This word is used so often it has lost its meaning and its power to fascinate. What can we do about this and how can we exchange meaningful words that influence behaviour?

June 2, 2016

This noun has become wallpaper...

Every child knows that we have special words called nouns. Nouns, as you may remember from your now distant early education, are what we call 'things'. Nouns are convenient labels that save us words. If we didn't have nouns I might have to walk into Starbucks (perish the thought) and ask for a medium hot brown liquid made from chopped leaves placed in hot water with a dash of milk for a guy named after one of the saints beginning with the letter 'P', and to narrow it down, after whom a very large place of worship in that huge place where people live, has been named.

We need nouns.

But sometimes they are so convenient, so frequently used, that we forget what they really mean. The vital qualities are lost in the familiarity of the word. 

We talk about giving feedback but rarely, in my experience, do we get behind the generalisations and judgments, perhaps in the hope that the noun 'feedback' will do the job of conveying the intention (I want you to think about this) of whichever words come after it.

The loss of meaning and therefore impact often comes from the same three ailments:

  1. It's judgmental
  2. It's non-specific
  3. It's solution-focused


We accept and expect that people will frequently reach spurious, sometimes unjustified conclusions about us. It just happens. However, if, thinking I am giving you straight feedback, I say to you... I thought you were wrong to mention the budget issue in the meeting, I am, in reality, placing my own lens on your behaviour which is, in effect, me saying that you are wrong according to my set of values. 

The problem is that even if 9 out of 10 dog owners did indeed agree with me I would still be foisting my values onto you. Why should you accept my world view? 

The alternative is to talk about my reactions and to leave you to make the judgment: I was worried when you mentioned the budget issue in the meeting

The message now is: you have my reaction... arrive at your own conclusions.


Most feedback is not specific enough. It floats around in themes, omitting to focus on the behaviour that has worked or misfired. For that reason, in wanting to express my gratitude for something you have done in a meeting, my saying to you: I was really impressed at how you handled the client this morning would not be as powerful as saying: I was impressed when you empathised with John this morning when he got annoyed.  Talking in specifics is not only useful for the recipient with regard to understanding what they are being valued for, it also dramatically reduces the chances that our feedback will be viewed as patronising waffle.


How can it not be helpful to tack a solution onto negative feedback??? Er, duh?! 

Because it means that you not only have to deal with the impact of my feedback (bitter pills, the truth hurts, and so on) but you also have to endure me implicitly suggesting that you don't have the intelligence or social skills to arrive at a viable alternative by yourself.

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