I babble nervously when giving my staff feedback

A reader writes:

I see in the archives that you have answered questions about dealing with nervousness as a job candidate or in conversations with higher-ups, but I am writing because I have discovered that I am kind of a nervous supervisor.

Whenever I have to give any challenging feedback to someone I supervise, I feel like I ramble on and repeat myself. I want to be sure that I am clear and direct, but then I worry that I was too harsh so I soften things a little, and then I want to give examples but then I feel like I have to explain how much weight to give to those examples and I find myself clarifying what I *didn’t* mean. All in all, I’m sure it all just makes it harder for the person who is getting the feedback.

I’m kind of a rambly/verbal type anyway and that definitely comes out when I’m nervous, but I think I owe it to my staffer to not show quite so much of that when they are receiving a critique. I would like to learn how to just say what I mean, be concise, and then pause and let the other person reflect and respond. I would think that would be easier when I’m in a position of greater power in an interaction, but apparently it isn’t, at least not for me! Do you have any advice on how to develop that skill?

Practice ahead of time!

Seriously. I know that sounds strange, but it really works.

Even if you don’t rehearse out loud, at a minimum you should plan out what you want to say, and even write it down. That way you can reflect and make sure that you’re making the points you want to make and that you’re using the right framing (neither too harsh nor too soft).

It sounds like right now you’re sort of winging it — you know the gist of what you want to communicate, but you’re figuring out how to say it on the fly, and adjusting and correcting as you go. If you do all that work before you sit down with the person, it’s going to come out a lot better.

That doesn’t mean that you have to write out an entire script for yourself (and you definitely don’t want to appear to be reading from a script), but having notes like this can be really helpful:

* Really happy with final outcome on X
* But need better communication on deadlines
* Examples: original draft (3 days late) and artwork (2 days late)
* OK to ask to adjust deadlines when needed, but need to communicate proactively/earlier, not after deadline has passed
* Need better systems to spot problems earlier?
* Y project coming up — feeling confident about deadlines there?
* Let’s roll forward with this new agreement

And then, practicing the words out loud can help, because you might realize that you feel really awkward about a particular phrase and can figure out why. Maybe you need to change the phrase, or maybe you need to plow through it because it’s important to say. This comes up a lot for managers who need to deliver hard messages; if it feels awkward to say it, sometimes they just don’t. So practicing saying hard words out loud — for example, “I need to warn you that I would need to let you go if this doesn’t improve in the next few weeks” — makes it a lot more likely that you’ll be clear and direct in the actual conversation and not change it on the fly to something that feels more comfortable but is far less clear (like, “It’s really important that you make these changes”).

{ 62 comments… read them below }

  1. Clarice*

    I know this isn’t applicable in the workplace, but it reminds me of one of my favourite (and most terrifying) profs in first year uni. First of all, his name was Dr. ANTHONY HOPKINS and he started the first class by making us copy lines from the blackboard:


    Terrifying, but learning to cut ~50% of everything I wrote was one of the best skills I learned in university. (And this wasn’t even a writing course.)

    1. nnn*

      I also had a terrifying prof by that name! He didn’t make us write those lines, but I could totally imagine him doing so!

      (I’m not going to dig into whether we went to the same school in an anonymous forum and a quick google shows multiple profs by that name, none of which are mine, so let’s just sit with this coincidence and enjoy it)

    2. tinyhipsterboy*

      That’s hilarious, especially because a lot of honors/IB/AP classes in high school essentially force you to write for length and speed instead of clarity/organization. That sounds amazing.

      1. Book Badger, Attorney-at-Claw*

        My honors freshman English teacher in high school required all of our essays (we had to write at least one a week) to be exactly two pages, no more and no less. He was also the former editor for a regional magazine, and was fanatic about grammar and spelling.

        I wasn’t a bad writer before, but I gained in leaps and bounds due to having to be concise and organized.

      2. ECHM*

        Oh yes! My college expository writing class taught me two skills that did wonders for my writing: keep it concise, and eliminate “be” verbs (am, is, are, was, were).

  2. AshaGreyjoy*

    My last manager at a previous job had this same issue–she was very concerned with sounding harsh or hurting people’s feelings–and because of that she would ramble and repeat herself a TON if she every had to give anyone any constructive feedback. The amount of equivocating/couching/repeating ended up having the opposite effect; it made things seem like a MUCH bigger deal than they actually were, and ended up hurting feelings. I go into feedback meetings and reviews with a list of things I want to cover and so does my supervisor. We compare lists and often we want to talk about some of the same things! It’s a great system.

    1. Hermione at Heart*

      I do this, and you’ve identified the core issue. Practice can certainly help, but for me it was a question of doing a little bit deeper work on myself around boundaries and assertiveness. I’m uncomfortable with both silence and conflict, and I have had to really work on internalizing that giving feedback sometimes means upsetting people or making them mad at me and that’s OK.

      A few things that have helped to keep in mind:
      –My ultimate responsibility is to the work and my organization, not my employees
      –I have the right to have standards for employees’ work and conduct, and to hold them to them. Their feelings are not more valid than my standards.
      –The concept of “ruinous empathy” from Radical Candor: I’m not doing them a favor by soft-pedaling anything
      –Remembering times I have gotten tough feedback, all of which made me upset in the moment and sometimes angry afterward, but all of which made me better in the long term. My boss had a very tough conversation with me four years ago about various aspects of my performance that were unacceptable. It changed my life, not only because it destroyed my denial about my performance and gave me a clear map for how to improve, but because it made me realize that I needed to seek help for some mental health issues interfering with my work. It was a true turning point in my career, and I now look on that feedback as the greatest gift I’ve ever received.

      1. Spider*

        I LOVE this statement: “Their feelings are not more valid than my standards.”

        I need to make that a mantra to meditate upon.

    2. Sloan Kittering*

      Some people just ramble. Their conversational path is elliptical; they circle back to the same point, phrasing it slightly differently each time, until they reach some sort of escape velocity. I think is the result of thinking out loud instead of taking the time to do the work in advance. I say this as someone who used to have this issue.

  3. The Man, Becky Lynch*

    I would think that would be easier when I’m in a position of greater power in an interaction, but apparently it isn’t, at least not for me!

    I see where you get this idea in theory however qith greater power comes greater expectations and consequences. That takes a toll on us as humans who haven’t mastered becoming robots simply because we’re climbing in rank.

    What it really takes is practice and the gained confidence that you will get from sharpening your skills over time. So please don’t beat yourself up and think that you’re failing in some kind of way because as a higher ranked individual, you should just “do better”.

    An outline is what helps me the best, just like Alison gave in her response. Then you can feel like you’re organized in your mission and streamline where necessary. This also gives you the tools to tailor this interaction for each person, since you know that each staffer should be approached differently, some need more reassurance than others or some just want you to cut the fluff, etc. You’ve got this, understanding you need to rework how you give feedback is the first step to finding your natural flow and taming the rambling beast.

    1. Anxious OP*

      Thank you for this comforting response! It is helpful to think of this as just another skill that I need to develop, and not as a personality flaw.

    2. On Fire*

      And even with an outline and practice, sometimes you may need to pause *in the moment* to clarify to yourself what the message is. I had this convo with someone who habitually delivers so much information that the message is lost. Watching her do this, I later, privately, suggested that she take a moment to decide *what she needed the person to know* and say that, rather than describing her reasoning to reach that point. THEN if the other party has questions, explaining the reasoning *may* be beneficial.

  4. Rey*

    Writing notes before giving feedback to employees has also helped me collect my thoughts and give better feedback. Usually my brainstorming starts with an abstract thought where I know there’s a problem but I haven’t nailed down too much. Writing it down helps me think through *exactly* what behavior is not working, *exactly* what they need to do instead, and think through an appropriate consequence or related outcome. This also minimizes my own awkwardness, so the employee doesn’t feel like they have to reassure me or otherwise help with my emotions during our conversation.

  5. ErgoBun*

    I had the exact same issue as a new manager, and Alison’s advice is exactly right. The first time I had to have a performance/disciplinary conversation, I wrote out my points and practiced them aloud half a dozen times in a private room until I could say everything without my voice shaking! Once you’ve said even difficult things out loud a few times, your feelings about this can start to settle down.

    From one nervous manager to another, it CAN be done! You got this.

    1. Silver Radicand*

      Writing out what I wanted to say really helped me when I was going to have a conversation about performance that I wasn’t feeling completely confident in. It helped me to really clarify to myself what I believed the problem was and what I wanted out of the employee. Even now, as a seasoned manager, I still write notes and practice aloud for serious conversations or ones where I’m concerned the employee isn’t “getting” the problem.

      It is totally worth the time for the peace of mind and the clarity you can bring to the conversation, both for yourself and your employee.

      You can do it!

      1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

        I do this when I have to update my work voice mail for vacation. I don’t talk a lot for work (at work is different) so I write a script and read it a couple of times. I will be out of the office from X-X. Please contact Jane at 1234… Helps so much.

    2. Anxious OP*

      Thank you! I think practicing out loud is probably the ticket for me, too. I already do that whenever I have to do any public speaking, and I think this is a similar sort of performance anxiety even though I’m only talking to one other person.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        If there’s someone in your life you can trust, I strongly recommend roleplaying if the feedback is especially difficult (e.g., “I need you to do X or we won’t be able to keep you” level convos). I get nervous and feel silly if I practice saying a dire news script to myself. But along with bullet point notes, being able to practice with a person really helps me stay focused so I don’t get flustered when the real thing happens.

      2. ErgoBun*

        It may be “only” one other person, but our reports are people that we’re responsible for, in many ways. They’re important people! It’s only natural that we’re nervous about giving them critiques. It’s because we care about their good performance, productivity, and happiness at work. Our nervousness is a sign that we really care and want to get this right. :)

  6. Sleepytime Tea*

    I think rambling comes up a lot when you’re afraid of “dead air.” We’re afraid of awkwardness, but you need to stop talking so that the person on the receiving end of your communication has the opportunity to focus on what was said, reflect, formulate their response, and then respond. Don’t be afraid! I had to really work on this for interviews. I would get asked a question and feel like I really needed to answer right away and I would ramble with an unformulated response. I had to practice and be really mindful of taking a breath, giving it a moment, and deciding what I wanted to say.

    So give your feedback, and if you even need to say “I know that was a lot, feel free to think for a moment” then do that, and then practice being quiet and open. It really prevents the rambling, and if the receiver of the critique has questions, then they have the opportunity to ask for clarification. If you do as Alison says, and practice and write down what you want to convey, then you’ll be clearer and they will be the ones to ask for more info if they need it.

    1. Forrest Rhodes*

      Absolutely agree about the importance of a few moments silence and not rushing to fill them with words. The quiet not only gives listeners a chance to absorb what’s just been said but also gives the message even more emphasis, IMO.

    2. Allonge*

      This 100%. You need to be comfortable with some silence. There will be a lot of people who will need some time to organise their thoughts (and swallow the immediate angry/hurt response). It’s ok to wait it out!
      These people will also NOT interrupt you. If my boss is rambling on, I let her and wait until she stops in most cases. (Ok not really, because I learnt she does not really stop, ever), but if she is giving me feedback? I wait until she is done. And I will not have a better impression of her if that takes 15 minutes!

      Also, instead of clarifying and worrying about being understandable, you can also just ask: is what is am saying clear? Do you understand what I mean? Do you agree?

  7. Thankful for AAM*

    Idk if this is you but I tend to think of speech like it is less formal than the written word and that leads me to, well, sound less polished than I intend.

    I now think of them as equally formal and that has helped me. It makes practicing seem more like a rough draft and that I always do with writing!

  8. Sarah Simpson*

    I definitely second Alison’s advice on this one. If I don’t plan exactly what I’m going to say ahead of time, I go on and on, repeat myself, and get totally flustered. I don’t need to use the script I write anymore, but writing it means that I plan to be concise and clear, think through how to communicate in a way best for that particular employee, and go in feeling like I know what I’m talking about.

    1. Jen S. 2.0*

      Third, fourth, fifth. So many people apparently think everyone else is just magically getting it right in public by natural ability, and not putting in any effort. Nope! Most people who do something well in public do so BECAUSE they put in some time and effort in private.

      Write an outline and practice a few times, OP. It likely will get easier after you’ve done that for a while, because you’ll have the phrases handy that have been useful in previous feedback conversations. But don’t assume you’ll ever be able to just wing it.

  9. Xingcat*

    Timed speaking events can also help, I’ve found. Lots of people in the last company I was in said that Toastmasters was a lifesaver for conversations where they felt like they couldn’t get to the point fast enough, or added too much fluff, or ran out of things to say. I used to do a presentation challenge based on the Ignite presentation idea, where you have X amount of slides that automatically advance in Y seconds, and you have to get your point across concisely without missing information.

    Lately, I’ve been participating in Moth Story Slams in my home city, and that is not only beneficial, but very fun!

  10. in a fog*

    I would also add that your notes should be large and concise enough that you can get back on track with just a quick glance at your paper. If you overwrite your notes, then you can get distracted by trying to read through them all when you’re flustered in the moment.

    (Just make sure the employee can’t see them!)

    1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      This is an excellent tip.
      Now where was I, is fine, but not if you really mean it!

  11. RandomU...*

    Good advice already, but I’m going to add to things you can do while you are gaining this skill. Don’t be afraid to stop talking! If you get to a point when you realize you are rambling or repeating yourself. Cut yourself off… even if it’s verbally.

    OP: I think we need to spend more time on documentation, it’s really important and will help us.. I mean we’ll be able to benefit from the additional information because documentation is helpful and we don’t seem to have enough.. and I’ve noticed that you haven’t completed any at all this year… and we … I mean I … well the organization needs to have all of our process documented because it’s important…

    Wait. -breath- I’m going to stop talking now and get to the point that I’ve been trying to make. -another breath- I need you to document your new processes. Let’s talk about what needs to happen to accomplish this. I know it’s not your favorite activity, but it is a requirement of the job.

    As you get better at getting to the point, you won’t need this as much. But it’s important to short circuit the rambling in the moment.

  12. fposte*

    For me it’s all about the targeted exit. I can usually remember the main points, but I need to pre-identify where the finish line is and what I can say to make it clear we’ve gotten there, otherwise I’ll just keep going around and around the track.

    1. RandomU...*

      I’ve been known to get stuck on that merry go round. This is a very good point.

    2. atalanta0jess*

      Whoa. This concept is going to help me leave WAY BETTER voicemails! Thank you!!

      1. Hey Karma, Over here.*

        Ha! Hi there, Kindred Spirit. I was saying that I write a script when I leave my outgoing message, but I also try to have notes when I’m calling someone or I will start rambling.

        1. your favorite person*

          I make a lot of calls and when there is one that I think will be difficult (especially if I’m telling someone I’m not able to do something for them) I make bullet points for myself with at least an closing sentence written out.

  13. Elbereth Gilthoniel*

    I would like to second (or third, etc.) the suggestion to write it down beforehand! It is so helpful in giving feedback to do so ahead of time. It really helps to hone in on what you want to say, and helps to edit out things that are not focused on the feedback at hand.

    It is also helpful for me to keep my focus on what I would like to see changed in the future. When I frame feedback as future focused and growth focused, it makes it much easier for me to communicate. It’s a lot harder for me when I frame feedback more as a critique of previous work.

  14. drpuma*

    Before giving a big presentation or talk that makes me nervous, I’ve propped up a magazine cover or other photo of a person so that I can practice *looking someone in the face* as I speak. It’s one thing to practice my talking points to myself in the shower, something different to say them to another human.

  15. Scarlett*

    Not sure if this is true for you, but for me, I tend to ramble when I’m nervous, which happened a lot when giving “growth” feedback. What really helped for me was following a manager’s lead and setting up what she called 2×2 feedback as an agenda item once a month in my 1:1 meetings with the team I managed. In the 2×2 feedback, both me (manager) and my staff had the opportunity to share 1 “glow” and 1 “grow” for each other–what we think is working well in our working process and what needs to change. Having this set up as a part of an ongoing process and also making it more equitable so that I too was receiving feedback on my management/leadership helped me calm my nerves, since for me it was more about how to raise the topic in a way that felt like a natural part of the conversation rather than something for the team member to be scared of. Setting up this framework, along with framing language for both of us (e.g., I find it effective when…, An area of confusion/frustration/growth is…., One pattern I’ve noticed is …, etc.). Doing it this way also helps not to bury the lede in a series of examples or rambles. :)

  16. Anna Badger*

    if I may offer a book recommendation, I found ‘Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well’ to be super useful – it’s great at breaking down what feedback actually IS as well as people’s difficult feelings about it, and it gave me a lot of structure with which to construct feedback


    Ditto to preparing ahead of time. I found that drafting an agenda for myself, along with outlined notes made feedback meetings much more constructive. And also what someone else said above, just keep the notes out of sight of the employee. I would sometimes just open the middle desk draw and put my notepad there.

  18. Combinatorialist*

    For performance reviews, my manager prints out her feedback, we meet individually and she gives me the piece of paper, I read it and she turns to do whatever on her computer while I read it, and then we discuss the feedback, starting with any questions I have. In some ways, it is a little awkward but she makes it much less awkward by not watching me read it.

    But I actually really like the system. The feedback is clearly worded and thought out. We are going to discuss it right away (and this is before the review is finalized), and if I need a minute to get my thoughts and feelings under control, I can just act like I’m still reading and take that minute. Also, when I’m getting feedback, I am nervous about getting the overall assessment that I sometimes miss the details. Having it in front of me means I can skim for the overall picture, quiet my beating heart, go back over the details more carefully, and then think about my response without feeling pressured to say something right away.

    I don’t know how she handles more major conversations — my feedback so far has been of the type “you are doing really really well but if you were to work on something, you should work on this”.

  19. gsa*

    Great answer to a good question.

    I read the title and immediately thought practice.

    My mother taught me to practice when I wanted to change classes in junior high school and she said OK do you want me to do it or do you want to do it. I said I wanted to do it. So I practice my lines. First in my head, and then out loud in front of her.
    My mother taught me to practice when I wanted to change classes in junior high school and she said OK do you want me to do it or do you want to do it. I said I wanted to do it. So I practice my lines. First in my head, and then out loud in front of her. Thanks

    If you have someone you trust, practiced in front of them. They will know your faces and know if your face is too neutral, mean, Condescendingly smiley etc.

  20. caryatis*

    Also, anyone who is rambly should make a point of PAUSING and SHUTTING UP every so often to let the other person get a word in. If you go too long without pausing, the other person is going to stop listening because they’ll be too focused on “when am I going to get a chance to ask my question” and “why doesn’t she shut up already.”

  21. government worker*

    Oh, excellent! My supervisor wrote in!

    Seriously though, this is such excellent advice. Nervous babbling can definitely be unlearned.

  22. Nep*

    I do this ALL THE TIME and it helps me so much when it comes to interacting with other people. (Talking aloud is better than thinking in my head, because I actually formulate my thoughts fully.) Even if it’s just a simple “I need to talk to XYZ about ABC, I have EFG documentation”, it helps me feel more confident as well as be sure I have everything I need before I start a conversation.

  23. animaniactoo*

    3 additional thoughts:

    1) Gameplan. Think of every *possible* reaction you might get – whether you think it is likely or not – and gameplan how you will respond to *that*. Very often, rambling is an attempt to make sure you have covered every last base of every possible response/perspective. I should know, cuz I do plenty of it myself.

    2) Pause. Pause for feedback back. It is much harder to assess how the conversation is going and whether anything additional is even needed if you’re busy putting out rather than taking in. Ask questions of them about how they feel about issue you’ve just raised/how they envision correcting this or why it’s an issue, and so on. Then you’ll be able to choose to direct the conversation into one of the “possibilities” that gets to the heart of the matter. “I understand that, but you still need to find a way to correct it.” or “Hmmm. That’s interesting. What resources do you think would help you be more efficient about that?”

    3) Check-in. Schedule a check-in for later that week/next week to address how it’s going and anything you might have thought of after the meeting. This will greatly reduce your feeling that you need to flounder around making sure you covered everything, knowing that you have an opportunity to come back to it later.

  24. Peachywithasideofkeen*

    I like to practice saying stuff like this out loud when I’m driving. I used to drive a lot for work and would practice presentations and things out loud. I always felt weird doing it at home, especially if my husband was home too. The car is a nice place where you have privacy (I mean you might look weird to other people but who cares).

  25. Lana Kane*

    I am like you and I practice, like Allison said! Not just to have my thoughts organized – which is obviously important – but, in a weird way, actually saying the words gets me more comfortable with *saying* the words that are about the challenging feedback. For simplicity’s sake, my example is very basic, but: If I have to tell someone that they made a mistake that’s serious enough that it has to be escalated, I will make sure to practice saying something like, “This was wrong, and in your role this mistake is serious and could end up in discipline. Tell me how we’ll move forward with fixing this.” It’s tough for me to tell someone that, because I immediately empathize and start to think about how awful they must feel. If I don’t practice, those words are hard for me to spit out. But with practice, I’ve already verbalized them, and that makes the words lose some of their initial power for me. Good luck! This has been one of my biggest areas of growth as a new supervisor!

  26. Grey Coder*

    The level up from practicing on your own is roleplay. One place I worked had regular training for managers which was a mixed bag overall but one session had us roleplay some difficult conversations (e.g. you have to tell someone they didn’t get a promotion). It was really difficult but I think we all found it valuable.

  27. That One Person*

    Honestly glad to see this because even though I’ve never had a management position (at least not a proper one) this is something I know I’d have to fight. Some of the things I try to keep in mind before I enter the ramble zone:

    1) Don’t let myself speed up. If I speed up I might lose track of what I’ve said or where I was going with it in the first place, which means the other person (as a non-mind reader – hopefully) is going to be even more lost by the end of it than me. If I want to be clear and even concise I need to slow down so the other person can more easily process the information.

    2) If you try to cover every base then it just becomes confusing. In covering every base you’re not only overloading your mind as it races to configure everything on the spot, but the other person stops taking in what you’re talking about and instead works to keep up mentally to try and understand what you’re talking about. People are going to interpret things differently, so just be ready to clarify – maybe potentially having an example or two, but it really may just come down to needing different words to express it.

    Other than that it’s just keeping a helpful and open air so if something does occur to them later they can come to you with the concern or question (and more so if they want time to process the feedback, coming from a person who tends to think of questions later at least half the time).

  28. MassMatt*

    OP I recommend not just practicing but recording yourself and playing it back to see how and where to improve, and pay attention to your body language, eye contact, etc.

    Practicing with a friend or colleague can be really helpful also. I went through this for my last job hunt, and while it was stressful to do, it really improved my performance and made actual interviews much LESS stressful.

    Good luck, you are already ahead of 90% of the crowd just realizing what you need to improve and taking action!

  29. LaDeeDa*

    One of the greatest abilities of a good leader is empathy. Think about how what you need to say will be perceived and interpreted by the person. Put yourself in their shoes. They likely want feedback and want guidance on how to grow.
    I coach leaders on feedback and as a senior leader, I give lots of feedback. I always have my notes in place- what I need them to improve on, and examples of why. But before I start I think about the situation- the report, the presentation– and before I launch into my feedback I ask the person how they felt it went. So for example…
    Me- “when you gave me your analysis of X, how did you feel about it? ” I want to give them the opportunity to tell me they had already identified the areas that needed to be improved– this shapes my feedback. If they are totally clueless, then I need to give them a lot of direction, if they identified a lot of the same issues I did- then I want to acknowledge how astute they are in their observations and ask them how they plan to prevent that in the future. From their own assessment and plan, I can offer further insight and direction.
    If you just launch into what went wrong they may be thinking “I know, I KNOW!” give them the opportunity. It may change your feedback.
    Our jobs as a leader is to develop people, if you always tell them what was wrong and how to fix it, you aren’t giving them the opportunity to analyze and identify.

  30. Anon attorney*

    I used to train managers on giving feedback and I still occasionally get rambleitis. For me, rambling usually means I’ve not nailed down the evidence/examples I need to talk to the person about, and am relying on a general “do stuff, uh, better” message. That’s not effective. So being really clear about what you want done differently but also the what and why of the problem is vital. Also, as said upthread, don’t be scared of letting a silence fall. Silence is a great tool for getting other people to say things, and in a feedback conversation it ideally signifies that the receiver is processing – which is what you want them to do.

    1. Lana Kane*

      Yes – I agree that sometimes when I ramble it’s because I didn’t nail down the examples. Prep is very important generally, and helpful in this situation.

  31. Sally Forth*

    Point form for reference as you speak and so they can take notes as well.
    Practice a closing statement and then body language for the meeting to be over.

  32. Rock Prof*

    As a fellow rambler, over-explainer, caveat-er (and excessive parenthetical user), I really appreciate this question and all the advice.

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