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John Blakey

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Coaching Feedback : 8 Words to Avoid when Giving Feedback


How do we best give challenging feedback to others? What are the little tips and techniques that can make the difference between having our message heard and understood rather than triggering a defensive and hostile reaction? Recently, I learnt a new coaching tip on this topic which surprised me through its simplicity and its impact. In this week’s challenging coaching blog, I will share this tip with you and explain how to use it in your coaching and leadership roles.

coaching feedback

A few weeks ago I was attending a training course in the US as part of my induction into a new role as Group Chair for Vistage – the world’s largest CEO organisation.  It was a fascinating week for all sort of reasons and, on the Tuesday afternoon, we had a session on giving challenging feedback, or ‘carefrontation’ as it was called by our facilitators. Now Ian and I have done a lot of work on feedback over the years and we devote a chapter to it in our own book so I wasn’t expecting any dramatic revelations. Sure enough the session started with sound advice I had come across many times before including a five step model for giving feedback similar to the one Ian and I recommend in challenging coaching. We then moved on to look at eight words that should be avoided in giving challenging feedback and that is where things got very interesting.

The eight words to avoid were revealed as:-

  • Why
  • Never
  • But
  • Always
  • Should
  • However
  • You
  • Your

Some of these I immediately recognised as ‘no-go’ areas such as ‘never’,'always’,'why’ and ‘should’. I have often been taught that these generalised and accusative words will provoke a defensive and hostile reaction. However, it was the last two words that caught my eye. How can you possibly deliver feedback without using the words ‘you’ and ‘your’? What purpose could there be in missing out these words? My colleagues in the group had similar reservations and a noisy debate struck up. Our facilitators brought the debate to a halt through a demonstration where they contrasted the following two pieces offeedback:-

  • “When the classroom has discussions, you aren’t really paying attention or asking questions; it seems like you’re pretty detached”
  • “In the classroom discussions, I have noticed not paying attention or asking questions; I wondered if this was detachment.”

The second statement misses out the use of ‘you’ or ‘your’ and I was struck by how different it landed with the receiver of the feedback.  We next practised this technique ourselves in pairs and , despite it feeling very awkward grammatically, I experienced first hand how much easier it is to receive challenging feedback when it is not pointing a finger at YOU with the words ‘you’ and ‘your’ – ‘This morning I noticed late arrival to the meeting’, ‘When speaking I observed little eye contact and hard to hear’,'As I look around, I can’t help but notice small piece of scrambled egg on chin from breakfast’.

By now you may well be thinking what I was thinking when I first came across this tip – it sounds unnatural, awkward and I can’t see how it could possibly make a difference. Yet how many other aspects of great coaching did you feel exactly the same about when you first came across them, going right back to being non-directive, active listening and asking powerful questions? In the same way, that you experimented and practiced with those skills which you now use naturally, I would encourage you to try giving feedbackwithout using the words ‘you’ or ‘your’. Have a bit of fun with it, practice in a low risk situation and judge it on its impact on the other person rather than whether it makes YOU feel comfortable or not in the moment. What other tips do YOU have for giving challengingfeedback?

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3 Responses

  1. You and yours

    I can see the logic of avoiding words that may produce a defensive reaction. However (oops that's 1 of the 8 words) I doubt if depersonalising to this extent will result in more effective feedback. Is it not better to point to (or ask about) the actual or potential impact of the behaviour that person giving feedback is wanting to highlight?

    If the omission of 'you' and 'your' sounds grammatically awkward maybe one could substitute one's 'yous' and 'yours' with 'one' and 'one's', couldn't one? (For example: "Did one know that one had egg on one's face?") I think our posh ancestors have already found a pompous solution to this problem, but I for one will be sticking with you and yours – but perhaps a little more sparingly.

    Roger Greenaway

  2. New to me

    I've taught feedback skills for many years (as I'm sure many others have who use this site!) and I've come across many techniques for making the process of giving feedback easier, more straightforward and more effective. 

    This is the first time I've heard to suggested that the words "you" or "your" shouldn't be used – it's an interesting technique.  Like Roger, I am initially wondering what the impact is of depersonalising feedback.  I'm sure it does make it easier to hear, but does it also make it easier to avoid or ignore?

    It is a technique I think I probably will try as you suggested in a low-risk environment,  but I'm not convinced! 

    Watch this space – I will report back.


  3. 8 words to avoid

    avoiding you and your applies in all email correspondence  – perhaps more so than coaching, where the personal relationship of trust means you can be much freer.

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John Blakey

Challenging Coaching - Going beyond traditional coaching to face the FACTS

Read more from John Blakey

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