This Is the Kindest Way to Give Tough Feedback to People You Like

Giving critical feedback is never easy. That’s because you know it’s not what the other person wants to hear: No one looks forward to learning they missed the mark.

However, if you’re a manager, it’s part of your job to point out areas for growth. And even if you’re not, there’ll be times when you disagree or have constructive criticism to share with a co-worker (or maybe even your boss).

You know it’s important to present your feedback in a balanced way. You don’t want to lean too hard on praise to begin with and then blindside the other person with your critique (or have them miss it altogether). But you also don’t want to be so harsh that you make them feel bad.

That’s where best-selling author Seth Godin’s advice can help. He writes that saying, “it doesn’t sound like you” is “one of the nicest things a generous critic ”can say.

This phrase makes it clear that the other person’s work fell short of your expectations. But it simultaneously highlights your faith in their abilities. It’s a way of saying you believe in them so much that you only want them to put forth work that’s of a high enough caliber to “sound like them.”

Once you lead in with this phrase, follow it up a statement that elaborates on how they can improve. What positive attribute does the other person usually demonstrate that’s missing from whatever they said or did? Did that email they shot off look rushed, and you’re used to everything they submit being typo-free? Did they make a comment that was inadvertently offensive or shortsighted?

Share why you were surprised, and what they can do for the next time. It’s as simple as:

[Section four] doesn’t sound like you. Could you explain how [proposed idea] would work more clearly?

The comment you made on our call didn’t sound like you. It came off dismissive, which I know would never be your intent.

This draft doesn’t sound like you. Could you take another stab at it including more data to support your points?

This update doesn’t sound like you. I’d love to see you share more of your direct involvement in the work!

As you see, this phrase allows you to share constructive criticism and praise at the same time. It helps you say: It’s not quite there, but I know you can fix it!

The fact is: No one puts forth perfect work 100% of the time. And we need our co-workers and managers to be straight with us, because it’s the only way we’ll learn and be able to (eventually) move onto bigger and better things.

So, if you’re feeling nervous to deliver negative feedback, use this phrase, brush up on the best way to deliver it (here are seven steps to getting constructive criticism right), and above all, remember that you’re not doing anyone any favors by keeping it to yourself.

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About Richard Moy

Richard Moy
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.

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