Three Passive-Aggressive Phrases To Avoid When Giving Feedback

Three Passive-Aggressive Phrases to Avoid When Giving Feedback

In an effort to be kind, you might water down your critiques by saying something like "maybe it's just me but..." And while those qualifiers are coming from a good place, chances are the person receiving it will just think you're just being passive-aggressive and not so subtly hiding what you're really trying to say.

This post originally appeared on The Muse.

To prevent you from ever being that person, here are three phrases you should avoid in meetings based on my very own (and very common) experiences — plus, bonus, I tell you how to say what you're thinking in a more straightforward, but polite way.

1. "I Was Surprised/Confused/Curious About…"

What the Person Hears: "You're Wrong."

I worked with a woman who often tried disguise her criticism in this way. Rather than just being upfront that she didn't quite follow my line of thinking, she'd attempt to come across as truly surprised by what I'd said.

While she might've done this in an attempt to soften the blow, I never heard it like that. Instead, I took it as a stab in the back because my boss was in attendance — and that feeling led me to promptly ignore her feedback. Which was unfortunate, because I'm pretty sure she often had a point.

What to Say Instead

"I thought X was different, because Y. Can you walk me through your steps?"

2. "Oh, I Thought You Understood…"

What the Person Hears: "You Did it Wrong Because You're Stupid."

I've run into this a few times when working with larger, cross-functional teams. Inevitably, there would be a few different translations of a project's goals. And if everyone wasn't communicating well, wires would get crossed and the project would get off track. When the time came to present our results — which were inevitably wrong — someone would exclaim, "Oh no, I thought you understood the objective!" Obviously no one's happy in this situation, so saying this just adds fuel to the fire and prevents people from gaining any insight from the work that was done — even if it wasn't quite right.

What to Say Instead

"You took this in a different direction than I initially intended, but let's talk about what you found, see if it can make this work, and if not, what the next steps will be."

3. "Actually…."

What the Person Hears: "I Think You're an Idiot."

While technically this word shouldn't be offensive, I've found that just about anytime someone uses it, they're just hedging their comments. A colleague once told me she was "actually impressed," with an article I'd recently written. Even if that was really the case, I didn't take it as a compliment, but rather as an insult. (Translation: "I didn't think you could do that, so I was surprised when I was impressed with your article.") Such a small word, such a big impact!

What to Say Instead

In this case, you can actually just remove the actually from whatever you're about to say. Being — or appearing — passive aggressive can really sneak up on you. When we try to minimise criticism, things can easily go awry. Rather than couching your constructive criticism in confusing language, just come out and say it — politely.

Your colleagues will appreciate your candor, and you'll avoid being labelled as the worst person to meet with in the office.

3 Times You Think You're Being Nice — But You Actually Just Sound Passive-Aggressive [The Muse]


    add "in your defence" to that list. It also means "I think you are an idiot".

    The word curious is acceptable in feedback as part of the Advocacy-Enquiry model.

    That section's What To Say Instead sentence alludes to it. It's perfectly reasonable to say:

    "I saw this, I expected that, tell me about it".

    In this case, the feedback is about the impression of genuine curiosity and a desire to discover.

    It's OK to be judgemental as long as the culture/setup emphasises a beneficial agenda.

    I might be wrong here, however, this is just an opinion of mine. Perhaps one of the best ways to give feedback that is easier to accept is to start by admitting that you may not be correct, just like how I've started my comment here. Then tell the listener that you are just voicing your opinion. Then ask their opinion about whether they agree with you or not. What do you think?

    This is a communication hack I've been using for a long time since I first read Carnegie's book "How to Win Friends and INfluence people"

    One I can't unhear now is the reply to any feedback or suggestion beginning with "Okay. The problem with that is...".

    "Just saying"
    I loathe this saying.
    Although it does not fall into the same category as the examples above, people tend to use it as as justification for being an offensive dick-wad.

    Love the article and the comments though !

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