How Do You Give Feedback Without Someone Losing Face?

Have you ever given feedback to someone and gotten a surprisingly negative reaction? Have you received negative feedback that made you feel humiliated, even worthless?

Given correctly, feedback can inspire a team to reach its highest potential. Deliver it improperly, and things can unravel quickly.

In my book, Saving Face: How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust, I detail how “face”—our sense of personal dignity—can be lost, recovered, and honored. Feedback plays a part in all three.

When people lose face, they may get angry, frustrated, and resentful. Consequently, they fight, flee, or freeze. Your intentions may be good, but the impact is damaging.

Does this mean leaders should never deliver critical, constructive feedback? Not at all. Critical feedback is crucial for growth. But it can be delivered in ways that preserve the receiver’s dignity.

Here’s how to maximize the potential of feedback—and avoid its pitfalls.

Avoid blunt talk.

Some people think being “direct” is the best approach to delivering feedback. While authenticity is important, bluntness may cause the other person to lose face.

With blunt talk, clarity and accuracy often aren’t important. The receiver’s feelings aren’t considered—the giver just needs to get things off their chest. The receiver does not feel respected and likely feels blamed or unappreciated. Walls are put up, and the feedback is difficult to accept. The receiver becomes so resentful they don’t make the needed changes.

With blunt talk, people often don’t consider whether it’s the right time and place to deliver feedback.

Consider Linda. She previously communicated exclusively through Slack, even using it to deliver critical feedback to individuals—in full view of everyone else. She believed she was being efficient and transparent, but her team feared taking risks and making mistakes lest they publicly lose face. After realizing this, Linda started using Slack only for general communication. Feedback was delivered offline (ideally face-to-face). It took six months to rebuild trust with her team, but it was worth the effort.

Avoid safe talk.

Safe talk is the opposite of blunt talk, but equally damaging. Instead of direct feedback, hints are dropped. The message is vague and ambiguous. The manager thinks feedback was provided, but the receiver is confused and may even think everything is fine. The manager may have intended to save face and preserve harmony, but instead, they created confusion.

Take the example of John. He leads the marketing division of a multinational firm. One of his team members, Cory, has excelled in his short time with the company, but recently delivered sales forecasts with inaccurate data.

Before the next forecast, John reviews Cory’s preliminary figures with him. But first, he corrects mistakes in the report. He gives Cory the corrected version, telling him how much he appreciates his work. He doesn’t address the mistakes or show Cory how to fix them.

John used “safe talk.” He avoided discussing the errors directly, in hopes Cory would just notice on his own. The result? Cory didn’t, and the errors continued.

Use straight talk.

To ensure feedback is understood and digested, and to preserve the dignity of the receiver, use straight talk.

How does it work? Communicate your message accurately and clearly, and in a way that makes the receiver feel respected. Deliver it in a private, safe environment. Make sure the message is based on facts and expectations are clear.

Let’s imagine John using straight talk with Cory. First, John would have the conversation privately. Then, he’d ask Cory to self-reflect. “What went well with the reports?” John would affirm Cory’s observations and add his own.

Next, John would ask, “Do you see any room for improvement?” If Cory doesn’t mention the inaccurate figures, John would point them out, providing specific instructions on how to fix them.

Finally, John would ask Cory to summarize. “What would you do differently next time, and what would you keep the same?”

Cory walks away with a clear sense of what’s expected of him—and he feels respected. That’s the effect of straight talk.

Feedback is essential to the growth of an individual and a team. Deliver it with accuracy, clarity, and respect, and both will thrive.

Maya Hu-Chan is a globally-recognized keynote speaker, author, leadership educator, and an ICF Master Certified Coach. She is the president of Global Leadership Associates. She has authored two books, Global Leadership: The Next Generation and Saving Face: How to Preserve Dignity and Build Trust. Read more at You can also connect with her on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.


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