Feedback Conversations: Dealing with Emotional Reactions

Feedback Conversations:  Dealing with Emotional Reactions

Part 1 of 6 in a Series of Managing Five Common Emotional Reactions

It’s performance review season for many companies and if you are a manager in the midst of it, you may be worried about how to manage the emotions that show up in the process. This can mean your own emotions or those of the person you are doing the performance review with. It’s both normal and common to experience a range of emotions when giving or receiving feedback. These are often high stakes conversations that have a different level of intensity and gravity than our normal conversations. We are all unique in our perceptions which impacts the way we feel during feedback conversations.

As a manager you can make a big difference by creating a safe and supportive start for the conversation. When people feel comfortable and trust that your intentions are good and you care about their success, they are more open to hearing feedback of any type, be it recognition, developmental or corrective. Read our blog called: Want people to be open to your Feedback? Here’s the Secret! for the 5 key steps to gain trust at the start of a feedback conversation. If you do this well, the chances of heightened emotional reactions in the conversation go way down.

Here is the key point: If emotions do flare up in the conversation, the purpose of the conversation immediately shifts from the topic of feedback to the safety of the person who is feeling emotional.

Let go of the conversation you intended on having, even just for the time being, and acknowledge the emotions that have arisen in the moment. When emotions run high, the brain has ‘downshifted’ into self-protection mode, and they will not be capable of hearing or processing what you have to say until their emotions have dissipated. Take lots of time, be patient, and ask into it by saying “I see some emotion coming up for you, can you tell me what it’s about?” and then “what would you like to do right now?” –and “what do you need from me?” Continue to support them until safety is restored. Do not move back into the feedback conversation until they are ready.

What if my own emotions get in the way?

Managers may think they shouldn’t feel emotions during performance reviews, but as human beings it does happen, and it’s important to remember that if you become emotional it will impact the person you are meeting with. We all have ‘mirror neurons’ where we pick up on, and actually start to feel a similar emotion as the person we are with. So, what can you do if you become angry or feel hurt, if you are visibly nervous, fearful, or frustrated?

While the best way to manage emotions is to get ahead of them by taking a little time and prepare yourself (your head, your heart and your gut) so you can stay calm, this isn’t always possible. In the moment, it may help to remember that your thoughts affect how you feel, not the other way around. Your mindset and thoughts drive your emotions. So, in the moment take a deep breath (this really works!) and ask yourself a question such as “What is a great outcome for both of us from this conversation?” or “How can I show I really care about their success and want to support their development?”, and then ask yourself “What do I need to do right now to align my behavior with the outcomes I want?” These questions are a mash-up of positive psychology and neuroscience and will help you stay calm by engaging your pre-frontal cortex (thinking brain) rather than letting your reptilian brain drive you into a flight or fight reaction.

In the moment, it may help to remember that your thoughts affect how you feel, not the other way around.

Remember, you are not responsible for the reactions of other people during a feedback conversation. You are responsible for the quality of your feedback. Don’t let your fear or worry about their reaction prevent you from being candid. However, if they do become emotional, they cannot process or hear what you are saying until they feel safe and settled. This becomes the new focus of the conversation. Your candid message has to wait until the emotional charge of the situation has been addressed. Once it has, and both of you can re-engage in the conversation fully, you can move back into the content of the conversation.

This is the first in a series of blogs to help you manage five common emotional reactions that can be triggered during feedback conversations:

  1. How to Deal with Emotional Reactions in Feedback Conversations
  2. How to Deal with Silence
  3. How to Deal with Crying
  4. How to Deal with Disagreement
  5. How to Deal with Taking Offense
  6. How to Deal with Anger

This series of blogs is adapted from our Great Feedback Workbook. To learn more about our Great Feedback Training contact us at

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