When to Give Verbal Feedback — and When to Do It in Writing
One of the many reasons why we dread (and avoid) giving feedback is that we believe it’s simply not going to work. While there are many reasons why feedback fails to deliver results, one that is easily overlooked is our choice of delivery — speaking or writing. You may be leaning on one style not because it’s best for the feedback you need to give, but because it’s most comfortable — or most convenient — for you. Consider what works best for the context, audience, and goals of your specific situation. Spoken and written feedback are both necessary, and each has their time and place. Practicing getting out of your feedback comfort zone when the situation calls for it will make you a stronger communicator all around.
You give clear feedback to your direct report. They acknowledge the feedback. And then…nothing changes. How many times have you been in this frustrating situation? While there are many reasons why feedback fails to deliver resultsone that is easily overlooked is our choice of delivery: whether we give the feedback verbally or in writing. You may be leaning on one style not because it’s best for the feedback you need to give, but because it’s most comfortable — or most convenient — for you.
This is understandable. Giving feedback is hard, and so it makes sense that we tend to play to our strengths. For example, you may be a communicator who thrives on conversation. You’d rather “step into someone’s office” or “hop on a quick Zoom” to go over most things, let alone deliver a thorny piece of feedback. Or perhaps you’re someone who would rather take time to gather your thoughts. You prefer to communicate in a less emotionally charged situation and want to diffuse any tension.
But defaulting to what you find easiest may not be getting you the best results. In order for feedback to land effectively, you need to consider what will work best for the context, audience, and goals of your specific situation. Spoken and written feedback are both necessary, and each has their time and place. Here’s when we recommend giving feedback in writing and when we recommend trying a conversation instead.
Give written feedback when…
You have enough time to do it right.
We often resort to giving written feedback when we feel like we don’t have time for a conversation. It can be tempting to dash off a quick email and check it off your list. This is a mistake. In the hustle of busy work life, it’s easy to forget that written communication is permanent. Take an extra minute to read over written feedback and make sure that you’re happy with it being reviewed carefully and saved as a record of the interaction.
Taking time to read over your written feedback also gives you a chance to do a “tone check.” Even if you write your feedback in a neutral or positive tone, readers tend to read the worst possible tone into text. This is partly because positive body language and warm vocal intonations do not come through in writing. Therefore, when you deliver written feedback, make sure to include clear and unmissable signposts of warmth, encouragement, or gratitude. Writing is not the place for off the cuff feedback on someone’s performance that could have outsized impact or come across as harsher than you intended.
You want to reinforce or capture what’s been said in a conversation.
If your feedback involves instruction, next steps, best practices, or other information that the receiver will want to reference again in their work, consider following up with a recap. A good guideline: If you tell someone more than two things, don’t assume they will hold on to all the details. Follow up with a written recap to help them implement everything you want to see from them in the future.
You want to give the other person time to process first.
People will often hear feedback better in a conversation if they have time to process it first in writing. One manager we work with adds reflective questions at the end of her evaluations to facilitate conversation. Her employees comment that they felt better prepared to discuss the feedback because they were given time to digest and think about it beforehand.
Give spoken feedback when…
The feedback is more complex.
Emails and other written messages are not the best place to negotiate complexity back and forth. Taking time to have a conversation will likely yield better results when your feedback could evolve or change depending on input from the other person. A conversation allows for fuller exploration of the complexity of the issue and thus results in better solutions.
Recently we worked with a director who needed to communicate to an associate that they needed to speak up more in client meetings. While the problem she needed to point out was clear, the director was unsure whether the associate failed to speak up because they felt unprepared on the subject matter or because they didn’t think they should. The director had recommendations to support the associate in either case, but her advice would be very different depending on what she learned in their conversation.
In the feedback conversation, the director took the time to understand the associate’s perspective more fully. She learned that the associate was reluctant to speak because a previous manager preferred that they stay quiet in client meetings. Had the director given this feedback in writing, she would have missed the opportunity to draw out the information that helped her decide on the best advice and course of action for her employee. Because they took the time to have a conversation, the director and associate were able to clarify the new expectations, and the associate felt more comfortable speaking up.
When you need to deliver complex feedback, make your written communication a request for a meeting, perhaps with some questions they should come prepared to talk about. Then once you’ve had the conversation, follow up with a written recap of what you decide.
There are difficult emotions involved.
Whenever emotions are involved, a conversation is probably more effective. And yet we avoid conversations precisely because the difficult emotions are painful to confront. Make no mistake, however: just because you don’t see the other person’s immediate reaction, doesn’t make it go away. On the contrary, when someone reads negative feedback, they may react even more strongly than if they hear it directly from you. And because they may feel even more hurt, they are more likely to misunderstand the feedback and take it more personally.
Your goal is to repair or strengthen the relationship.
We often avoid giving feedback because we fear it will hurt the relationship. Clear and thoughtful feedback can actually have the opposite effect and strengthen the bond — if it’s a conversation. This is because good feedback is collaborative. When you take time to listen to the other person’s perspective and work together to find solutions, you can end up coming to a place of deeper mutual understanding.
On the other hand, avoiding the conversation can damage the relationship in ways you might not even realize. When we avoid giving tough feedback, resentment builds up and comes out in ways we don’t intend. Unfortunately, we’ve seen even strong relationships deteriorate because of the decision to avoid giving feedback.
If you decide to have a feedback conversation, your fear of hurting the relationship can also impair your ability to explain the problem clearly and effectively. We tend to overestimate how much someone knows what we are thinking — especially when we have strong emotions. This is called the illusion of transparency. It’s a cognitive bias where we believe our inner thoughts and feelings are more visible than they are. We may unintentionally soften negative feedback — and assume the other person knows what we are really thinking.
Remember that spoken positive feedback can be a powerful way to strengthen the relationship. Taking the time to tell someone clearly and specifically what they did well can greatly strengthen mutual appreciation and trust — not to mention ensure that they continue to repeat the behavior.
Could voice memos be a middle ground?
Many of the professors, entrepreneurs, and team managers we know are turning to voice notes to share feedback with their students or employees. Tools like Voxer, Loom, or Voice Memos let the manager give feedback quickly (we speak seven times faster than we write).
This increasingly popular mode of feedback may bridge some of the gaps between spoken and written feedback that we have outlined above. While it allows managers to give feedback quickly and conveniently, it also allows the employee receiving feedback to keep a record of any instructions or next steps that they may want to review later. This way, feedback can be delivered “off the cuff” and with minimal effort by the manager, but any rough edges can be smoothed out by their tone of voice — which as we’ve noted, is critically absent from written feedback.
. . .
Next time you need to give feedback, ask yourself whether the audience will receive it best spoken or in writing. Practicing getting out of your feedback comfort zone when the situation calls for it will make you a stronger communicator all around. All workplace communication, not just feedback, is most effective when we think a few steps beyond ourselves and plan for what the listener (or reader) will feel, think, and do with the information we share.