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Offer Feedback People Really Value by Talking about the Future, Not the Past

Tony, a good friend of mine, wanted my advice about how to talk with someone on his team who seems “overly sensitive” to any feedback from him. When he told me what he’s been saying and more importantly, how he’s been saying it, I instantly recognized a red flag.

Talking in terms of the past is not constructive.

After all these years researching and writing about workplace feedback and coaching, I now recognize a red flag is raised when you refer to the past.

I know that focusing on the future is best, but it has taken me a while to understand that too much discussion about what a person did in the past makes them feel like they’re being beaten up. Offering guidance on how to succeed in the future, however, is like offering the team member a soothing, delicious bowl of ice cream[DS1] .

Tony was actually using a version of what I’ve often taught, explaining the consequences of the other person’s action. Example:

“When you did X, it resulted in Y, and Y was bad for [team, customers, costs, etc.]

What’s wrong with what Tony said? Well, it comes across as “You did badly,” or “You failed.”

Talking in terms of the future is empowering and optimistic.

Make the request for the behavior you want to see before talking about the past. Example:Hey, next time you handle a project that involves A, please make sure to include B, which will ensure a better result and prevent C from happening, like you experienced last week.” Wait until the end of the feedback to share the past example of what they did ineffectively, without being overly critical.

When you tell them about the possible positive outcome of their actions instead of focusing on what they did wrong in the past, they are more willing to make adjustments or change tack to reach that goal.

For more tips and strategies read the best-selling Feeback book: The Feedback Imperative: How to Give Feedback to Speed Up Your Team's Success.

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