroys their confidence in you. A key part of being a successful supervisor is the ability to juggle a lot of balls and still respond in a timely way to multiple requests.” 

Analysis: Starting out with their goal provides a strong “what’s in it for you” message. The feedback sounds more like career development advice that the person has a vested interest in correcting. 

Template: “People draw their conclusions about someone’s performance by that person’s actions. Their perception is their reality. (Insert the behavior and the perception.) If you disagree with their perception, what can you do to change their perception?” 

Example: “People draw their conclusions about someone’s performance by that person’s actions. Their perception is their reality. When you don’t talk in our staff meetings or offer to help to your peers when they’re swamped and you’re not, people can perceive that you don’t care about them or they believe you feel superior to them.” 

Analysis: This is useful when the person doesn’t agree with your perception of his or her behavior. By challenging them to change the perception, it removes the argument about their intentions.


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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