“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” is polite advice, but not always practical when giving feedback. Not all feedback is positive to give or easy to receive.

But skipping critical feedback isn’t the solution — knowing how to effectively provide it is.

Just like any conversation, a little strategy can go a long way in reaching your desired outcome. Here are five pieces of advice to consider when giving feedback in a workplace setting.

1. Set up a productive exchange.

Asking “Can I give you feedback?” isn’t an effective starting point for managers who have to deliver feedback, whether it’s wanted or not. Even though you can’t give the employee a choice as to whether they hear the feedback, you can set up an exchange that allows them to take the lead, according to Beth Knox, former president and CEO of Seafair and the 2018 Special Olympics USA Summer Games.

“I think it’s important to take a moment to allow the individual to say what happened and let them identify where they missed the mark or where the mistake happened and why,” Knox says. “That provides the perfect platform to talk about what needs to be done to avoid the mistake in the future.”

2. Remember that clarity is kindness.

Sugarcoating the issue doesn’t make it any better. Dancing around the point can add to the overall stress and anxiety of the situation. According to Joli Mosier, principal and founding partner of Bellevue-based consultants MosierMcCann, clarity is kindness.

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“People can get a gut feeling and read the room to know something negative is coming,” Mosier says. “Put yourself in their shoes. Be clear so they understand what the feedback is and what needs to change so they can be more effective. Feedback isn’t helpful if the person doesn’t know how you’re trying to help them or get them to respond.”

Preparing for these types of conversations is key, along with remembering the anticipation is often worse than the actual conversation. “When we try to hedge or beat around the bush and avoid the hard truth, that’s when it becomes really uncomfortable,” Knox says. “If we are clear and candid it saves everyone a lot of heartache and time. State the problem then move on to the solution.”

3. Recognize that honesty fosters credibility

If giving negative feedback still makes you cringe, consider the positive side and how it can help establish your credibility at work.

“Say what you feel in a respectful way, especially if you were asked to provide feedback. If you don’t provide real information, no one trusts you in the future,” says Shannon Vetto, principal/owner of SV Consulting in Mercer Island. “Honesty is really important but how you say it is probably the second most important part of feedback.”

Tactfully saying something unpopular confirms you’re a good sounding board in the future. Taking the path of least resistance doesn’t help people or companies grow.

4. Acknowledge that feedback is a gift.

You can’t control how the message is received, but when you are sincere in the way you deliver feedback you’re opening the door for personal growth.

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“Give feedback with the intention to help someone either grow or improve,” Vetto says. “Don’t shy away from it. You’re helping someone. Feedback is a gift regardless if it’s positive or negative. It needs to be authentic and people need feedback.”

5. Learn from the entire experience.

Feedback goes beyond the words that are said. The entire experience shapes the way the conversation plays out. For that reason, spend a few minutes after the exchange to take notes and learn from the whole interaction.

“There have been times I’ve left a meeting feeling empowered even when I was given constructive criticism because it was delivered well,” Knox says. “I take notes after those experiences and use them going forward, even if it’s just advice to myself, and then adapt those as a leader.”

Jen Mueller is the author of “The Influential Conversationalist” and a sports broadcaster based in Seattle. (Courtesy of Jen Mueller)
Jen Mueller is the author of “The Influential Conversationalist” and a sports broadcaster based in Seattle. (Courtesy of Jen Mueller)