How to Give Embarrassing Feedback

Adolf Friedrich Erdmann von Menzel 049.jpg

My husband came home from the gym the other day and told me that his trainer was briefly delayed. Apparently all employees had been called into a meeting to discuss a critical problem: How to tell a client that he smelled.

Giving sensitive feedback is never easy. When the message concerns intimately personal issues – bad breath, personal hygiene, unprofessional attire – it is even trickier.

As with other topics I’ve discussed, the internet offers rather indifferent advice. I found one expert who suggested an 11-step formula for imparting difficult feedback. To me, that sounds agonizing, not to mention how difficult it would be to remember each of the 11 steps. I don’t know who would find such a conversation more painful – the person imparting the information or the person on the receiving end.

You don’t need 11 steps. The key to giving difficult feedback well is to make doing so as painless as possible, both for yourself and for the other person. To do that, you have to give the message in a way that it will be readily understood. So don’t hint, don’t beat around the bush, and don’t draw out the conversation unnecessarily.

Try this instead:

Assume the person doesn’t know. “But how can he/she not know?” you will protest. “It is obvious to everyone else!” I can only reply that I’ve seen time after time that what seems readily apparent to outsiders can be opaque to ourselves. Unless the person’s embarrassing problem is the result of a medical condition, he is likely unaware of it.

Find a private place. Lower the risk of embarrassment by making sure the conversation won’t be interrupted.

Just say, “I have to tell you something” and then get right to the point. No small talk. Don’t ask the person how he thinks things are going, or if he feels he’s fitting in, etc.

Speak directly, but be kind. Again, don’t hint or make the person guess at what you mean. At the same time, don’t exaggerate or over-state things. Saying something like, “You have a noticeable body odor” is enough.

Be matter-of-fact and relaxed. If you are nervous or feel insecure, the person you’re speaking with will pick up on it and it may make him or her feel worse. Also, by being tense or dramatic, you give the issue excessive importance. Remember, the person you’re speaking with has personal hygiene issues, not a fatal disease.

Take responsibility. Don’t say that the issue is something that “came to your attention” or that you’ve “received complaints.” Don’t make the person feel worse by implying that he or she has been the subject of gossip.

If the person gets angry or defensive, stay calm yourself. As when responding to any angry person, let him or her speak as much as needed. Hear them out, then repeat back what they said. Resist the impulse to solve the problem or offer advice unless they ask you what to do. If you’re not sure what else to say, try: “I told you because if it was me, I would want to know.”

What to do next will depend very much on your relationship with the other person. Are you their boss, a colleague or a friend? If they ask for your help, offer practical advice suited to the issue in question. (More frequent changes of clothing? Stronger deodorant? A trip to the dentist?)

Finally, check your intentions. What is your motivation for confronting this person? Unless you sincerely want to help him or her, keep quiet.

About the image: By Adolph Menzel – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=155595

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