When giving critical feedback, focus on your nonverbal cues

As we explored in a post earlier this week, giving effective feedback can be one of the most difficult challenges a manager faces. On the one hand, you want to be honest; on the other hand, you don’t want to distance your employee.

In an article for Harvard Business Review, Emma Seppala writes, “Empathy at work creates psychological safety, which research by Amy Edmondson of Harvard demonstrates is created when managers are inclusive and humble and encourage their staff to speak up or ask for help. Psychological safety improves learning and performance outcomes. More important, feeling safe in the workplace helps encourage the spirit of experimentation that’s so critical for innovation.”

Seppala continues, “By using this kind of positive, open, and supportive feedback style, you end up establishing trust. Our brains respond more positively to empathic bosses, as neuroimaging research confirms. In turn, employees who feel greater trust show improved performance. Positive relationships at work can even lower health care costs by improving employee health: Having positive workplace relationships strengthens your immune system and lowers your heart rate and blood pressure.”

According to Seppala, here are the nonverbal cues you should pay attention to when delivering feedback:

Facial expression. “Someone’s smile activates the smile muscles in your own face, while their frown activates your frown muscles, according to research by Ulf Dimberg. We internally register what another person is feeling by experiencing it in our own body. Smile appropriately to project warmth and goodwill.”

Eye contact. “Research shows eyes really are the windows to the soul: You can predictably tell someone’s emotions from their gaze. Make and maintain eye contact when you’re giving someone feedback.”

Voice. “From infancy, we are acutely aware of the voices of people we consider important, and the way we feel about another person shifts the way we speak. The tone of our voice, more than the words themselves, can give away how we feel.”

Posture. “The way a person is sitting — slumped or sitting tall, arms open or crossed — transmits a message. Having your chest open, arms uncrossed, making sure to keep nodding, smiling, and vocalizing (saying things like “mhmm” and “yes” in response to the other party) will help. Make sure you take on a nondominant stance; after all, your role is already powerful.”

Breath. “Research shows that the emotions we feel change the way that we breathe. Before the conversation, try to take some deep, calming breaths. When you exhale, your heart rate and blood pressure decrease, so focus on breathing out longer than you breathe in. Doing this for a couple of minutes before a meeting will help you start the meeting from a place of calm. That calmness will also help your interlocutor feel more at ease.”

Attention. “Our mind wanders 50% of the time, research suggests. Moreover, given our busy schedules and the messages and emails that are popping onto our screens throughout the day, we sometimes are not present with the people in front of us. When you are not fully present, the people you are talking to can tell.”

Seppala explains that “By remembering the human experiences we all share, you will find that you are able to bring kindness and compassion into the conversation. If you are giving feedback, you will probe into what has prompted your employee to act a certain way and you will find the right words to encourage a different type of behavior. Research shows that employees feel greater loyalty and are inspired to work harder for managers who are compassionate and kind.”

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