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  • Writer's pictureScarlet Spark Team

The Conflict-Averse Leader's Guide to Giving Difficult Feedback

Updated: Feb 22



The animal protection movement is filled with caring, compassionate leaders who want to create positive change. But through our work with these leaders, we’ve found a common barrier to their impact: They often struggle to give feedback to the people they work with, especially when that feedback is critical.


Giving feedback and having difficult conversations can be hard, especially for people who pride themselves on having compassion. But giving feedback is essential to the success of an organization: It helps you course correct when something’s wrong, align on priorities, troubleshoot points of friction, and ultimately build trust. There’s simply no achieving your mission without it.


Why Leaders Avoid Difficult Conversations — And How You Can Change


Before we dive into how to have these conversations, it’s important to take a step back and understand the resistance leaders have to giving feedback.


If you feel uncomfortable giving critical feedback, ask yourself why. Unpacking the cause of your discomfort will help you rebuild your relationship to feedback and make these conversations easier.


Below are some of the common reasons we hear why leaders avoid having tough conversations. Often, they involve a core part of the leader’s identity or values. Doing something that feels like it’s in conflict with a person’s core identity inevitably feels uncomfortable. Alongside these common reasons, we’ve offered some ideas about how to reframe the objection in a way that makes room for feedback.


  1. “I hate conflict:” People hate conflict for all sorts of very understandable reasons. It can be exhausting, upsetting, and unproductive. Often, past bad experiences with conflict (whether at work or not) leave people anxious about having to go through negative feelings all over again. Reframe: “I hate conflict, and giving regular feedback helps me avoid it.” Giving critical feedback is not about conflict. It’s a chance for you to discuss what might not be working, get the other person’s perspective, and come to an understanding about how to fix it. In fact, it’s the best tool we have to avoid serious conflict later. If you’re worried about the person receiving the feedback becoming defensive, see below for ideas about how to proceed. But regardless of what you think the other person’s reaction might be, it’s important for you as a leader to model having these important conversations.

  2. “I’m not good at giving feedback.” Delivering critical feedback can feel especially uncomfortable if you don’t have feedback conversations often. Sometimes people draw the conclusion that their discomfort means “I’m just not good at this—and therefore I never will be.” That last part is key: you may find yourself not just avoiding tough conversations, but convincing yourself that things will always feel this way. Reframe: “I value improving my feedback skills.” Instead of thinking about feedback ability as an identity or character trait, think about it like any other habit or skill. Much like playing the piano or learning to ride a bike, giving constructive feedback is something you can learn, practice, and improve over time. The more you do it, the more comfortable you’ll get, and the better you’ll be at it.

  3. “I’m a kind person” or “I don’t want to hurt anyone's feelings.” People come to animal protection because they’re compassionate: They have dedicated their lives to making the world a kinder place. But sometimes, that instinct for kindness makes those same people feel uncomfortable giving critical feedback, especially if they’re worried about hurting the other person’s feelings. Reframe: “I’m being kind when I give honest feedback.” Feedback conversations might feel difficult in the moment, but it’s far, far kinder to help someone improve their work than to avoid telling them when something is wrong. And the longer a leader avoids giving feedback, the more trust and psychological safety will be harmed. When you finally do speak up, the person may feel blindsided or start to wonder what else you haven’t been telling them. And feedback doesn’t just affect you and the person receiving the feedback—it affects the whole team. If a leader avoids giving critical feedback to someone who turns things in late, isn’t completing work correctly, or is ignoring processes or values, that leader is creating more strain for the rest of the team.


If you catch any of these thoughts running through your head, try to acknowledge them, then consciously reframe them.


Finally, if you tend to avoid or delay difficult conversations, don’t wait until you feel comfortable to have them. The more you delay, the more anxiety these conversations induce. You’ll get better and feel more comfortable with practice.


The Welcome Feedback Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Difficult Feedback Conversations


Inevitably, leaders have to give critical feedback or have tough conversations. It’s just part of the job. So, how do you get through it?


Creating a productive, safe environment for learning requires more than just delivering your feedback. At Scarlet Spark, we teach the “Welcome Feedback Model,” which likens feedback conversations to entering a physical space of learning where you want to be welcome. This model has three phases: knock, talk, and lock.


Knock: Begin the Conversation


Just as you wouldn’t burst into someone’s house uninvited (hopefully!), you also shouldn’t immediately launch into the conversation. First, lay the groundwork for yourself and for the other person.


Prepare yourself


Before you start the conversation, make sure you have specific instances of the problem at hand, as well as the impact. Focus on observable behaviors or patterns rather than broad statements about them as a person.


Take a mental inventory of how you’re framing the issue. Especially if this is the first time you’re giving feedback about a specific topic, avoid characterizing things in loaded binaristic terms, such as success or failure.


For example, instead of, “This person is failing in their role,” or, “this person is not a team player,” get more specific with your framing. Choose less charged or personal words and avoid value judgments.


Compare those statements with these examples:


  • “This person missed several important deadlines.”

  • “This person has been five to ten minutes late to each call this month.”


In addition to being less charged, the concreteness of these statements will also be way more helpful to the person receiving the feedback.


At this stage, it’s also important to stop and ask yourself whether bias could be at play. Do you treat others who exhibit the same behaviors similarly? Are there differing cultural norms or expectations you need to consider?


Next, consider your mental and physical state. Set yourself up for success by showing up to the conversation well-rested and fed with a mindset of curiosity rather than criticality.


Invite them


Now that you know what you want to say and why and feel physically and emotionally ready (or ready-enough) to share the feedback, it's time to let the person know. But how can you do that in a way that will make the feedback welcome?


Many of us have experienced the dreaded phrase, “We need to talk.” It’s vague, ominous, and anxiety inducing. Don’t do it!


Instead, be specific about what you want to talk about and ask for consent to have the conversation. If you think it can help create a greater sense of safety or clarity, share your intention as well. Here are some examples:


  • “Can I share some feedback with you on X? My intention is Y.”

  • “Would you be open to hearing some thoughts on X?”

  • “Is there a good time to debrief on X? On a scale of 1-10 in importance, it’s __.”


Notice that these examples are framed as questions. They create an opportunity for the person to decide whether or when they want to have the conversation. When we increase people’s agency in this way, we reduce defensiveness and surprise, which results in a more constructive conversation.


Talk: Have the Conversation


The “talk” phase is the part that most of us associate with giving feedback. This is where you get into the what and so what of your feedback: the observation and why it matters.


Here are tips for making it a productive discussion.


The ‘what’ and the ‘so what’ cheat sheet

As you deliver your feedback, remember to keep sight of the behavior or action (the ‘what’) and the impact (the ‘so what’).


For the ‘what,’ focus on: 


  • What was the specific situation?

  • What was their observable behavior?


For the ‘so what,’ focus on:

  • What was the impact (on whom)?

  • What are the consequences (if any)?


Here are a few examples, putting it all together:


  • “I noticed you missed the last 3 project deadlines, and I wanted to bring it up because missed grant application deadlines can jeopardize our funding.”

  • “This month, the meetings you've led ran past their schedule end time. I wanted to raise it because I ended up rushing to my next meeting and feeling stressed.”

  • [It works for positive feedback too!] “When you introduced me to everyone on the team, I felt so welcome and included here. Thank you!”


Lock: Capture the Learning


Delivering your feedback isn’t the end of the process. After you’ve had the conversation, create an opportunity for the other person to ‘lock in’ the learning rather than letting it float away. This is often the most meaningful and collaborative part of the entire feedback conversation.


Check in with them to understand their perspective, and work toward creating greater alignment or commitment moving forward.


Be sure to learn:

  • How do they see the situation?

  • Do we need to reset expectations?

  • What is each of us committing to?

  • When and how will we check back in?


If you expect change the happen as a result of the conversation, always leave with a plan to move forward and check back in on progress.


Handling Difficult Reactions


Just as some leaders struggle with delivering feedback, many people struggle to receive it. There can be many reasons for this, including lack of psychological safety in the workplace, previous workplace trauma, anxiety, insecurities, and more. In many cases, a defensive reaction can create a vicious cycle — a leader delays giving feedback because they’re afraid of the person’s reaction, but the longer they delay, the more difficult the conversation comes and the harder the feedback is to receive. 


We’ll discuss some ways to address this on an organizational level below, but what do you do during the conversation itself?


Focus on What You Can Control


While you can do your best to minimize surprise, maximize safety, and give useful feedback, remember that you can’t control the other person’s reaction.


Often, we see leaders avoid giving feedback as a form of self-protection: they don’t want to be on the receiving end of these difficult emotions. But ultimately, that’s unfair to the person who needs the feedback because they’re being denied an opportunity to fix the issue. And just as the best way to get better at giving feedback is to practice, having regular, safe feedback conversations will help the other person get better at receiving it.


Do your best to listen and acknowledge the other person's reactions, but don't attempt to avoid them or control them.


Give it Time


Don’t forget: Their first reaction isn’t necessarily their final reaction. They may be caught off guard or emotional in the moment, but that doesn’t mean they’ll always feel that way. When you explain what you’ve seen and the impact and make a plan to move forward, they may gain more perspective.


If the conversation is not feeling productive, you can always recommend taking a break and returning to it later in the day or week. For example: "Would it be helpful if we paused for now to let each other's points sink in and try again later today?"


Disentangle Statements and Stay on Track


Remember all the prep work you did before you started the conversation? Keep your notes close at hand and glance at them if things get tough. Your work here is to keep the conversation on track and grounded in the specific feedback you’re trying to give. For example: "I hear you and appreciate your perspective. That said, the impact is still there, so can we explore ways to address that together?"


An important tool to have in your back pocket when things get emotional is disentangling. When someone makes a statement that contains multiple points, deliberately separate out each issue to create clarity. Disentangling also helps diffuse tensions when emotions run high.


Let’s look at one of the feedback examples from earlier. You knock, you talk, and then the conversation goes like this:


You: “I noticed you missed the last 3 project deadlines, and I wanted to bring it up because missed grant application deadlines can jeopardize our funding.”

Them: “It sounds like you don’t think my work is good enough!”


If you answer that statement on its own terms (value judgments about this person’s work), you will be getting away from the topic you wanted to discuss (the behavior) and instead engaging with something a lot more charged (the good enough/not good enough binary).


Instead, disentangle the statement: “It sounds like there are two issues here. One is the issue of on-time delivery, and the other sounds like a separate concern about the quality of your work. I will jot down that second point to discuss because it sounds like it’s weighing on you. But can we start with the timing issue for now?" 


Discuss the other concern later in the conversation or schedule a time for a separate conversation about it. In this moment, it’s important to both acknowledge that you’ve heard the concern, and also keep the conversation on track.


Create a Feedback Culture


In addition to practicing these individual conversations, build more opportunities to give and receive feedback into your organization. These can include:



You can also make a big impact on your feedback culture by clarifying what the expectations are of other leaders and members of your organization. Who is responsible for giving regular feedback and to whom? Are they doing so consistently and effectively? Does the burden of providing critical feedback fall on a few people, or is it evenly distributed throughout the organization?


Making feedback a regular, normal part of your organization will go a long way in making feedback conversations less stressful and more energizing. More than that, you’ll build a stronger, more resilient organization. When your team knows you’ll give them regular, clear, actionable feedback, you’ll also build a culture of trust.


Conclusion


Animals need our kindness, care, and compassion. And leaders within the animal protection movement have an abundance of these strengths. To make an even bigger impact for animals (while creating a great workplace for our teams), we just have to learn to use that kindness in some new and uncomfortable ways. The good news is: on the other side of that discomfort lies greater organizational health, progress, and power to achieve our missions.




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