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What stops us giving feedback that’s ‘clear but kind’?

Updated: Jan 23

Being able to give feedback that’s ‘clear but kind’ is an important leadership skill, but it’s not easy and takes a lot of practice to get right.

Brene Brown uses the expression ‘clear is kind’ a lot. She writes, ‘Feeding people half-truths or bullshit to make them feel better (which is almost always about making ourselves feel more comfortable) is unkind.’

I think lots of us have unwittingly done this and it ends up backfiring.

I experienced this early in my first headship. It was a school in very difficult circumstances, and it was hard to attract good teachers to come and teach there. Pupil behaviour was hard to manage and teaching and learning was well off where it should be. I was plunged into that as a new headteacher. I had a lot of passion, dedication and determination to lift that school community and put it on a path towards aspiration and achievement but I still had a lot to learn!

I was working hard to improve the quality of teaching, having conversations with various staff about how to gear up their classroom practice. There was one in particular that I found difficult. The teacher concerned was lovely and had really good relationships with students, but just wasn’t managing to engage them in learning. It was back in the days of more formal lesson observations. She had been given feedback on her teaching, and we were at the point of starting an informal support plan. There was a meeting at which her union rep was present. I presented the facts as I saw them, but there was more than I had said to her before. I included details that she hadn’t heard before, and I could see her face drop. After I spoke, she said ‘Helen, you haven’t told me about this. You could have come in to my classroom and told me some of these things.’ The Union rep supported me – he saw that I was trying to present things in a professional context where she had the proper support, but I knew the teacher was right. I shouldn’t have presented things in that meeting that she hadn’t heard before. It wasn’t kind. In a healthy relationship, we communicate our worries and concerns, and work together to find solutions.

But why hadn’t I told her these things? She was a really nice person. I sensed that this information would be upsetting for her, and deep down I was trying to avoid being the one to cause the upset. After years of practice and reflection, I’ve built the emotional agility to recognise difficult feelings like the ones beneath the avoidance and respond to them appropriately. Back then, I could have tuned into the discomfort, and moved through it with self-kindness but instead I ended up letting it get in the way of my values. Ironically, the outcome was that she was more upset with me than if I’d had a quiet word when I first spotted things that didn’t seem right.

I talk to lots of leaders these days who grapple with the same kind of thing. Conditioning from childhood that pushes us to be ‘nice’ actually works against us being kind. In leadership, the way that we move through this is important. It’s a bit like a volume control, and we can go from having it turned right down, where we avoid confrontation, and don’t speak up when we notice a problem, to having it turned up so loud that in order to get through the confrontation that we find uncomfortable, but know is necessary, we go in too heavy and it comes off as too tough and not supportive enough. With practice and self-awareness, we can set the dial to a volume that allows for clarity as well as kindness, and is open to suggestions, explanations and understanding. It allows us to have conversations in a timely way, as close to the event as possible.

I’ve developed a 4 step plan to help prepare for difficult conversations like these:

1. Focus on the facts

2. Be led by your values

3. Prepare to be fully present

4. Consider possible reactions

You can find out more about it in a free workbook that’s available from this link.

I think preparation is crucial when you’re going into a difficult conversation that is making you feel anxious or uncomfortable. Taking the time to prepare yourself helps to ensure that you get the result that’s right both for you and the person concerned.

I find it very worrying that in today’s context, leaders are so busy that they struggle to prioritise giving quality feedback. A recent poll I posted on LinkedIn and Facebook indicated this. When asked what was the main barrier to giving good feedback, the most popular answer was having the time to do it well. But if we don’t give people the right kind of guidance, how can we steer our organisations to improve? How can we lead with purpose and empower people to do their best work?

Giving quality feedback is one of the 5 behaviours of a ‘coaching leader’ that I cover in my online resource. I explain how to use the 4-step plan mentioned above and develop the ability to deliver feedback in a timely manner that is ‘clear but kind’. The resource consists of accessible videos and PDFs to suit busy leaders. Visit this link to find out more/sign up.

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