Axios Finish Line: How to dish out tough love

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Most people hate giving — or getting — tough feedback about work, irritating behavior or grating disagreements, Jim VandeHei writes.

  • Why it matters: Try a new approach to defuse the tension and avert snap reactions. Put it in writing first.

Truth is, most people get instantly defensive or uncomfortable if told in person, without advance notice, they are doing something wrong. This makes it impossible for them to hear you fully.

Starting in the earliest days of Politico, co-founder John Harris and I would do this whenever there was an obvious disturbance in the force field.

  • Full disclosure: It didn't always erase tension. But it did allow for the issue to be articulated clearly and with ample time to digest and reflect — before reacting and discussing face-to-face.

This created a template I use when giving difficult feedback to a colleague or friend. Before we discuss it in person, I write them a note at least 24 hours in advance so they can think on it first.

  • Done right, writing allows you to strike a more precise and measured tone. It lowers the emotional pitch of your voice or body language. It lets the focus be on the problem — not the instant reaction.
  • It also creates a written record of your efforts.

Between the lines: I stress the in-person conversation because it lets you learn something. There's always the chance you're not 100% right — that you have a blind spot or have missed something. So you need to listen, too.

Here's a formula that works well for me:

  1. Let them know what's coming. I often start such notes with "I want to share my unvarnished thoughts about X" or "You deserve to know my candid take on Y." This is a tough love note — so don't hide it. Make clear you will follow up within a day or so with an in-person conversation.
  2. Thank them. Let the person know you appreciate them reading the note in the spirit in which it's intended. It's usually because you care about them personally, or about their development professionally. You are writing so they can spend time reflecting on what they are about to read.
  3. Be precise. This is where most people blow it. You must be unambiguous without being a total ass about the specific issue. Don't sugarcoat it. The recipient needs to know with total precision what has to change.
  4. Don't preach. Be clinical, not judgmental. Avoid psychoanalyzing why someone does something, and focus on what needs remedying. Read it as if you were the recipient. Would a word or phrase set you off? If so, delete it.
  5. Offer solutions. Be specific about what success looks like. Tell them the behavioral change that will eliminate the issue.
  6. Be firm. Make clear the consequences if the problem persists. Maybe your relationship will worsen. Or future advancement will be impossible. Or they will be fired.
  7. Give them hope. You want to find a way to say and show there's a clear path to a remedy. Make clear you love them or believe in them —and that if the problem is fixed, it will be forgotten.
  8. Thank them again. It's hard to get tough feedback, even if it comes from a good place. Tell the person you appreciate them reading this note, and look forward to an equally direct and respectful conversation in person.

Here's the real magic: This approach sharpens your own thinking about the topic — and often illuminates nuances you miss when winging it. In the end, the process clarifies the matter for you and the recipient.

This article originally appeared in Axios Finish Line, our nightly newsletter on life, leadership and wellness. Sign up here.

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