We encounter feedback in a number of ways in the workplace. When working with another person or group of people to deliver goods or services, feedback is a key component to being able to continually correct toward the goal. Feedback is also institutionalized in the annual or semiannual evaluation process featured in many workplaces.
Feedback is often one of the most problematic pieces of communication, whether you are on the giving or receiving end, and whether it is in relation to someone at your level or above or below you in the office hierarchy. It often brings up our needs for safety and security, occurring as it does in relationship to our livelihood.
All too often what we call feedback is loaded with judgments about the other person or ourselves. It inherently contains implications of right and wrong, good and bad, and it reinforces the use of labels to define who we are, limiting the full scope of our humanity. We tend to like these labels when we perceive them as positive, and dislike them otherwise. These statements are often both said and received as “truth.”

Examples of feedback in this vein sound like this:

You messed up again.
You’re an outstanding employee.
Your work on this project is unacceptable.
You’re not detail-oriented.
It’s important for your advancement here to be able to see the big picture.
You need to be able to work more compatibly with other people.
I just received another report of you being inconsiderate.

Our culturally inherited language choices are so imbued with moralistic judgments that even when we seek to give “constructive” feedback, we are all too often met with defensiveness and countercriticism. We often perceive feedback as negative when we are being told that someone else doesn’t like what we are doing. In part, this dynamic is explained by what we say and how we say it, but also it is explained by the acute sensitivity to criticism we have learned by being raised in cultures of blame.
In workplace evaluations, feedback often takes on a higher level of importance without a corresponding increase in its clarity or usefulness. Evaluations I’ve come across or heard about often rate people on a point scale in different arenas of work, such as punctuality, cooperativeness, motivation and attitude and communication skills. The format of these evaluations imparts an appearance of impartiality to what is still a series of judgments. In addition, for the most part the categories are not really measurable.
The kind of feedback I prefer is generally tied to a specific observation, and is based on an assessment of whether needs have been met or not. This assessment is a kind of judgment—judging whether needs are met or unmet—however, in considering whether our needs have been met, we are not blaming or suggesting that anyone is deserving to be punished.
When we give feedback, then, we let the other person know the Observation (what they did or said that our feedback refers to), the Needs met or unmet, and any Requests we have. If we are on the receiving end of feedback, we can ask for the specific observation the feedback is based on, and guess (out loud or silently) the other person’s needs. If the feedback is in the context of an evaluation report, each area of the evaluation can also be tied to specific observations and needs.
The key preparation to communicating a negative evaluation to someone is to make sure your own needs for empathy are met and that you are clear as to what your intention is in communicating with the other person. Then, use observation language rather than judgment language when speaking about their conduct to make it as clear as you can what conduct you are referring to. Following the basic structure of the NVC training wheels sentence, you might then tell them the need of yours that is not met.
It seems to be much easier for people to hear negative evaluations when they are stated in observation language and followed by the need that isn’t met, coupled with your request. Due to the training of our culture, they may still hear it as criticism; you cannot control how they will hear you and respond. However, you can be clear as to your intention and how you go about fulfilling that intention. As long as you are clear in your intention that you simply want them to understand that the conduct (expressed by you as an observation, free from judgment) is not meeting a need of yours, it may be easier for them to hear.
Your request is also key; it serves to help focus the person’s mind on what you would like it to focus on and not on interpreting criticism when none is intended. A process request is often helpful when first stating the feedback: “Would you be willing to tell me how you feel hearing what I’ve said?” or “Would you be willing to tell me what you heard me say?”
Once you are satisfied that you have been heard as you want, you can then make an action request, asking for the specific conduct you would like. A layer of difficulty is added when, for instance, we need to give feedback about something we don’t like to a person whose decisions can adversely affect our continued employment. In such cases, additional self-empathy, and practice role-playing responses we anticipate would be challenging, may be necessary before we have the conversation.
For additional workplace examples, roleplays, and support in addressing more workplace communication challenges, see Chapter 5 of Words That Work In Business.

Author's Bio: 

Ike Lasater, J.D., MCP, is the author of Words That Work In Business and a former attorney and cofounder of Words That Work, a consulting and training firm helping organizations achieve results through better communication and collaboration. He has worked with individuals and organizations in the US, Australia, Hungary, New Zealand, Pakistan, Poland and Sri Lanka. He is a former board member for the Center for Nonviolent Communication, and the Association for Dispute Resolution of Northern California, and the co-founder of the Yoga Journal magazine.