A Leadership IQ study found that 81% of leaders avoid giving tough feedback because they’re afraid the recipient will respond will react badly (with anger, denial, blame or excuses). How do we expect our organizations and employees to improve if we’re afraid to give each other tough feedback?

Giving constructive feedback without making people angry requires…

…stripping away any emotional baggage from your message
…lowering their defensiveness
…learning to identify when they’ve made a “corrective leap”
…avoiding emotionally-loaded “trigger words”
…redirecting the conversation away from blame, excuses and denial
…and more…

We know this can sometimes be hard, so we made a fun video with puppets to show you one way to NOT give constructive feedback (don’t use the Compliment Sandwich—it’s a terrible way to give constructive feedback).


New York Times Bestsellingauthor Mark Murphy, proposes a groundbreaking technique called “Fact-Based Communication” that allows you to discuss emotionally-charged topics without actually becoming emotional. And you’ll learn to avoid conversation killers like blaming, pleading and the “compliment sandwich.”  Anybody can talk about the fun stuff. But it’s your ability to give constructive feedback about the sensitive topics (without alienating people) that will determine your success at work.

  • How to use Fact-Based Communication to “delayer” your conversations (Facts, Interpretations, Reactions, Ends) and learn which pieces you should and shouldn’t share
  • How to script for delivering tough messages without making the recipient defensive or angry
  • How to avoid the “trigger words” that instantly make people defensive
  • A quiz for testing whether you’re making people defensive with blaming and loaded language
  • How to walk the line between Assertive and Aggressive communication
  • The “Compliment Sandwich”: What it is and why you should NEVER use it
  • How to compartmentalize and manage any emotional baggage that causes self-destructive conversations
  • How to communicate with Power Imbalances (e.g. when the other party has more power than you)
  • How to “Restart” and “Redial” conversations that aren’t working and how to get them back on the right track

There are certain words we hear in conversation that can instantly set us off. They’re the kind of words that our brains hear as attacks and thus prompt us to react defensively (and sometimes even aggressively). In a recent study, we discovered a whole slew of “trigger words” that elicited immediate and bad reactions from listeners.

For example, the word “Never” generally elicits a bad reaction. Think about it: when’s the last time you were in a conversation in which the word Never was used in a happy way? Hearing a boss or colleague say “you’re never on time for meetings” doesn’t usually prompt a rational and constructive dialogue. Instead, it makes us defensive, it kicks off an adrenaline response and gets us looking for a biting comeback (like that one time a few years ago where we were actually 20 minutes early for a meeting!).

Interestingly, the word “Always” also generally elicits a negative reaction. Now, if people walked around telling us “you’re always so brilliant” perhaps this would be a good word. But more often it’s used to say things like “you’re always sending emails with typos in them…” Again, this causes defensiveness and prompts emotional responses like “No I’m not always sending typos; I can find plenty of examples where there are no typos in my emails.”

Words like Always and Never are called “absolutes” and because they’re so emotionally intense and preclude nuance or subtlety, they’re generally a bad choice when giving someone feedback.

Our research also discovered that the word “You” elicits bad reactions. In conversation, especially feedback conversations, the word “You” is very often stated like “you need to stop doing XYZ” or “you need to be better at ABC.”  Attacks and criticism so commonly follow the word “you” that people just naturally tense-up when they hear it.

The key to “avoiding trigger words” is to stick to a style of communication called “fact-based communication” in which we use words that are candid, objective, specific, timely and unemotional.