The way you deliver feedback can make the difference between instant defensiveness and thoughtful consideration. One way to reduce immediate push-back is to “make it behavioral.” Here’s how to give feedback that’s behavioral and examples to translate the idea into words.
An attorney emailed to challenge a piece of my writing about difficult behaviors, saying, “I just can’t agree with any premise that lets bullies and narcissists off the hook, or legitimizes their conduct, or even worse, makes them out to be victims.”
That’s a pretty strong accusation. Fighting words, even. His email was forceful and pulled no punches. And surprising, given how much I write and speak about handling difficult behaviors. I was put off enough by it to consider deleting it without a response.
But then Good Tammy reminded me I should try to walk the talk, right? So I replied to his lengthy treatise with a simple question:
What led you to conclude that I’m proposing we let difficult behaviors pass unaddressed?
Give feedback they’ll consider instead of criticism they’ll protest
I once saw two drawings that distinguished feedback from criticism in a very visual way.
One drawing showed a hand holding scissors with the scissor points aimed toward another person’s hand. This was criticism, intended to harm or wound, put someone in their place, or deliver just about the same amount of pain they’ve delivered to you. The delivery creates yet another thing to argue about and makes them want to defend their honor and deflect the message you’re trying to convey.
The second drawing showed a hand holding scissors with handles facing toward the other person’s hand. This was feedback. While perhaps a bit simplistic, it made a useful point: The way you deliver information about behavior you disagree with or dislike can make the difference between rejection and consideration.
There’s a little tool I turn to regularly in my mediation and coaching work, and that I teach other mediators and coaches to use. It’s simple, easy to remember, and immensely useful for turning criticism into instructive information: “Make it behavioral.”
Make it behavioral
“Make it behavioral” means to state clearly the exact behavior you’re talking about without embellishing the statement with your spin on cause or flaws. In other words, describe the behavior without adding in your interpretation, labels, diagnosis, opinions, and other words intended to wound or pass judgment.
When you make it behavioral, you draw a much clearer picture of the behavior that’s in question and you remove the interpretive junk that can put someone on the defensive.
Most people will not become less passive-aggressive, more kind, less juvenile, or more considerate as a result of you telling them they should be. Many people will, however, consider requests to raise concerns directly with you if they disagree with a decision, resist the temptation to roll their eyes every time a certain committee members speaks, or try to keep breadcrumbs off the freshly swept floor.
Examples of constructive feedback that “makes it behavioral”
Instead of “You’re being obstructionist,” you make it behavioral like this: “You’re saying no to each idea I propose.”
Instead of “You’re being disrespectful,” you make it behavioral like this: “You are interrupting me repeatedly.”
Instead of “You are such a pig,” you make it behavioral like this: “The dirty plates under your bed are beginning to smell.”
Instead of “Do you have to be so passive aggressive all the time?” you make it behavioral like this: “I didn’t hear you voicing a concern about the decision when we were all in the meeting. Did I miss something you said?”
Reverse the idea when facing criticism or helping someone deliver useful feedback
If you feel like you face constant criticism from your spouse, partner, boss, colleague, or friend, you can use the “make it behavioral” idea in reverse to make the conversation more constructive. Likewise, if you’re trying to help someone change their delivery from criticism to feedback, the “make it behavioral” idea can really help.
To do this, ask the person delivering the criticism to translate their opinion into behaviors so you can understand their concerns better. It might sound something like these examples:
“When you conclude I’m a complainer, what is it that I’m saying or doing that conveys this to you?”
“What did I say or do that makes you believe I’m not thankful for all you’ve done for me?”
“‘Bully’ is a pretty strong word. What did he say or do that made you believe he was trying to coerce you?”
“Julia told me you think I’m unreliable. What am I doing or not doing that makes you feel you can’t count on me?”
This, I’m sure you’ve noticed, is the approach I took with the attorney who emailed me. I asked him, What led you to conclude that I’m proposing we let difficult behaviors pass unaddressed?
His reply gave me useful information: “Unless I’ve missed something, your article doesn’t condemn those difficult behaviors.”
Ah. Now I had something to go on.
He was right: It is true that I rarely condemn my clients’ behaviors.
I don’t see myself in the business of condemnation. The last thing someone in conflict needs is yet another person judging them — they’ve already had those, so why pile on? Why not do something different and more effective?
I see myself in the business of understanding — understanding the genesis of a difficult behavior so that I can help people keep their balance and bring their better selves to the conversation. The mediation table should be a judgment-free zone for the mediator.
Where before I had been tempted to write him off as someone with an axe to grind, I could now see him as someone with a different view of the job of the mediator. Where before I had no interest in engaging further conversation with him, I now had an interest in continuing the conversation.
So I invited him to a phone conversation where we could explore each other’s perspectives and push our own individual thinking on the topic.
Sadly, I didn’t hear back from him. But our exchange reminded me that I’d never written here about “make it behavioral,” so I’m glad he contacted me.