Perspective: Three ways to end a feedback conversation

Written by
Deborah Grayson Riegel, Wharton, Columbia & Duke CE Leadership Communication Instructor

24 Jun 2020

24 Jun 2020 • by Deborah Grayson Riegel, Wharton, Columbia & Duke CE Leadership Communication Instructor

Knowing how to effectively wrap up a feedback conversation can be difficult. For Deborah Grayson Riegel, there are three ways to ensure a positive ending.

In the classic movie, When Harry Met Sally, Harry (played by Billy Crystal) admits that he has an unusual habit. “When I buy a new book,” he shares with Sally (Meg Ryan), “I read the last page first. That way, in case I die before I finish, I know how it ends.”

While few of us share Harry’s odd approach to starting a book on the final page, many of us share a desire to know how things are going to end – especially when it comes to having challenging conversations and giving tough feedback. 

Whenever I’ve had to have a tough talk with one of my kids (they’ll insist that they’re innocent and misunderstood), they always ask “Is it over? Are we done talking about it?” so that they can start to recover. And in my role as a leadership coach, my clients are usually curious to dig into the information in their 360 reports – and then, especially in the face of hard feedback – they feel relieved when the debrief is done.

For both the feedback giver and receiver, it’s helpful to know what the end of the conversation sounds like.

And, of course, while each feedback conversation follows its own path, here are three steps that should occur before the dialogue is done:

Ask “What are you committing to?” 

Far too often, the manager is the person who sums up the exchange of what was discussed. That’s the wrong person! If the manager crystallises the key next steps, all that shows is that the feedback giver understands what the commitment is. It does nothing to show whether the feedback receiver truly understands what they are committing to do. By asking the receiver to summarise their own takeaways, the giver has the opportunity to check for understanding and clarify or redirect if needed. 

Schedule your next check-in

After giving a piece of hard feedback, managers often worry, “I hope I don’t have to bring it up again.” And after receiving a piece of hard feedback, employees ruminate, “I hope we don’t have to talk about it again.” Guess what? You should be talking about it again! If the goal of feedback is to reinforce or change performance or a behaviour, then you both need to know if the feedback is doing its job. Before you leave the feedback conversation, schedule when you’ll follow up on this issue. Hopefully, you’ll use that scheduled meeting to celebrate a positive change. And if not, you’ll use that time to check in about what got in the way. Either way, both of you know that you will be talking about this again – and when.

Say thank you

While feedback is critical to professional development, it can often feel uncomfortable, disappointing, and even threatening to our self-image to hear. This is true even with the most skilled managers. Before your employee leaves the conversation, thank them. Thank them for their time, or willingness to engage in the conversation, or thoughtful questions, or commitment to do things differently. Your gratitude can go a long way to helping your colleague feel appreciated and valued.

We can’t predict how a feedback conversation will go (as much as we may want to). But we can do our best to plan for a positive ending.


Deborah Grayson Riegel is a keynote speaker and consultant who teaches leadership communication for Wharton Business School and Columbia Business School. She is a regular contributor for Harvard Business Review, Inc., Psychology Today, Forbes, and Fast Company. 


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