How to avoid the fear of being mean (FOBM) and stick to your valid opinions


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Photo: Getty Images/Luis Alvarez

Let’s be honest: No one ever wants to be the bearer of bad news. Not only is providing constructive criticism uncomfortable—regardless of whether you’re giving feedback to a colleague, a friend, or a family member—but the act can also unwittingly make you feel guilty and bad about yourself.

According to a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, colleagues who delivered unexpected unfavorable news were considered less likable in comparison to people who provided good news. That finding makes sense because of course people correlate positive feedback with general likability. Unfortunately though, that reality doesn’t exempt anyone from needing to deliver hard truths when a situation calls for it. In these cases, feeling equipped to reign supreme over the fear of being mean (FOBM) is an invaluable skill to have.

Of course, this isn’t easy to do; and even if you’re personally close to the recipient of your feedback, there are several reasons why you may get stage fright when it comes time to deliver your lines. “First, FOBM is often connected to ‘people-pleasing,’ or trying to keep everyone around us happy and ‘in like’ with us all the time,” says career coach Megan Hellerer. “Second, we have the belief that we’re responsible for other peoples’ feelings and reactions. And third, FOBM doesn’t actually come out of fear of hurting the other person, but rather a fear of the discomfort that I will be uncomfortable if the other person is hurt or mad at me, and I don’t want to experience that bad feeling.”

“FOBM doesn’t actually come out of fear of hurting the other person, but rather a fear of the discomfort that I will be uncomfortable if the other person is hurt or mad at me.” —Megan Hellerer, career coach

A lot of these factors have to do with our general negative relationship with the concept of feedback—something Shivani Siroya, the founder and CEO of financial services app Tala who has delivered quite a bit of constructive news throughout her career, thinks should change. “If you’re associating giving feedback with being mean, it’s a problem of undervaluing the purpose of feedback and assuming that critique can only be delivered in a negative tone,” she says. “Cues from culture have taught us to be nice at all costs, when in reality, that just encourages us to be passive.”

For these reasons, it’s key to rebrand your own outlook on giving feedback so that you can both deliver and receive it better. Below, expert give tips on how exactly you can cure your FOBM for good.

1. Focus on the behavior, not the emotions

To avoid FOBM, focus the recipient of the feedback’s behavior and not on their (or your own) emotions. To this point, steer clear of being accusatory in any way because saying something like, “you were acting obnoxious!” will only make you feel badly about the situation afterward, says career counselor Julie LaCroix. How? Hellerer suggests creating a “feelings versus facts” list. Let’s say you’re tasked with giving feedback to someone who is frequently missing deadlines. The feelings might include:

  • I’ll feel guilty and mean that I’ll make her feel bad
  • I’m angry that she missed the deadline and we lost the client
  • I’m worried she’ll share with co-workers that I’m a mean manager.

The facts, on the other hand, look more like this:

  • She missed the deadline, and as a result the product launch was delayed.

Being able to decipher fact from emotion can help you identify the best solution—which, again, should be derived from the fact column. As for handling your emotions (because you certainly shouldn’t ignore those), Hellerer recommends addressing those elsewhere, like a journal, with your friends, or with a therapist.

2. Change your perspective

Shift your perspective away from the focus of delivering negative news—because that’s not even what it is. At the core of constructive feedback is a game-plan for improvement at a job, relationship, or other facet of life that’s not properly functioning for any number of reasons.

“What’s the point in protecting someone’s feelings if their performance or job is at stake?”asks Siroya. “With a more positive perspective, you can push past concerns about being mean and find the right words to offer someone a helpful perspective on their journey.”

3. Be clear with yourself about your “why”

Before delivering the feedback, Hellerer says to ask yourself three questions: Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said by me? Does it need to be said now? The answers will help you confirm whether you’re the right person to address the issue and how to go about it. Furthermore, they can also make you feel more confident in your purpose for giving feedback in the first place (and, in effect, less “mean” about it).

4. Ask a trusted third party for an opinion

Confiding in someone you trust—maybe your own manager or a therapist or a confidant—before diving right in is what Hellerer calls a sanity check. Sometimes we want our thoughts about the way we see issues to be validated (especially if gaslighting might be at play), and it’s also affirming to have a trusted third party offer an honest opinion. This step can also help you ensure you’ve separated the feelings from the facts and test out the delivery of your concerns.

5. Frame the issue as “we” problem, not a “you” problem

One quick and easy FOBM-minimizing strategy is to package the problem as one you’re both trying to solve. When you restrain yourself from playing the blame game, you won’t feel mean in addressing the issue because it’s no longer a personal attack.

“Share what you are noticing, and express curiosity about the other person’s experience by asking questions,” says Hellerer. “For example, you can say, ‘It seems like we have been miscommunicating about deadlines recently. Have you noticed that, too? What do you think is going on here? How do you think we can better address this?’ More often than not, the other person will also be experiencing the disconnect and will appreciate the forum to discuss and problem-solve together.”

6. Don’t overthink the conversation

“It’s critical to not overthink the process,” says Siroya. “It will feel scary until we make it normal.” Ultimately, combating FOBM will improve your relationships with everyone in your life. And remember, FOBM isn’t just something to work on regarding our external relationships, but also with ourselves.

Here’s how to control your emotions (without ignoring them). And if FOBM is overtaking your life, it might be time to build more boundaries—all five types of them.

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