Language hacks in giving feedback

Here are some ideas on how to word feedback effectively.

Written by Rico Sta. Cruz
(@rstacruz) · 27 Nov 2023

Over the years, I’ve found that I’ve been able to give better feedback by being mindful of how I word things. I’ve listed down the common mistakes I’ve been falling into, and how I’ve been working to improve on them.

In this article:
  1. Avoid ‘you’
  2. Give a choice
  3. Try ‘avoid’ instead of ‘don’t’
  4. Try ‘consider’ instead of ‘do’
  5. Try replacing ‘but’ with ‘and’
  6. Avoid negative-sounding words
  7. Be wary of assuming to be correct
  8. Use ‘you’ when praising a colleague
  9. Try to follow ‘thanks’ with more words
  10. Careful with the word ‘please’
  11. Conclusion

Avoid ‘you’

The reader might read it as a personal attack rather than a critique on their actions. Instead, try to focus on the action, not the doer—it can make the sentence easier to understand and avoid coming off as an accusation.

Instead of: “It seems you were submitting things too fast.”
Consider: “It seems entries were being submitted too fast.”

Instead of:You should update to the latest version.”
Consider: “Updating to the latest version should make it work.”

Instead of:You missed writing a semicolon here.”
Consider: “A semicolon is missing here.”

Give a choice

Imperative sentences can often be phrased in a way that involves the reader in making a decision. Also, they might have already tried that and have a reason not to do it.

Instead of:Please approve my pull request.”
Consider: “Do you mind reviewing my pull request?”

Instead of:Change the color to blue.”
Consider:Consider changing the color to blue.”

Instead of:Fix it by updating to the new version.”
Consider:One way to fix it would be by updating to the new version.”

Try ‘avoid’ instead of ‘don’t’

“Avoid” is less absolute, and leaves room for exceptions. Also, using “avoid” gives the reader a choice rather than forcing an order upon them.

Instead of:Don’t deploy on Fridays.”
Consider:Avoid deploying on Fridays.”

Instead of:Never merge pull requests without approvals.”
Consider:Try to avoid merging pull requests without approvals.”

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Try ‘consider’ instead of ‘do’

Using “consider” gives the reader a choice rather than forcing an order upon them. “Consider” is less absolute, and leaves room for exceptions.

Instead of:Use a smaller line width for buttons.”
Consider:Consider using a smaller line width for buttons.”

Try replacing ‘but’ with ‘and’

I found that the word “but” can sometimes be suggestive of a passive-aggressive tone. It can be replaced with “and” in some cases.

Instead of: “It’s almost impossible, but I appreciate the effort of trying.”
Consider: “It’s almost impossible, and I appreciate the effort of trying.”

Avoid negative-sounding words

Negative words can set the wrong tone for the whole message, even if the words aren’t directed at the reader. Often, negative words be substituted by more helpful descriptions. Also: If the reader happens to be the author of the thing being referred to, they might take it as an insult.

Instead of: “That rule looks useless.”
Consider: “That rule doesn’t seem to have an effect.”

Instead of: “The workflow they follow is utterly broken.”
Consider: “The workflow they follow is hurting their efficiency.”

Be wary of assuming to be correct

It can be good to leave room for corrections from the reader. It’s unlikely that you’re 100% correct, no matter how sure you are. If you end up making a mistake, it’s better to be able to correct it without having to backtrack.

Instead of: “Your error happens because of Xyz.”
Consider: “The error is likely because of Xyz.”

Instead of: “It doesn’t work.”
Consider: “It doesn’t appear to be working for me right now.”

Use ‘you’ when praising a colleague

It feels great to hear that you’re appreciated, you amazing person you. ✨

Instead of: “The recent changes really made a difference.”
Consider:Your recent changes really made a difference.”

Instead of: “It was much better after the update.”
Consider: “It was much better after the update you suggested.”

Try to follow ‘thanks’ with more words

Sometimes just “thanks” can sound a bit passive-aggressive. If no words can make sense after “thanks,” maybe it can be omitted.

Instead of: “Thanks”
Consider: “Thanks for letting me know

Instead of: “Do you mind checking in on the new issues? Thanks
Consider: “Do you mind checking in on the new issues?”

Instead of: “I’ll look into it later. Thanks
Consider: “I’ll look into it later. Thanks for the tip!

Careful with the word ‘please’

“Please” can unintentionally make an imperative sentence sound imposing. With written words, “please” can either sound polite or condescending, without the vocal intonation to clarify. In some cases, it can even be omitted and still sound polite.

Instead of: “Can you please check this out?”
Consider: “Do you mind checking this out?”

Instead of:Please have a look at this.”
Consider: “Have a look at this.”

Conclusion

By avoiding assumptions, giving choices, using positive language, and being considerate of the reader, we can create a more constructive and respectful dialogue. I’ve found that these strategies have led to better feedback and stronger relationships for me. Let me know how it work out for you!

Written by Rico Sta. Cruz

I am a web developer helping make the world a better place through JavaScript, Ruby, and UI design. I write articles like these often. If you'd like to stay in touch, subscribe to my list.

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