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How to Give Uncomfortable Personal Feedback, with Grace

Most people feel awkward raising personal issues with colleagues. That’s especially true when those issues concern the physical body, seem like an inherent expression of the person themselves, or are things we would feel mortified about if someone brought them up about us.

Weird personal habits, physical issues, and behavioral quirks can be off-putting or disruptive to others, and create tricky, delicate situations that affect everything from teamwork to customer retention. Typically, the format for performance-based feedback relies on this structure: “When you did X, the result was Y, so next time please do Z.” But workplace cultures aren’t much help when it comes to truly personal feedback.

So how do you give work-related, personal feedback in a way the other person can take in? It’s challenging, but with careful thought and delivery the recipient will actually feel grateful for it.

Why You Need to Step Up and Deal

In the past few weeks, clients have asked me how to handle several uncomfortable situations, from a retail staffer with terrible dandruff to a colleague who turns people off by announcing what’s wrong with their opinions the second they share them. Previous challenges include people who spit when they talk, constantly wipe their noses on their hands, smell peculiar, issue personal insults “in fun,” and seem to be unconscious about their use of bad language.

Whenever someone’s habit or tendency has a negative impact on their colleagues or their ability to get work done, it’s vital to find an appropriate way to broach the subject. Your ability to give correction — even though it’s often painful to both parties — will support both the organization and the individual’s ability to function within it.

How to Prepare

It’s more effective to focus on what will actually help the person rather than on what you believe needs to change. For example, the staffer with severe dandruff is more likely to do something about it if you express your honest concern about her health and comfort than if you blurt out, truthfully but unhelpfully, “Both the customers and I find it disgusting.”

Try framing your conversation with these points:

  • Treat them respectfully: No jokes, subtle coded hints, or anonymous pranks allowed.
  • Be specific and concrete but neutral, so they don’t worry that the situation is worse than it actually is.
  • Explain the negative outcome — what goes wrong now — as well as the desired outcome — what will be better for them and the organization after the change. This is particularly important for senior or longstanding employees whose condition or tendency has been present a long time without any successful intervention.
  • Offer encouragement and next steps to show you care about them and are not abandoning them to the problem. Avoid statements like, “I have no idea how you can take care of this, but it needs to stop,” which sounds clueless and careless.
  • Protect the feedback recipient from insults or unkindness by others if any arises.
  • Praise them as soon as you see any improvement.

What to Say

Here are some examples of approaches and phrases you can use to help you craft your own:

  • A respectful opening: “Please forgive me for raising something a little uncomfortable and kind of personal. I’m not sure if you’re aware of condition/behavior…”
  • A message of support combined with a brief description of impact: “This has nothing to do with your actual skill or talent, but it can cause people to have negative perceptions of you. It can also get in the way of your coming across at your best/have a negative impact on your ability to accomplish what you need to do…”
  • A stronger description of impact if you’re not getting a satisfactory response: “No matter how competent you are, it makes others want to avoid you because they don’t know how to raise the issue with you. “
  • A way to remedy the situation: “Perhaps you’d want to consider seeing a doctor if the standard over-the-counter remedies don’t work.”
  • An offer of support: I’m happy to support you as you’re working on this/making a change. I can give you information on treatments for the condition/techniques for making behavioral change/set up your environment to help you/remind you when it happens…”
  • An expression of respect for their choice: “Ultimately, of course, it’s up to you. So how would you like to proceed?”

Because We’re All Vulnerable…

As challenging as this kind of conversation is, it’s better to salvage the situation than to suffer with it. But keep in mind that logic won’t work with everyone, particularly if they’re feeling threatened, wounded, or embarrassed.

Plus, we all need a good dose of humility before we approach awkward, uncomfortable, or even distasteful circumstances. After all, we never know when the shoe might be on the other foot: We may be unaware of our own odd personal habits and stylistic quirks.

If you’d like some help with this kind of situation, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Onward and upward,


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