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How to Say Something Nice

Learn how to deliver positive feedback for maximum impact

Young boy holding out a flower

I write frequently about how to give constructive feedback. I think it’s slowly working; people are learning how to deliver feedback in a way that it helps people get better while making them feel like they have an ally on their side.

Where I’m not seeing much improvement is in how people are delivering positive feedback. You’d think that saying something nice about someone would be pretty easy stuff, but apparently not. So just in case you have something nice you want to say, I thought I would provide some helpful tips on how to give positive feedback so it can be treasured.

Giving someone feedback can be awkward. What if the person blushes and gets uncomfortable? What if I look like a suck up? Don’t let that discomfort cause you to minimize the duration and intensity of your discomfort by delivering feedback in a drive by. I’m picturing a sweet little dorky boy running up to his playground crush, throwing a crumpled, sweaty flower at her, and running off as fast as possible.

There are several problems with this slapdash approach to positive feedback.

  • If you just throw the feedback at your teammate, you aren’t close enough to make a genuine connection and it won’t feel as authentic or as powerful.
  • If you keep running after you deliver the message, you have no idea whether it actually landed.
  • If you make your get away as fast as possible, you miss the chance for the person to thank you for the role you played, which feels good for both of you.

So, next time you think about pitching positive feedback at someone, stop yourself.

Instead, use these techniques to make feedback feel less a knock-off comment or trite sentiment.

Steps 1 to 3 are the easy part, but just as a reminder…

1. Start by reminding yourself that your experience of your teammate’s behavior is only your experience. You experienced their behavior as positive, but someone else might have seen the exact same behavior as a problem.

2. Deliver crisp, objective feedback about the person’s behavior with as little judgment and subjectivity as possible. Instead of “you were my hero in that meeting,” try “when you asked the boss to please let me finish my thought before interrupting…”

3. Share how the person’s behaviour landed with you and make sure that you phrase it as your reaction or impression, rather than as the objective truth. “When you asked the boss to let me finish, I felt like you really had my back and that what I had to say was important.”

Most people stop there. And if you stop there, you have made the “one and run” mistake. Keep going: Make it a conversation!

4. Transfer the ownership of the feedback to the person using a big open ended question. That will increase the likelihood that they internalize it. “What gave you the courage to stand up to her?” “How did you decide when it was time to step in?”

5. Now open your mind and try to learn something from the situation. “What could I have done differently so you didn’t need to step in?” Show that you value your teammate and want to benefit from his talents.

If you get to step 5, you’ll probably have to pick your teammate up off the floor because this will have been the most impactful positive feedback they’ve ever received.

When done well, positive feedback helps people know what to keep doing and gives them a sense of their strengths and contribution. But for it to really land, you can’t just chuck it at them and hope they catch it. Instead, deliver positive feedback deliberately and carefully so it is received intact and can be treasured.