If you find giving feedback uncomfortable, you’re not alone: 44 percent of managers agreed in a recent survey that delivering negative feedback is stressful, while 21 percent admitted to avoiding the act altogether.

By shying away from sharing feedback, you miss out on important learning opportunities—both for you and your colleagues. It’s been shown that employees prefer to receive criticism over no feedback at all, because at least then they know how to improve.

In order to deliver feedback effectively, you also need to practice. Avoiding a potentially awkward situation now will only make future conversations more difficult, which is why it’s important to coach colleagues in the moment.

If you’re nervous or don’t know where to start, here’s how you can provide feedback more effectively.

How to Give Feedback Effectively

1. Exercise Empathy


Receiving feedback can be just as uncomfortable as giving it. Put yourself in your colleagues’ shoes and try to understand where they’re coming from and what they might be experiencing.

Your message will resonate more if you exercise empathy, because your employees will know the critiques are coming from a good place. Make it known that you’re providing feedback because you want to see them succeed. That will put them at ease, and in a better position to internalize what you’re saying and turn your advice into action.

         Related: Why Emotional Intelligence Is Important in Leadership

2. Take Time to Prepare


Before offering feedback, strategize what it is that you actually want to say and how you want to say it. If your employee is underperforming, but works hard and has the right intentions, you might take on a warmer tone in the meeting. If you’ve cautioned your colleague before, but they’ve been unresponsive, then you should be more direct.

From there, rehearse your advice and prepare for different scenarios. Consider how the feedback recipient might react and formulate a response. The more prepared you are, the less likely it is you’ll rush through the feedback.

3. Speak in Specifics


It’s important to be specific when delivering feedback. In the online course Leadership Principles, Harvard Business School Professors Joshua Margolis and Anthony Mayo outline a process for how you can deliver feedback that gets to the root cause of an issue.

Leadership Principles: Unlock your leadership potential. Learn more.

When delivering feedback to employees, they advise:

  1. Be direct and speak to the issue you want to coach them on
  2. Identify a specific behavior, rather than speak in generalities
  3. State the impact of that problematic behavior and connect it to the consequences
  4. Share specifics around who was affected and the impact the recipient’s actions had not just on the organization but on their own career

The more clear and specific you are, the less room there is for the feedback recipient to misinterpret your advice.

4. Save Time for Inquiry


Whether you use it to start or end the conversation, you should always incorporate inquiry. At the beginning of the conversation, it can be helpful to ask feedback recipients how things are going and their perspective on the situation. Through that process, they might identify behavior themselves, which makes it easier to kick off the conversation. If they don’t, it might mean that they have a particular blindspot or are defensive about certain aspects of their performance.

At the end of the conversation, return to inquiry. Ask if they understand the feedback and how it makes them feel. You want to ensure they didn’t misread your message or only internalize certain parts of the feedback. If it’s clear they recognize what the problem is, you can start brainstorming solutions and leaving the meeting with a greater sense of resolution.

         Related: 4 Tips for Growing Your Professional Network

5. Focus on the Future


Once the feedback has been delivered, shift the focus of the conversation from what’s happened to what’s next. Rather than rehash the past, describe how the recipient can change their behavior moving forward and how the two of you, together, can use this experience as a way of overcoming future issues.

Creating Opportunities for Growth

Although the conversation might be uncomfortable, you shouldn’t try to avoid it. Not only will the process make you a more effective leader, but it will help your employees grow in their own career. If you truly want to see them succeed, they’ll recognize that and know your feedback is coming from the right place.

Are you interested in learning more about how to effectively coach colleagues and bring out their best? Explore our online course Leadership Principles to discover how you can mobilize others and cultivate high-performing teams.

Lauren Landry

About the Author

Lauren Landry is the associate director of marketing and communications for Harvard Business School Online. Prior to joining HBS Online, she worked at Northeastern University and BostInno, where she wrote nearly 3,500 articles covering early-stage tech and education—including the very launch of HBS Online. When she's not at HBS Online, you might find her teaching a course on digital media at Emerson College, chugging coffee, or telling anyone who's willing to listen terribly corny jokes.