Nonviolent feedback: How to criticize without hurting feelings

No one wants to hear negative feedback. Even with the best intentions, poor communication can hurt feelings, shame, and ultimately, resistance. So, how should you deliver critical feedback to get the best results for everyone involved? Nonviolent communication techniques can help you make sure that you are providing the most effective critiques.

What is nonviolent communication?

The word “violence” usually indicates some kind of physical assault, but violence can also be verbal, emotional, explicit, or implicit. Any time we are disconnected from compassion or a sense of belonging can result in pain. Nonviolence is not just the absence of physical harm, but it also includes the practice of understanding, honesty, and empathy. So, how does this transfer into our work lives? What does it mean to act empathetically and compassionately towards our colleagues, employees, and partners?

First, we must remember that organizations require more than just cooperation to be successful. They require established values, shared goals, and ultimately personal relationships. Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is a way to transform patterns of aggression or defensiveness into compassion and empathy. This means that in all business communication—emails, team meetings, and 1:1s we need to be present, aware, and respectful when delivering information, mainly when it involves personal critiques.

The four parts of nonviolent communication

Think of the last time you got negative feedback. Was it communicated rashly or harshly? Did you feel like you were personally attacked? What elements were present or missing that would have helped you better digest the criticism? Or maybe you found it helpful and compassionate? Understanding how nonviolent communication works may explain why the feedback felt particularly useful or particularly harmful.

The basic model for nonviolent communication is simple and can easily help you translate necessary criticisms into compassionate and motivational statements.

1. Observation: Make observations without judging. Note concrete statements and actions in the present moment without evaluating. What are you hearing someone say or do? Consider confirming your observations with statements like, “I hear you say this…” “I see that you’ve been affected by this…” Also, note any physical responses you might be having. Are you feeling tense or nervous? Checking in on our physical reactions can also help us with the next step in evaluating emotions.

2. Feeling: Consider how those observations make you feel. You want to distinguish your feelings from your thoughts. For those of us not used to taking an emotional audit, it can be a strange thing to stop everything and ask, “How am I feeling?” but just stopping to get in touch with our emotions can slow our kneejerk reactions and create more space to process. Describing your feelings accurately will also help to foster mutual understanding. “When this happens, I feel confused.” Don’t say what someone else is doing to you but focus instead on the actual feelings being produced.

3. Needs: Make sure that basic needs (yours and others) are met. This will ensure that everyone is comfortable and in an empathetic space. What needs aren’t being met that are connected to those feelings? Do you need more time? More appreciation and support? Articulate your needs quickly and succinctly: “I really value the project we’re working on and need to know it’s moving forward.”

4. Request: Make any requests clear, concrete, and able to be carried out in the present moment. You can find ways cooperatively and creatively to achieve these outcomes. A request is more than stating your need; it’s giving concrete information about what you’d like the other person actually to do. You can say, “I’d like you to…” or “Would you be willing to….?”

A few examples of nonviolent feedback

Here are a few examples to show how you might use the model above when you’re trying to deliver critical feedback.

Example 1

When I see that______________I feel ______________because my need for ________________ is/isn’t met. Would you be willing to __________________?

Example 2

I’ve noticed that _______________ (your analysis seems short-sighted, you haven’t been completing assignments on time, etc.).

Example 3

I feel that ______________ (maybe you are overwhelmed, you don’t understand the process, you don’t quite grasp our target market).

Example 4

Because my need for ___________ (clear communication, thorough analysis, efficient strategy) is not met, would you be willing to _____________ (review our work-flow process, consult with other teammates, learn something new, try something different)?

These are mere examples, but you can see how the format translates into a structured delivery of information. The important thing is to communicate your observations, feelings, needs, and requests most clearly and concisely. Of course, like anything else we do, practice makes perfect, and you can always develop and refine this skill.

The importance of empathy

When following this model, it is essential to remember empathy and honesty. Empathy means connecting and sharing experiences – and it goes beyond compassion. You want to put yourself in the recipient’s shoes and be available to what they are experiencing. Honesty is also at the core of nonviolent communication and requires you to remain in touch with your own feelings and needs so that you can be present.

You’ve probably never considered the words you use to be violent, but our language choices have a significant impact on our teams and the individuals who belong to them. Conflict will arise, and we must manage it strategically, rather than resorting to radio silence, problem avoidance, or no-filter aggression. Developing nonviolent communication strategies will help you communicate critical feedback in a way that is supportive and collaborative.