From what I observe in organizations, the most difficult conversations for leaders are those where they want to influence a change in someone’s behavior. Although the recipe for engaging in feedback conversations is a three-part path, none of the steps are easy to successfully navigate.

In my recent post, “Feedback Conversations: Disentangle Facts from Opinion,” I outlined the three steps:

  1. Data: What happened?
  2. Feelings: What emotions came into play?
  3. Impact: What are the consequences of this situation?

(By the way, if you want to learn more about feedback and difficult conversations, I recommend Simple Habits for Complex Times: Powerful Practices for Leaders by Jennifer Garvey Berger and Keith Johnson (Stanford Business Books, 2015) and Thanks For The Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well  by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen (Penguin Books, 2014).)

Here’s why each of these three elements are rarely addressed in a way that’s acceptable to the person receiving feedback.

  1. Data: Even though we have a clear picture of the situation that illustrates why this person needs to change, it is very hard to state our facts without including feelings, opinions, and the story used to interpret the raw events. Examples:
    • “When you lashed out at Harry…”
    • “When you were so adamant about the proposal…”
    • “How could you go behind my back and assign that to Paula…”
    • “You were unprofessional when you…”

Facts are never separated in our minds from judgments and opinions, they are intimately entwined. So when leaders say what’s on their minds, it’s never just the facts and only the simple, raw data. Is it any wonder people get immediately defensive and the conversation gets worse?

What gets shared as “data” is often this:

“an emotion that gets linked to a couple of examples, and those tied together with a story about why the whole thing was objectionable in the first place.” ~ Berger and Johnson, Simple Habits

When you see someone come late to a meeting, that may be data to you that shows he’s being disrespectful. But to the other person, that’s not the pure facts. That’s your opinion and judgment. If you open the conversation with “When you are late, it’s disrespectful to others.” you can not expect to have an effective conversation that invokes a change because the person will be on the defensive.

What may appear to be disrespectful tardiness, may be something else. Perhaps the person is in over their head and is in need of productivity help, or perhaps there is another piece of information to explain the situation. Learning needs to take place and it needs to start with facts.

In a complex environment such as business today, where people are working as best they can in a rapidly changing context, data about the present situation really matters. Data offer the core material for change. Leaders need high quality data. It’s up to leaders to sort out their stories and feelings in order to learn what’s really going on.

What’s your opinion? Have you ever opened a feedback conversation and learned about important other data from the other person? I’d love to hear from you. I can be reached here or on LinkedIn.

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