The Art of Giving Tough Feedback In The Church

I don’t know about you but I’ve found that one of the most challenging aspects of leadership is giving feedback.

And I don’t mean, “Hey nice job on that presentation!”

I’m talking about, “Hey, did you notice that everyone was sleeping during your presentation? Let’s talk about that.”

I used to hate conversations like this because I’m naturally a people pleaser.

But, over time and through a lot of bumps in the road, I’ve grown to appreciate these conversations because I know there is incredible value in helping people see their blind spots and in helping to challenge people to grow in areas of weakness.

With that said, let me add this:

I am not awesome at this!

And, my 5 rules for giving feedback have been learned the hard way…as in me learning from my mistakes.

1. I Am For You

The foundation for a challenging feedback conversation is a relationship in which you have made it very clear that you are for the person you are sharing feedback with.

If the person doesn’t believe that you are for them, the conversation will likely not go well.

Actually, it might seem like it goes fine to you, but not in the inner world of the person you are sharing with.

And, how do you know if you are truly “for” the person? Let me ask you a few questions:

  • What are this person’s hopes and dreams?
  • What keeps this person up at night?

If you don’t know the answer to these questions then you don’t really know what drives this person.

I have learned the hard way that sharing tough feedback without taking the time to really know a person pretty much never goes well. It feels like an unwelcome attack.

If there’s only one thing you take away from this post, I hope it’s that you starting digging into these two questions with the people under your care.

Caring deeply can change everything in leadership.

2. Time and Place

Did you ever get called to the principal’s office as a kid?

When I was a high school student, I vividly remember getting called to the principal’s office for a tough feedback conversation.

The anxiety!

The dread!

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Maybe it was because that was the day I got fired from the school news show.

That’s a story for another day.

Anyway, what I want you to recall is that feeling of dread.

That, “I’m in trouble” feeling. This is the feeling we get when someone who has authority over us might just use that authority to reprimand us.

The point I’m trying to make here is that if you sit in a position of authority, you can accidentally evoke these same feelings in the people you lead.

The longer we occupy a position of authority, the less likely we are to remember.

A few examples of times when I accidentally did this:

  • Sending a text: “Hey, can we meet tomorrow. I have some feedback for you.”
  • Using a calendar app to set up a new meeting with a direct report without giving an context

In these situations, I accidentally created a principal’s office moment.

I created stress and anxiety for no reason.

The point I am trying to make is that there is a way of entering into a feedback conversation that creates extra stress and anxiety and these emotions can make it almost impossible to listen to feedback with an open mind.

Rule number 2: Don’t add to the stress of the conversation by the way you enter into it.

3. Feelings Not Opinions

Typically, people argue about opinions but not feelings.

Here’s what I mean:

You are a mean person.

Ok. If you say that to me, I’m on the defensive.

I’m mad and ready to fight about your stupid opinion.

Let’s try again but with feelings.

When you said that, it hurt me.

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Ouch. I hurt you? Wow.
I’m so sorry.
Help me understand what I did.

The difference is obvious.

When giving feedback, always present the feedback through your feelings and observations.

My boss often puts his feedback about a weekend service this way,

From my seat it felt like…

It’s very easy to receive feedback like this, even when it is tough to hear.

Rule number 3: Couch your feedback in feelings and observations instead of opinions.

4. Ask for Input

I’ve found that it’s not enough to just deliver receivable feedback.

Once you’ve stated your feedback, it’s time to ask a question.

How did it feel to you?

In other words, from my seat it felt like this.

How did it feel from your seat?

9 times out of 10 the person is aware that whatever you are discussing didn’t go well.

And of course, there are the times when the person will be completely blindsided by the feedback.

These conversations will be a little trickier.

The important point here is that this conversation needs to be a…conversation.

I’ve discovered that feedback should be something you impart.

It should be something you discuss.

If your feedback conversation sounds like this, you’re doing it wrong:

From my seat, your presentation felt like this…

Make sense?

Ok. Well, now you know so you can do a better job next time.

Fail. Trust me.

I’ve done this…FAIL.

Rule number 4: When we deliver feedback, we should expect to start a conversation, or better yet, conversations. This is about developing people and this process is messy and long-term.

5. Don’t Own it

Here’s my last rule on delivering great feedback:

Don’t own it!

In other words, it’s your job as a leader to build a solid relationship, enter into the conversation in the right way, deliver feedback it in a way that’s receivable but not to correct or grow the behavior.

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That’s not your job.

That’s their job.

I’ve found it helpful to return to the feedback conversation a week later and say something like,

I’m behind you 100% and please let me know what you need but I’d like you to put together a plan on how to grow in this area.

Put the ball in their court and don’t babysit their progress.

Do hold them accountable to growth but don’t manage the process for them.

Accountability leads to growth. Doing the work for them leads to dependence.

Wrap Up

Well there you go, 5 rules for delivering great feedback.

All of these rules have been developed from “that was dumb” mistakes on my part.

Hopefully one of these will save you from the same trouble.

We’d love to learn from your mistakes, hear your great ideas or answer any questions you have. Please leave us a comment below.

Thanks for reading.

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