Giving Feedback with Empathy

I (Kristen) have been thinking a lot lately about feedback and criticism and their intersection with empathy. As a reminder, here’s our definition of empathy:

Empathy is a mental framework. It is the consistent, intentional decision to choose understanding over assumptions for yourself and other people.

Every one of us is in situations all the time that require feedback. At work it’s not only about projects and other tangibles, but sometimes it’s answers to simple questions. How the feedback is delivered is the focus today. Indulge me in a story to demonstrate my point, will you?

Keisha is preparing an update for a client her PR firm is working with. She’s gathered social media engagement statistics, list of media placements, and comments from a podcast their CEO was on. As is the culture at her company, she sends the PDF to a colleague, Andrea, before the meeting to make sure she didn’t miss anything.

Andrea’s email back reads: “Stats are fine, formatting is a mess. Not to be mean, but this is embarrassing. I’d clean it up before you send it.”


(Also – Andrea? The clause that starts with ‘but’ is the only one anyone cares about.)

There might be truth hidden in that statement. The formatting may, indeed, be a mess. It may, indeed, embarrass Andrea to send that to a client.

Here’s what it doesn’t contain: any acknowledgement that Keisha is a human being or that different people are different.

Before she sent the email, we wish Andrea would have asked herself a few questions. 1) Is Keisha’s work normally like this or might something be wrong? 2) Is this “embarrassing” by Andrea’s standards or by the company’s clearly outlined ones? 3) How can I address my legitimate concerns with this doc in a kind way?

We wish Andrea’s email would have read: “The stats in the report are great – I’m sure Anfield will be delighted with what you’ve accomplished. My screen has page 2 and 4 outside the margins – is that the same on your screen? And page 3 isn’t hitting quite right for me. Could absolutely be a me thing, so ignore me if you think it works. It’s your report, I’m just here to support. Either way, good work, Keisha!”

This response acknowledges 1) Keisha’s hard work to get the thing that matters most: the reports of the coverage and 2) that the visuals may be a thing for Andrea and not a thing for Keisha.

That feedback asked questions and made fewer assumptions – which we think all feedback should do.


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