Where Feedback Fails: The How vs. The What

Thoughts from a recent experience of being an observer of some poorly delivered feedback…and deciding to say something.

And a silly dog image, just to bring us all some grace as we fumble and flail with feedback!

Warm to Frigid in a Heartbeat

Last week a group of us involved with a new program launch were giving some feedback to, and asking questions of, the program’s designers. Let’s call them Alex and Chris.

At first things were going well. The atmosphere felt warm and collegial, even while there were a lot of concerns and questions.

And then, let’s call them Jo, shared. The gist of Jo’s feedback “You didn’t do this. You didn’t do that. You haven’t supported us. You haven’t set us up for success. What are you doing? ” All said with lots of emotion and loads of judgment, and what felt to me like an unspoken subtext of “Do you even know what you’re doing?”

As she spoke, I felt the temperature in the room drop precipitously. I scanned the faces and bodies and could literally see everyone withdrawing: eyes averted, faces still, bodies pulled back from monitors.

The feedback wasn’t being directed towards me, but I still felt it viscerally in my body. I felt my heart-rate rise, the air go out of me, and a churning feeling in my stomach. I was having a textbook stress reaction. And by the body language of everyone else, so were others. I could feel myself getting defensive and protective. It felt like I was being repeatedly jabbed with a pointy stick. And I was just an observer. I could well imagine how the recipients were feeling, and it made me deeply uncomfortable.

Poor “How’s” undermine valid “What’s”

The points Jo was making were entirely valid. The content – the WHAT – of her feedback, was right on point.

But HOW she was delivering it – her tone (harsh), her choice of words (you, you, you), her cadence (rapid fire) – was making it very hard to hear and engage with what she was saying in any productive fashion.

While you weren’t in the room with me, I am sure my story is evoking memories of similar experiences. They’re that common.

Stress responses kick in...

What’s also common are the typical reactions to this kind of dynamic:

  • Some say nothing or just exist the conversation (flight or freeze stress response). It feels too confrontational and awkward to say anything. But that also just tacitly signals what just happened is OK, even if it’s not.
  • Others acquiesce (the appease stress response). They seek to soothe the agitated person by just agreeing with what they are saying. Again, that signals what just happened is OK, even if it’s not.
  • Others get defensive and push back (the fight stress response). And that tends to dial up the emotions even more!


I rapid cycled through most of them (except appease – which for me only tends to get activated when there’s a power-dynamic going on as well). My brain rapidly went

  • “Get me the hell out of this conversation”, to
  • “Stay silent, do not engage or you will get your head bit off too” and 
  • “Whoa, wait up there, who do you think you are to lay into Alex and Chris like this. Seriously not OK.”

...and nervous systems “have a moment”

In short, my nervous system was having “a moment”. So I needed a moment to regulate my own nervous system back down.  As she went on for a bit, I had that time. Unfortunately it meant the “attack” went uninterrupted. You win some, you lose some. 

But I used that time to decide not just what to do, but how to do it. 

SBI: A model for how to give feedback

How to give, and receive, feedback is – unsurprisingly – a very common topic in my coaching. For giving feedback I usually teach the Situation-Behavior-Impact (“SBI”) model from the Center for Creative Leadership. 

  • Situation: name the when and where 
  • Behaviour: neutrally state the physically observable behavior 
  • Impact: state the impact of the behaviour on you 

I didn’t feel the need to state Situation and Behaviour: it was literally unfolding in the moment. 

I did want to speak to Impact – but again, to who and how? 

Impact: A truth, not the truth

One piece of wisdom I learned from another mentor is that the only truth I can ever claim when giving feedback to someone is how I experienced them or the situation. It’s not the truth, but it’s a truth. I can’t claim to know their intent – I’m not a mind reader. I might have a good guess – but that’s all it is, a guess. 

I didn’t want to address myself to Jo, though, or to interrupt her. Both felt like they would just dial up her agitation. Instead I decided to speak to the room as a whole rather than publicly “calling Jo out” for giving her feedback in a less than skillful way.  

Once Jo was done, I was ready, and I intentionally jumped in before anyone else did. 

“I want to jump in here.” I said. I intentionally made my tone was quite assertive here. (I know that for some that could still be construed as “aggressive” even though my goal was for “assertive.”) 

Then I paused, took a breath, and grounded myself again, so that I could shift my energy, slow my pacing and soften my tone. “I am noticing I am feeling very uncomfortable right now. I am feeling like Chris and Alex are being attacked, and that’s making me very uncomfortable.” 

And then I ran out of steam and didn’t quite know where to take it after that! 😲🤣

But that was enough, apparently.  

Within seconds, private messages dropped in the chat: “Thank you!” And there was a palpable shift in the room, with eyes unglazing, bodies opening, and faces becoming more open once again. 

Respect the wisdom of your body

I am sharing this story not to set myself up as the hero here. I was so – so! – tempted to be the avoider, to let it slide. I very nearly did. Doing anything felt so risky. 

I am sharing to – hopefully – plant the seeds for what you might do when (and sadly it is when, not if) you encounter something similar, and you want to try something other than fight, flight, freeze or appease. 

And if you don’t want to – that’s totally ok! Take a guilt free pass. This is no call to heroics! It’s taken me a lot of work and skill building to be able to do this kind of stuff now – I didn’t used to be able to! 

Please know this is also no call to confront “the attacker” in the moment. Our bodies know that’s a risky move. Honor and respect the signals from your body that are shouting “Danger, danger!”. 

But your body is also telling you “This is not OK”. And we want to honor that too. 

Kindness to self first

The way I’ve learned to honor both from those wiser than me is firstly just to accept what I am feeling, however contradictory, however much of an “overreaction” those feelings might be. Simply be kind to myself. “It’s OK Sue, this is hard to witness and hard to know what to do with. All of what you’re feeling is OK.” 

Once you’ve turned towards yourself with this gentle care, now just ask, “If I were to do anything here, what could I do?” 

Notice that you’re not telling yourself you must do something. Rather you’re just gently contemplating if you were to respond, how might  you respond. That takes off all the pressure to come up with the “right” response – which, ironically, greatly increases the chances of you coming up with a creative response that honors and respects you and others. 

Then see what ideas come up. 

In this scenario my other ideas were to 


  • drop private messages in the chat to the people involved 
  • send a follow-up email to them, or 
  • have a private conversation with the person giving the feedback


I chose naming my experience out loud to the group as a whole as the one that felt most aligned with who I was wanting to be in that moment. 

What is most aligned for you will be different – and differ from situation to situation. 

Don't forget humor

One thing that almost always works brilliantly in these situations is humor. Laughter is a major stress response disruptor. Some people are just brilliant with finding the humor in the moment. That’s not my strong suit, though. 

In hindsight, that could have sounded like “Oh, wow, I feel like I just got a ring side seat at a WWE match.” (Others will have way better jokes for this than me!) 

But if you can’t access humor in the moment, no beating up on yourself – that isn’t a talent all of us have to hand when we’re under stress. 

It doesn’t have to be big

My big takeaway was just how little it took – and how imperfect that little could be – for it to initiate a shift that others then built on. I started…and then stalled out. But even that tiny start was enough. Others took from there. 

The other moral of the story

And of course, when you are the giver of feedback…pay attention to your “how”, so that it doesn’t undermine your “what”. 

Your feedback might still be painful to receive – but when given with kindness and care, it will have more of a positive impact, and less of a negative one. 

In kindness, 

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