Take your “But” off the table. Can you feel it coming? A colleague wants to provide some constructive feedback that you may find troubling. They begin with a positive demeanor and friendly words. They suddenly glance down and tense up. You anticipate the “but” word as red flags start waving in your mind. Here it comes “But”

Structuring a conversation in this manner automatically places your recipient in a bad position. While intentions may be pure, nature naturally protects from criticism. As one who delivers “constructive feedback” in this manner, you now have to deal with the issue and any defensive feelings the other person experiences even if they are not outwardly expressed.

No one enjoys criticism, even in the form of constructive feedback. Honestly, I think we put a good face on this type of feedback, but deep down it represents something to change, correct, redo, or explain.  It represents a new issue or an old issue that will not go away.

We need constructive feedback. We should seek from people we trust and respect. We should be willing to accept it from anyone, even those we do not trust or respect. We can learn something from everyone and every situation provided we do not allow our pride get in the way. If their criticism lacks validity, at least we can learn what not to do from their bad example.

We earn the title of friend which carries with it the right to be heard. It should also minimize the risk we take when providing feedback that points out a flaw or blind spot in another person’s character, personality, or work product. We share because we care. If we deliver our message in the most respectful and constructive manner possible, our efforts will have the best chance of success, offering help to our friend who needs a word of truth or clarity.

I find advice that suggests we make a positive point before delivering the negative point actually creates more defensiveness. Positive affirmation should stand on its own. If positive points are used to soften the blow, or make the conversation easier for the feedback giver, it will likely come across as flattery or disingenuous. This feedback pattern is most easily recognizable by the conjunction, “BUT”. Here is a simple illustration of my point.

The situation is that an employee successfully set up a room for a meeting. The lateness in completing the task left the meeting facilitator feeling anxious and rushed. You desire to provide simple feedback regarding how the employee plans his work assuring the work is completed timely. Here is one example with “but”.

You always do such a great job getting meeting rooms set up. We always have everything we need. I know everyone appreciates your hard work, but I am disappointed that it bumped up against the meeting start time. This does not provide enough time for our facilitator set up.

Here is an example of an alternative approach without the word, “but”.

Thank you for all the work you did to get our meeting set up. I am disappointed that it bumped up against the meeting start time. This does not provide enough time for our facilitator to set up

Another approach might be to soften the negative feedback by utilize a question.

Thank you for all the work you did to get our meeting set up. What can we provide that would allow you to complete the set up sooner allowing enough time for our facilitator to prepare.

This open-ended question encourages conversation and does not let the recipient off the hook by asking a simple yes or no question.

By taking the conjunction “but” off the table of feedback and constructive criticism, you will encourage conversation and avoid the regrettable position of putting someone on the defensive. While they may appear calm and receptive on the outside, nature tells them to protect themselves even if they are good at hiding it.

We should freely offer positive feedback to those who deserve it. Compliments should stand on their own and not used to soften negative statements. Using positive statements as a precursor to negative feedback only serves to cheapen them.

What are your thoughts about avoiding the conjunction “but” when providing constructive feedback?

Take Your “But” Off the Table