There are only two things about which you can provide corrective feedback with a decent chance of a positive outcome:

  • Behavior, and
  • The impact of that behavior

And there are two things about which, if you attempt to give feedback, will most likely create a problem:

  • Character, or
  • What's going on in the other person's head (motives & feelings)

Just so we're all on the same page here, let me explain the last two concepts a bit more:



It's okay to provide feedback regarding a person's behavior, but not their character.  So how do you tell the difference?  

You know you're talking about character when you can finish this sentence: "You are [insert negative adjective here]."  For example, "You are rude," or “You are self-centered.”  Other examples of character words are: disrespectful, lazy, unthoughtful, selfish, inconsiderate, mean, pushy...and many, many more.

These words define a person’s character, i.e. who a person is.  There are three key problems we run into when we provide feedback by focusing on a person's character:

  1. INSULT:  Yes, you are insulting the person when you comment on their character...even if your "You are rude" is disguised as "You are being rude," which almost sounds like you're talking about behavior, but in fact is still focused on an abstract character value.  I could say "You're an idiot" or I could say, "You're being an idiot”: the difference is negligible, and the result is going to be the same.  And here's a news flash:  People don't tend to respond openly and non-defensively when they've just been insulted.  
  2. INTERPRETATION:  "Selfish" and "rude" are interpretations of behavior.  Therefore they are fertile ground for argument.  It's easy to argue whether or not something was rude or inconsiderate ("Well, *I* didn't think it was rude...") – it's harder for someone to argue against, "You are interrupting me when I'm trying to talk."
  3. DEFENSIVENESS:  If I was going to make a list of Mike Nash’s top 10 personal characteristics, I’m certainly not going to include “rude” or “inconsiderate.”  And if you call me those things, I will get defensive.  However, I would be much more willing to talk about the fact that I tend to interrupt people or that I text at the dinner table.  Those are not character assassinations.  They are behaviors.  When you say something negative about who I am, I'm going to get defensive because I'm a human being, and it's human nature to protect oneself when being attacked or insulted.  And remember:  People who are feeling defensive don't listen or learn.  When you cause someone to feel defensive, that person will not be open to any feedback you have for them, regardless of how valid or valuable it may be. 


The following statements are examples of interpretations and guesses about what the other person is thinking or feeling:

  • "You think you're better than everyone else."
  • "You're trying to make me feel stupid."
  • "You have a bad attitude."
  • "You don't seem to care about your job."
  • "You're uptight."

I can almost guarantee that when you provide feedback statements like this, you will be met with defensiveness.  And what's more, if you happen to guess correctly (meaning, they really don't care about their job, or they really do think they're better than everyone else), then you will most likely get even MORE defensiveness because you just struck a pretty solid chord and the person is fully aware that you don't have the ability to read minds.



So how do we get beyond all the defensiveness, frustration and perceived character attacks?  Give feedback about behavior and impact ONLY.  There is ALWAYS behavior to discuss, otherwise you wouldn't have felt compelled to provide feedback in the first place.  

Instead of: "You're behaving rudely,"
Say: "You've interrupted me several times during this conversation – it makes me not want to continue trying to be heard."

Instead of: "You have a bad attitude during office meetings,"
Say: "I'm noticing that you tend to roll your eyes and sigh when people suggest ideas during meetings.  I think people might be feeling afraid to speak up because of this."

Instead of: "You're inconsiderate (or selfish or self-centered or lazy),"
Say: "I'm feeling frustrated that I'm doing all the dishes while you're watching T.V."

Instead of: "You're uptight" or "You seem uptight,"
Say: "You're talking really fast and are pacing back and forth...are you alright?"

TIP: If you realize you tend to give feedback about people’s character and intents/motives rather than their behaviors, it can take a little work to learn a more effective approach.  Try writing down the specific behaviors you want to address before you meet with the employee.  Refer to the list if you need to so that you don't go down the road of character attacks or arguable interpretations.