I ramble nervously when I give employees feedback

A reader writes:

Whenever I have to give any challenging feedback to someone I supervise, I tend to 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. Then I want to give examples but I feel like I have to explain how much weight to give to those examples and so 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 type anyway and that definitely comes out when I’m nervous, but I think I owe it to my employees 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?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 38 comments… read them below }

  1. BecauseHigherEd*

    I know this is an old letter, but adding to Alison’s advice that it helps to reframe this in your mind as “I need to tell this person this information so that they can be successful/prevent them from encountering a LOT more difficulty later on” as opposed to “I need to tell them they aren’t up to par.” That can make the conversations a little less nerve racking.

    1. TheOtherClare*

      To add to the addition: it can also help if you can reframe your thinking to not see failure as something embarrassing or shameful (easier said than done).

      If you’re experiencing second-hand embarrassment for the person it’s a lot harder than if you’re just giving them some information the in the same way you’d pass on details of the new company logo.

  2. BellyButton*

    I just coached someone on this last week. They had to put one of their direct reports on a PIP and the last time I witnessed them giving feedback is was all over the place, so all over the place I don’t think the person walked away knowing anything. I had the person I was coaching do exactly what Alison said. Write out the feedback- the example- the changes needed. The manager did so much better this time and later told me she felt much more confident that her message was received.

    1. tinaturner*

      EXACTLY! Give them something & have them sign it too. So that’s the “official” record in case of disputes later.

      But you can verbalize each point, soften it. Even add a word or two onto the page to clarify.

      1. BellyButton*

        Oh yes, we have an official PIP form I created that is exactly what I have above. But even with that form people don’t use it as a script until I tell them to. LOL

  3. Ama*

    I agree with Alison’s advice about practicing. For me personally, I am a stronger communicator in writing than I am verbally off-the-cuff, so I find it useful if I need to have a tricky conversation to write down bullet points of the things I need to make sure I cover to help me get the wording just right — if it’s possible to have that list where I can glance at it I try to do that (I am full time remote so most of my conversations happen on video call), if not I’ll just practice as much as I can. But I find when I make a list it’s a lot easier for me to say what I need to say and then stop and listen to the response rather than rambling and potentially softening or diluting my message too much.

  4. Old lady*

    Have a printed list of bullet points in front of you. Go down the list one by one. Your choice if you give the employee a copy but then they have something concrete to refer back to.

    1. Peanut Hamper*

      Great advice. I would also add to try to keep each bullet point to one to two lines. Bullet points should be just that–points.

  5. Bosslady*

    Totally agree with Allison’s advice. I give feedback to clients a lot and I will frequently open a zoom meeting with just me and practice deliver my feedback as I take notes. This helps me see when I’m rambling or repeating and it helps me feel polished and calm when I talk to the clients.

  6. Confused Employee*

    As a person who has been on the other side of rambling feedback and had no idea how I was actually doing, I just want to say I appreciate supervisors/managers who work on this! It makes a world of difference to come away from a conversation feeling like I know exactly what the problem is and what I need to do to fix it versus trying to guess if there even is a problem. I’ve also had feedback given to me late because the supervisor did not like to say negative things. They actually told me “you’re so nice and I didn’t want you to feel bad.” I felt so much worse realizing I was making a fixable error without anyone just saying something!

    1. This Comment Has to be Anonymous*

      Oh my gosh, I’m the boss who used to be the rambly one! It was so hard for me to even give positive news without getting all flustered and saying nonsensical sentences. Once, after I told an employee that we were putting them on a PIP, I told them how brave I thought they were running a side business of a dog kennel. I then prattled on about how rewarding that must be, blah, blah, blah. They just looked at me like I was a dingbat. This was one of the areas I really could have used Alison’s above advice. I left management >10 years ago, I just wasn’t good at it.

  7. pally*

    Also include into the practice of the talking points an actual pause where you want the other person to be able to respond.
    It might feel funny practicing the talking points and then stopping for that pause and then resuming your talking points. But you want to be as comfortable as possible with that pause. And to be able to keep yourself from rambling (if that is something you are prone to) to fill any pause if things do get awkward.

    1. Two Fish*

      And make it clear, when pausing, whether it’s a brief chance for back and forth or whether the feedback is complete. The person won’t know how to respond if you give an incomplete part of the picture and then just silence.

      1. Two Fish*

        (Asking specific questions for them to respond to, and then giving them a chance for freer response at the end once the whole message is delivered, is way better than “We’ve had some issues with your deadlines… … … (silence)”

      2. oh geez*

        Yes, I always try to invite it to be a collaborative problem solving discussion.

        “I’ve noticed XYZ trend of issues. Do you feel like you’ve also observed that lately?”

        “The resolution we need is ABC. I can share my thoughts, but I also want to hear, do you have any steps in mind that could get us there?

        Or whatever wording is applicable to your situation. My most recent feedback issue was an early alert, not-yet-disciplinary, course correcting feedback, so the examples that come to mind are through that lens.

        1. BellyButton*

          That also gives them ownership in solving the problem, and gives you insight into how self-aware they are about their performance… which gives you a better understanding of just how much coaching/direction/oversight they are going to need.

    2. BellyButton*

      I will have inexperienced or developing managers go a step further and write specific questions at specific times to ask to make sure the person is hearing the feedback correctly. Here are a few examples in case it would be helpful to anyone.
      Can you summarize what you heard?
      What do you think you can do with this feedback?
      How can I support you in that?
      How do you think this feedback aligns with your own assessment?
      How do you think this feedback aligns with your goals?

  8. Caz*

    When I found that I was getting rambly and potentially off-topic in 1:1 meetings with my team, I started making agendas – just three or four bullet points, shared with them, of what we were going to discuss. Something similar (but maybe without the sharing) could help here – and also half the work is done when it comes to documenting the discussion as appropriate afterward.

  9. Jack Russell Terrier*

    This is great advice. I would also practice in front of the mirror. It will seem strange, but it makes a huge difference to see your body language and if necessary adjust it to show the tone you’re aiming for. Sometimes we think we look a certain way and we actually don’t!

    1. Kay*

      You can also record yourself, so you hear how you sound. Also prepare for how you will respond to certain questions your employee may have. The huge key is practicing saying it all out loud – you can write what sounds like the perfect speech/thing to say and I can almost guarantee you will change something once you say it out loud.

  10. Zona the Great*

    I twice had to go back to my ex-boss after she issued a correction to find out what the correction was. It was as simple as, “Don’t use this term because it is too germane. Instead say X” but instead of doing that, she spoke for 10 solid minutes. I went to her and asked her to next time say, “don’t do X, do Y” and she said that her feelings would have been hurt had her boss done that to her so she doesn’t want to do that. Um, okay then.

    1. pally*

      This would have annoyed me. Just because her feelings were hurt doesn’t mean the same will be the case for you. I’d want the direct approach. That’s something actionable!

    2. linger*

      Even the shorter form would confuse me. What’s wrong with being germane? How can something be too germane? Doesn’t it just mean “relevant”?

  11. JaneDough(not)*

    LW (in case you see this), delivering concise feedback isn’t just a skill, it’s a mindset.

    If you’re thinking, just before or while delivering feedback, “Hearing criticism is so hard for people! And, I don’t want my supervisees to dislike me because I’m the one delivering it!” then you’re going to soften the message and ramble (in order to disguise the message).

    If you can get clear in your head that a GOOD manager is — among other things — a teacher, then you’re likely to approach giving feedback differently. Teaching someone how to use a machine or some software isn’t mean-spirited — it’s helpful. Likewise, teaching someone (through feedback) how to be a better employee is helpful; you’re helping someone perform better at work, which can help them earn more money and ascend the ladder (if they want to).

    You might consider saying, “You do great work in areas A, B, and C [if that’s true]. You’re not as strong in areas D, E, and F, so let’s talk about those and figure out how to get you where you need to be.” That way, the employee knows that you see their strengths and is likely to view you not only as a fair manager but as one who has their best interests at heart.

  12. spcepickle*

    I write my employees a letter. It gives me the time and space before the meeting to really think about what I want to say. Then I have a meeting where I go over the bullet points from the letter. At the end of the meeting I give them the letter. It can be hard to process everything at once when listening to feedback. So the letter also gives the employee something to look over.
    It also gives me written proof of what we talked about for my files.

  13. Rosyglasses*

    Just came to comment that I briefly misread the end of Alison’s comment and read “buried in the archives” as “hurled in the archives” – and thought it might give someone else a Wednesday chuckle :-)

  14. @ Work & Reading AAM*

    One thing I have found super useful is to tell my employees how I communicate and what to expect reg feedback (especially when they are new to the team). By nature of my role, I am constantly providing feedback to employees and providing consulting services to internal orgs where I need to redirect their plans.

    It helps when people know you are providing feedback to ensure they are uber successful and that you are a resource vs a nitpicker.

    I know have other employees asking me to train them on providing feedback on calls or to teams/direct reports.

  15. River*

    In my early days of management, my boss and my HR person have offered to take on roles to practice what I will need to say to my staff that need feedback or a performance improvement plan. I would play the role of myself and my boss or HR person would be the employee. It helped greatly for when it came time to actually deliver the feedback as I was going into those conversations with some previous “practice” per se. I used to ramble because I was nervous/anxious and then my mind would be like “this employee can sense that I am nervous as well so I think it’s making this situation awkward.” Then I learned that this conversation is about the employee and not about me so that helped me get over the anxiety I had during these converations. Also, I think just time itself helps. As I got more comfortable in my management role, it makes for these conversations easier. I hate to say this cliche but practice makes perfect. So in a way these conversations are a blessing in disguise because the more you deliver feedback (whether positive or negative), the easier I feel it’ll be to have these discussions.

  16. Ellis Bell*

    “I would think that would be easier when I’m in a position of greater power in an interaction”. The things that give you the greatest power and confidence in the workplace are experience, practice and preparation. They’re cliches for a reason that “practice makes perfect” and “failing to plan, is planning to fail”. Being in a lofty position doesn’t confer you with magical powers; we’ve all known incredibly senior people who rely on their job title more than on honing their skills and effectiveness, and the resulting effect is usually not great. Get a script, edit, edit, edit and rehearse. Get the feedback of a friend if you’re still not feeling it.

  17. Sharon*

    Say what you have to say, ask the employee for a response like “do you have any questions?” or “how can we keep this from happening in the future?” then wait a few seconds. It will feel like an eternity but resist the urge to keep talking to fill the silence. Also, in some cases feedback can be given and accepted in minutes, so don’t feel like it has to be a big hour-long production.

  18. Retired Vulcan Raises 1 Grey Eyebrow*

    You say you start off giving clear and direct feedback, so ask if they have any comments and stop there.
    You aren’t softening your message by rambling on, you are confusing it, which is worse for your employee than even the bluntest feedback.
    If they don’t understand your rambling feedback, then you have failed them as a manager because they won’t know how to improve.

  19. duinath*

    planning out what to say can be helpful in a lot of situations. i do want to mention (maybe this was already in there and i missed it) if you want to rehearse… don’t do it in the office. seems obvious, but i just had the saddest scenarios pop up in my head, do not practice what you’re going to say in the office.

  20. Keymaster of Gozer*

    I can ramble if I don’t concentrate. I get easily diverted to another train of thought (notice how often I use brackets in writing) and whoops we’re onto problems on the M4.

    It’s taken a lot of bad experiences and learning and therapy to handle this at work (at home I make no such promises) so I go into a meeting or conversation with a maximum of 3 things that absolutely HAVE to be said before any side tracking. Anything over 3 and I get sidetracked.

    It’s like a meeting agenda:

    1. Address the call notes on (date) where techie A wrote a highly inappropriate comment.
    2. Ask techie A for explanation.
    3. Ask how this is going to be prevented from happening again.

    Job done. Also it helps when the person I’m talking to gets sidetracked because I’m trying to hold myself on the rails so a ‘back to the subject’ moment happens more easily.

    I don’t write it down for brain quirk reasons – I easily forget notes.

  21. Melenee*

    As for wearing seasonal appropriate clothing – I’d like to add that THIS is a personal choice and should not ever be looked upon a odd. I personally have several tattoos that my previous employer found to be unprofessional – so even during a heat wave I wore long sleeves and slacks.
    Another thought some people run hot and other run cold. Who are we to judge… Let’s not even get into older women who might be going through menopause – short sleeves in January is a must

  22. Johannes Bols*

    To the LW who rambles when giving employees feedback: make a list of notes and stick to it. You will feel verbally truncated. But they will have a clearer idea of what you’re trying to get across because it’s not wrapped up in unnecessary verbage. I hope that helps.

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