Giving feedback that is easy to listen to

The whole point of feedback is to change someone’s behavior in the future. That only works if you can give it in a form that they can listen to. This is a template I got from the wonderful Manager Tools on how to give feedback in a way that maximizes the chance that your feedback will be heard.

Use the "When you {verb}ed ... what happened was ..." model

"When you"

  • Identify the externally visible past behavior, not mindset or intent.
  • You should be so descriptive (or so recent to the event) that they can identify a specific instance of them exhibiting the behavior
  • Deliberately force yourself to give feedback about only specific instances and not patterns – it will force you to give feedback that is easier to listen to.

"What happened was"

  • Identify impact in the context of the event
  • Great feedback uses impact that resonates with the listener, e.g. "the project delivered late" vs "Tim was sad" are valued differently by different people on the team.


  • "When you added an emoji to my slack message, what happened was I felt I was part of a team"
  • "When you interrupted me when I was talking about API design in the team meeting, what happened was I stopped offering my perspective during the discussion"
  • "When you provided an alternative doc comment in my code review, what happened was it was easy for me to incorporate the change"

Subtle failure modes

  • "You come off as mean; for example, you interrupted me"

    • Providing feedback of the form "pattern example" is especially dangerous, since it can create a story that is hard to recover from. (If the person stops interrupting, are they still mean?).
    • Instead, prefer the form "instance consequence", so it is more clear that changing the behavior will change the effect: "When you interrupted me, you came off as an asshole"
  • "When you started speaking while I was speaking, what happened was I felt insulted"

    • Impact on your emotions is ok, but some words can accidentally ascribe intent (did the person intend to insult you?).
    • Instead, prefer words that describe your emotional state (for examples, check out this list): "When you started speaking while I was speaking, what happened was I felt angry"
  • "When you interrupt me, what happens is I stop speaking"

    • Giving feedback in present tense usually is about a pattern and is generally less credible; its easy for someone to say "I didn't do that" or "I stopped doing that" or "you only notice bad things", etc.
    • Instead, use past tense and prefer feedback about specific examples: "When you interrupted me in the team meeting, what happened is I stopped speaking".

Get the right context

Manager Tools warns (rightly) that it is very dangerous to give feedback when you can't be sure the other person knows its coming from a place of love:

  • Wait until you have a strong relationship to give feedback.
  • Avoid doing it when angry.
  • Aim to do it with a laugh and a wry smile on your face.
  • Avoid doing it in writing, where people have to infer emotions.

Further reading

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