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8 words to avoid when giving feedback (Part 2)

Back in October 2013, I posted a blog on the 8 words to avoid when giving feedback. Since that time, it has become one of the most popular blogs on our website. Before Xmas, I re-posted the blog on LinkedIn and was startled when it received over 14,553 hits, 229 likes and 63 comments. Given its popularity, I thought I would re-visit the topic and dig a bit deeper.

The original blog challenged leaders and coaches to avoid using the word ‘you’ and ‘yours’ when delivering negative feedback. It was prompted by my Vistage chair training in the US where this technique had been demonstrated to great effect. Using this approach, the feedback ‘“When the group has discussions, you aren’t really paying attention or asking questions; it seems like you’re pretty detached” becomes “In the group discussions, I have noticed not paying attention or asking questions; I wondered if this was detachment.”

coaching feedback

Reactions to this approach on-line have varied. Some have loved the idea, others have dismissed it as passive aggressive and grammatically unsound. Derrick Sousley, general manager at The Bricton Group, went as far to suggest we were in danger of becoming Yoda-junkies by commenting ‘much afraid to speak mind of what opinion that is true me think yes, mmmmm”. Amid this controversy, I decided I would submit this approach to a stiffer practical test by challenging the members of my Vistage group to use it when giving feedback on each other’s presentation skills.

The Vistage group is a confidential peer group of CEOs/MDs where a strong foundation of trust has already been built. Being able to give and receive challenging feedback is critical to being an effective group member and also to the day jobs of the individuals concerned. Needless to say, we had great fun experimenting with giving feedback without using the words ‘you’ and ‘yours’. A number of times, members stopped halfway through their sentence needing more time to prepare their words. Other members insisted on providing positive feedback before providing the challenging feedback. These were shown the ‘red card’ and asked to start again stripping out the ‘softener’ of the initial praise.

It was a lively session as we practised hard to develop a skill that is critical to effective leadership.  The consensus of the group was that removing ‘you and ‘yours’ does help take the sting out of challenging feedback. It does remove the finger-pointing feeling that can trigger a defensive reaction. What is more, we found that with practise the feedback became simpler and more direct; avoiding the passive aggressive risk. For example, after we had challenged a member to re-phrase his feedback for a second time, he condensed an initial 3-4 sentences into 5 words – ‘get to the point quicker’!

That is the practice but what about the theory? Why does this approach work? A clue to this was provided by a LinkedIn comment from Linda Cameron, a licensed NLP coach and NLP trainer. Linda explained that ‘Removing the words ‘you’ and ‘your’ has the effect of what NLP calls ‘nominalising’, which is taking a process and turning it into a ‘thing’ (verb into noun). This in turn dissociates the thing from the person and can make it easier to deal with… When we want to handle someone with care and avoid potential rejection.., ‘nominalising’ keeps the thorny ‘thing’ safely on the outside and allows the person to observe the situation and recognise a potential solution without holding the discomfort in their hands.’ I love this idea of not placing challenging feedback directly into the hands of the receiver but using nominalisation to place the feedback at a safe distance from the individual. This allows the receiver to observe the feedback dispassionately rather than react to it defensively.

Having re-visited both the practice and the theory, I hope I have further sparked your curiosity in this approach. I do not think it is a panacea for all feedback challenges but I do think it is a way of breaking us out of judgmental, accusatory habits. Leaders will always need to give feedback to those they lead. Increasingly, we need to be able to make a point without making an enemy. Yoda or no Yoda, a diverse, modern workplace requires us to re-think what works. This is one way to try something new. I invite you to give it a whirl…

Post your comments on our LinkedIn Group. …without using the words ‘you’ and ‘yours’ 🙂