How to Give Feedback to People Who Cry, Yell or Get Defensive

Reviews are headaches for managers, especially when you have someone on your team who reacts badly to everything.

There’s no denying that performance review season can be a headache for managers. The process of writing reviews and delivering feedback takes a lot of time and can be particularly stressful if you have someone on your team who tends to have a negative emotional reaction to feedback.

So how do you get ready to give feedback to someone who might cry, yell or get defensive?

Advice for All Tough Feedback Sessions

Remember the “why": Focus on all the good reasons you’re giving the feedback. Remind yourself and your employee by saying things like, “I need to share this with you because I want you to be successful here” or "I want to see you keep growing.”

Find your center and prepare: You’ll feel better prepared if you do your homework in advance and ground your assessments in observations, data and concrete examples. Invest the time to be as thoughtful as possible.

Move the conversation to a productive place: Diffuse the emotional reaction so that you can productively give the feedback and, together, come up with ideas and actions to ensure the person’s success. This may mean having a second meeting after the person has had time to calm down and collect themselves.

Talking to Someone Who Has the Tendency to Cry

Remember that a hard message doesn’t have to come with a hard voice or tone. Deliver it thoughtfully and considerately. Other things to try include delivering the feedback at the end of the day so the person can go home afterward, having a box of tissues on hand and being ready to meet again once the person has calmed down.

Talking to Someone Who Yells

When faced with someone who yells or gets angry, it’s common to either feel intimidated such that you back down or feel riled up such that you lash back. Aim to stay calm while standing your ground. Say things — in a neutral, composed voice. Example: “I need you to take a deep breath or we will have to reschedule this. This is not constructive." Reiterate your good intentions and let them know you want to hear what they have to say after they’ve taken a moment or a night to calm down.

Talking to Someone Who Gets Defensive

Some people have a reason or explanation for everything. In this case, call the person out on not listening and encourage him to do so, or say something like, “I see this as your responsibility — let’s talk about why you don’t see it this way.”

Emotional reactions can put us on opposite sides of the table with the other person. By focusing on good intentions, preparing with integrity, and calmly and effectively responding in the moment, we can move to the same side of the table and help the other person grow.

Amy Jen Su is a co-founder and managing partner of Paravis Partners, a boutique executive coaching and leadership development firm.

This article was originally published by Harvard Business Review on September 26, 2016.

Topics: Management

How to Be a Great Panel Moderator
Bringing Value: Honing the Fine Art of Communication

Popular Articles


About Physician Leadership News

Now more than ever, physicians are leaders in their organizations and communities.

The American Association for Physician Leadership maximizes and supports physician leadership through education, community, and influence. We promote thought leadership in health care through our Physician Leadership News website, bimonthly Physician Leadership Journal and other channels.

We focus on industry leadership issues such as patient care, finance, professional development, law, and technology. Association announcements and news of association events can be found.

Send us your feedback at

Journal Submission Guidelines

AAPL's award-winning print publication, the Physician Leadership Journal, welcomes originally authored manuscripts for peer review that meet competency, formatting and preparation criteria. To review these guidelines and other information regarding submissions, click here.