Psychological safety is an essential ingredient to a compassionate, human workplace where individuals and systems can innovate, grow, and thrive.
Feedback has lost some of its humanity and become overly focused on perfecting actions over helping humans.
In order to provide compassionate, safe feedback, it can be helpful to introspect on how poorly delivered feedback has affected us, and how safe and uplifting relationships were cultivated in our lives.
By following the below 11-step model for psychologically safe reflection- and learning-based feedback, we can truly invest in the humans around us in a caring, authentic way that allows for internalization, experimentation, and personal growth.
Giving and receiving feedback can be one of the most dreaded activities of many professionals’ work.
Why is that?
I’d argue it’s because we’ve forgotten about the human development purpose of feedback, and have become too focused on trying to “fix” things.
As a result, we often become too picky about things that don’t really matter, sending the feedback recipient into a place where they feel they can do no right. Alternatively, we might avoid conflict by providing no feedback at all (sometimes coming out passive aggressively instead), which leaves individuals blind to professional development opportunities, and leaders avoidant of difficult conversations.
There are times when feedback truly and rightfully involves very difficult conversations but, in most cases, this is more perception than reality.
When embodied as part of a safe and encouraging organizational culture; delivered with human compassion; and focused only on what really matters for investment in our people, feedback can be a caring and supportive tool to help others develop and thrive.
Background: How Psychological Safety Gets Threatened, and How to Re-ground Ourselves in Perspective.
Before discussing actions we can take to move back toward the human side of feedback, I’ll offer some surrounding context.
A Cautionary Mismatch Between Preferred Styles of Giving and Receiving Feedback.
Many executives self-identify as “straight-shooters,” practicing immediate and direct communication when things are on their mind. Many (though not all) might say this touches on their values of honesty, integrity, and openness—somehow, “immediate and direct” got tangled up with these.
I’ve observed over the years that most people who identify as “straight shooters” like to be direct, but struggle to receive direct feedback.
In increasingly complex and busy organizations, a benefit of direct communication is that it’s quick and doesn’t require much forethought. I would argue, though, that when it comes to interpersonal themes, that should be a direct flag for why it won’t go over well.
Direct feedback without highly established and trusted rapport doesn’t allow us the psychological safety we all seek as humans.
In order to truly internalize and adopt feedback, we need to be vulnerable and trust that the person giving feedback cares about our best interest. Psychological safety is the underlying requirement for that trust and vulnerability—without it, we not only hold back in the moment, but we become conditioned to feel unsafe in the relationship in future interactions.
What Is the Purpose of Feedback? What Are Our Motivations for Giving It? Have We Stopped to Consider This? (Hint: If the Motivation Includes Our Ego, We’re Probably Off Track.)
Feedback can be a powerful personal development opportunity when it’s thoughtfully considered and delivered, grounded in compassion, and oriented toward just the things that matter.
This means we have to notice and check our own ego or self-serving motivations before giving feedback.
Think about someone you truly admire—a mentor or role model you’ve had in your life at any time and in any context. How did they make you feel (not what feedback did they provide)? For most people, the answer includes, “totally safe, loved, and accepted no matter what.”1
Did they ever help you work on things?
How did they go about that?
Who initiated, and under what context?
Did they model behavior you wanted to emulate?
What qualities or traits did they exhibit when working with you?
What emotions or physical sensations did you feel when working with them?
Thinking through these questions can help us remember it’s possible to give feedback without losing our humanity (or avoiding difficult themes).
Putting the Human Back into The Feedback Process (and Purpose).
Somewhere down the line, the notion of giving feedback seemed to have lost its humanity.
If we start by fully considering the other person with complete care and compassion, that can help us get back on track toward considering what really matters in our messaging and delivery.
Our feedback recipients are humans, just like us. And just like us, they prefer compassion, safety, and thoughtful insights when hearing about things they could change.2
Relating To Others Means First Considering Our Own Experience: How Does It Feel When Feedback Goes Poorly?
Think about a time you’ve given or received feedback and it hasn’t gone well.
What did it feel like before, during, and after?
Did your heart race?
Did thoughts swirl around in your head?
How did you take in the experience? The content?
Was your mind present?
What did you do after?
What impression were you left with?
How did you feel about the other party?
What can you take from these memories?
What would have made the experience more comfortable and receptive?
What would have helped you and the other party?
How would you like to implement this awareness next time you give feedback?
An 11-Step Model for Psychologically Safe Reflection- and Learning-Based Feedback
Step 1. Spend Time Considering the Other Person.
What Motivates Them?
What Do You Know About Them?
How do they like to receive feedback? Note: if you haven’t asked, go ahead and do so—it’s never too late to show someone you care about their unique needs. Too often, we assume others would benefit from our preferred style, when that’s not always true.
Step 2. Consider What’s Important and What’s Not.
Take some time to think about which pieces of feedback are essential, and why, and which are overly picky and can be shed.
As a litmus test, ask yourself what the impact will be if you don’t share the feedback.
If the answer involves serious consequences to business outcomes or the individual’s desired professional development, it is probably worth including.
If the answer involves personal preference or style, it’s probably not.
Step 3. Schedule an Appropriate Time Using Compassionate Communication.
Think about the last time you were blindsided. How did it feel? How was the message received?
To avoid blindsiding the individual, schedule a time for feedback discussions in advance, rather than letting them come out on-the-fly. This allows both parties to prepare thoughtfully ahead.
Ideally, work to embed a culture of feedback meetings into the organization’s typical operations. This will help normalize the process and help promote the benefits of feedback.
Don’t be coy about the meeting purpose. Put it out in the open that it’s for feedback, but choose compassionate language and delivery to help ease the recipient’s dread.
Step 4. In the Meeting, Begin with Compassionate Context.
Context is key. Laying out the context clearly and compassionately upfront and including why it matters helps people understand your perspective, and reminds them you’re doing this because you care and the reasons matter.
Think about the experience from the other person’s point-of-view: even with the best of intentions, humans dread negative interactions. I hear employees say all the time that they feel like they’ve been called to the principal’s office for a slap on the wrist.
To help keep them from the dread of their suspense, set a realistic stage—don’t hold them in misery or mislead them into feeling this will be a purely social chit chat.
Step 5. Begin Your Feedback by Inviting Them to Self-Reflect.1
After conveying the context, ask, “I wanted to start by inviting your thoughts on what you felt went well and what you might like to do differently in the future. Would that work for you?”
Always start by inviting reflection on what went well, and only move into future goals after they’ve had a chance to celebrate the positive.
Humans are already so hard on themselves—they likely already know what they’d like to do differently. Provide the space for that to come out through self-reflection.
Step 6. Listen Deeply and Genuinely.1
This is a time to be totally present.
People want to be heard and understood. Deep listening is a way you can non-verbally demonstrate psychological safety.
Step 7. Reflect Back What They’re Proud of and Want to Work On.1
Without any agenda of your own, summarize back to them what you heard.
Then, ask if you got it right.
This helps them feel seen, heard, and understood.
It also provides a chance for them to clarify or expand on anything you didn’t hear or understand quite the way they wanted you to.
Step 8. Ask Them if It Would Be Helpful to Hear Your Thoughts.1
Only after you’ve listened to everything they want to share, compassionately reflected it back, and let them add anything they feel was missed, you can now ask whether they’d like to hear your thoughts.
Asking for consent is a critical part of maintaining the safe space. Even though it might sound unnatural to you, don’t skip this part.
They will almost always say yes. Humans are curious and self-critical. They want to know if they’re safe, accepted, and understood.
If they say no, ask them when would be a better time to have that discussion. Work that out together in a way that meets both parties’ needs, and follow through.
Step 9. Start With What Went Well.1
Be deep, meaningful, and authentic. Offer them a true affirmation of their strengths. People want to feel understood, and by affirming them for who they are and what went well, you are showing them you see them.
Take your time on this step—let the person bask in the warmth of being seen. Rushing through it will only confirm their fears that it’s just filler to get to the bad stuff.
Step 10. Offer Developmental Feedback on Just the Essential Items They Could Work on. Provide Examples, and Always Tell Them Why It Matters.
Frame this part with language like, “and in terms of supporting your developmental goals, I had a few thoughts—is now OK to share them?”
Keep your developmental feedback to just the most essential points.
Remember your work to pare it down in Step 2. Remember, this isn’t about perfection, but about what’s truly meaningful.
Keep in mind cultural differences and seriously consider whether they reflect truly meaningful and actionable feedback, or simply stylistic differences. Hint: if you find yourself thinking, “it worked, but it’s not the way I’d do it,” consider letting that go.
Often, your developmental feedback will be consistent with their own self-reflection. When that’s true, tie them together with preambles like: “as you self-observed, ….”
Be sure to provide concrete examples. If you can’t think of one, use that as a flag to reconsider whether the intent behind the feedback truly matters.
In keeping with the context-setting goal of Step 4, always be clear in sharing why this feedback matters. Without that perspective, it could come off as unnecessary, picky, and unsafe.
Step 11. End on a Forward-Looking Collaborative Note.
It’s OK to keep your human side visible here. Feel out the situation and say what feels kind and supportive.
It’s usually helpful to end on an uplifting action-oriented collaborative note. This not only reinforces the partnership, but also helps solidify useful developmental connections.
Invite the recipient to reflect on any actions or accountability you—together—might want to take out of the discussion.
Validate the experience and let them know you appreciated the discussion and their willingness to be open to exploring new possibilities.
Share your mutual enthusiasm for what’s next.
The Bottom Line: Remember the Human Purpose of Feedback, and The Importance of Psychological Safety in Sharing It.
This might seem like a long or arduous process, but putting thought and care into human interactions is worth the time investment.
If your feedback isn’t well thought-out, contextualized, focused, and framed compassionately, you won’t have provided the psychological safety needed for real introspection, growth, and change.
And isn’t that the purpose of feedback?
How does this resonate for you? Feel free to post thoughts in the comments or on social media.
2. Adapted from Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) workshops (credit: Teresa Valliere, LCSW, LADC, CCS).