leadership development


Part 2 of 6 in a Series of Managing Five Common Emotional Reactions

Sometimes people withdraw and become silent in response to receiving feedback they find difficult to hear. Don’t assume you know what their silence really means or what’s going on for them. If their emotions are running high, they have adrenaline in their bloodstream and they are in a threat response, or a “fight-or-flight” defensive reaction. They may not be able to articulate their thoughts and may need some time to let the adrenaline dissipate. This can be a challenging response to deal with during a feedback conversation. Be careful not to fall into the trap of doing all the talking, or becoming defensive yourself. Stay calm and remain focused on your original intent for the conversation. Here are some tips for helping people open up.

Show sincere interest in wanting to understand what they are thinking and feeling by asking them to share what’s going on for them. Ask an open-ended question, one that can’t be answered with a yes/no response. For example, “Brad, can you help me understand what your silence means right now?” or “It would really help me if you could tell me what you’re thinking.”

If you do get a response, but it is minimal and you would like to hear more, use your own silence to invite them to keep talking.

If you stay quiet, they may feel compelled to fill the silence with their thoughts. Try counting to 15 in your head to help fight the urge to speak. If they don’t say anything more, try gently and respectfully reminding them that this is an important conversation about their learning and development and reinforce your intention to support them.

For example, “Brad, I want you to be successful on this team and my view is you’re well on the way. My feedback is intended to hold a mirror to some behavior I’ve noticed that is not okay with me or with the team. I’m pretty sure you’d like to know how others experience you so you can consider approaching some things differently. Again, my intent is to help. How willing are you to talk about this?”

Try to ensure your tone gently invites them in to the conversation. Your aim is to have them engage in a two-way dialogue. If this doesn’t get the conversation going, speak to the fact that it’s not working for you. For example, “Brad, your one word responses are not the two-way conversation I had really hoped for. I would really like to understand what is bothering you. It’s not my intention to upset you, I want to help. Please could you share what’s going on for you right now?”


If they still offer little response, suggest you both take a time-out from the conversation to collect your thoughts. Try to gain an agreement to reconvene within an hour or two and set a specific time, or ask them if they would like to reconvene at a later time or date. If there are consequences to this choice, be sure to clarify them. For example, “Okay Brad, it seems this conversation isn’t going to go any further today. I am disappointed, and I would like to meet again on Monday and have another go. I would appreciate it if you would think about the feedback I’ve started to give you, and come prepared to have a two-way conversation with me. I really want to hear your perspective on this. I would also like you to help me understand more clearly what is going on for you and how we can ensure that our future conversations are both comfortable enough to have and also productive for both of us.”

Silence can mean a lot of things and it’s not to be taken lightly. Use your best skills to create a safe environment for them to come into the conversation. Help them understand that their voice is important and that you really want to hear their perspective. Without it, it’s very difficult for you to know what needs to change. If it’s an expectation that they speak up, you may eventually need to state the gap between their behavior and your expectations -but don’t rush into this. Create the safety for dialogue wherever possible.

This is the second 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 is a series of blogs adapted from our Great Feedback Workbook. To learn more about our Great Feedback Training, contact us at [email protected].

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