How to Offer Feedback in a Fragile World

By Tim Elmore


When Carol reminded her class about Friday’s exam, she got a surprising text from one of her students. Chelsea’s message said, “I won’t be in class for the test tomorrow. I’m just not my best self this week.” 


Carol was disappointed but also felt she owed Chelsea some hard truth. When the student returned to class, Carol pulled her aside and explained, “You know, after graduation, you won’t be able to excuse yourself from a special task at work because you’re not your best self. I suggest you figure out a way to gather your strength and show up even on tough days.” 


It was at that point Chelsea gasped as if her teacher had assaulted her. She replied that she felt triggered and could not continue the conversation. She left for the restroom and didn’t return to class for almost twenty minutes. Naturally, Chelsea expected her teacher to help her catch up on the instruction she had missed. 


Carol responded instead, “Chelsea—catching up on what you missed is up to you. Talk to a fellow student.” 


This seemed to be the end of the discussion.


Two days later, however, Carol received a note from her principal asking her to “lighten up.” Apparently, Chelsea’s mother had paid him a visit, and this was his solution—Carol was not to confront her students (especially Chelsea) this bluntly again.


When Students Appear Fragile 

Offering hard feedback has never been easy, but today, it is tougher than ever. We seem to have caved to the idea that kids are fragile and need lots of warning and preparation for tough situations. If that’s true, it is we who’ve created this monster. Kids are naturally “anti-fragile.” Toddlers hop back up when they learn to walk; kids forgive wrongs easier than adults do, and they have immune systems that organically combat disease and germs. These all signal what comes naturally for young people. I believe we have caused this fragility today. 


Adults, even caring parents, teachers, and employers, have overcompensated in favor of “safety” in our society and chosen to allow fragility to grow in younger generations:   

  • Providing trigger warnings on college campuses 
  • Removing certain books from libraries 
  • Curbing free speech and ideas at schools


This assumption that students are fragile is relatively new. A hundred years ago, we believed kids were robust and resilient—and it’s a good thing. Those kids grew up equipped to face the Great Depression and World War II. Adults prepared them to become agile, not fragile. Greg Lukianoff, co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind, wrote, “Many university students today are learning to think in distorted ways, and this increases their likelihood of becoming fragile, anxious, and easily hurt.” 


6 Strategies to Offer Feedback in a Fragile World

1. Gain permission by earning the right to give input.

Today, relationships mean far more than positions or badges. We earn the right to offer hard feedback by cultivating a personal and authentic relationship with a young person. In short, genuine connection must precede critical input. We must connect before we correct. Then, asking permission to have a tough conversation earns a receptive ear. 

2. Be targeted with your approach.

Our feedback has little chance of transforming young people if it’s a general attack on their work. We must target one area where we’d like to see improvement and focus our input on that. Being targeted means we emulate a doctor performing surgery. Surgeons almost always target their operation on one area (a tumor, a bone, an organ) instead of carving up the patient’s entire body.


3. Offer input with belief and expectation. 

The key is to offer any feedback from a context of belief. You expect a lot from them because you believe a lot in them. Studies from Ivy League schools prove that student effort improves dramatically when leaders communicate this sentiment: “I’m giving you this feedback because I have high expectations of you, and I know you can reach them.”

4. Communicate progress with your words.

I have found I gain a more positive response from someone who’s receiving my feedback if I clarify I see their current progress. Some time ago, I challenged a leader to improve, and she became preoccupied with the fact that I failed to show I noticed she was doing better than before. Once I began acknowledging her progress, she was willing to push further. 


5. Do it in a timely fashion. 

Forget the annual review or the yearly parent updates. People need real-time feedback for it to feel authentic. Don’t let pent-up frustration build until you vomit emotionally on a student or parent. Wait a day until you get over your own emotions, but set up a time to meet quickly.

6. Give them the opportunity to practice and implement the feedback.

When students receive feedback, they’ll be frustrated unless they have a path to improve. In a broader sense, think about where the student is going, how the student is doing now, and what the next step is. If you tell them they must do better, furnish a plan for them to do just that. 

We owe our students this gift of feedback. Don’t run from it in the name of comfort or popularity. Winston Churchill said, “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.” The growth and development of our students is our highest calling.

How to Offer Feedback in a Fragile World