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Intervene Quietly

My four-year-old son and I were waiting for a flight, playing in one of those airport, kids’ play areas, when he spit on a play structure. I’m not sure why he did that. I’d never seen him do it before, and, needless to say, it was gross. There was a mom sitting nearby who had been loudly and firmly reprimanding her kids for not listening well, etc. etc., so I felt the need to do the same. I reprimanded my son more loudly than I needed to.

Even in the moment, I knew the message wasn’t for him, it was for the parents nearby. I wanted them to know that I was taking action. My son’s reaction wasn’t what I expected, he said in an embarrassed tone, “Everyone is looking at me.” I helped him wipe down the play structure with the anti-bacterial wipes that all tightly-wound parents carry and hurried him out of the play area. The lesson of the day was really for me. Correct quietly and privately, saying only what needs to be said to get the desired actions.

I wish I’d whispered in his ear that spitting on play equipment is unsanitary, given him a chance to clean the equipment, and left.

Speak quietly so no one else could hear. Don’t over-talk or over scold. Let the kid save face. The other parents didn’t need to know how I handled it. It’s none of their business.

The purpose of feedback isn’t to teach people a lesson, it’s to elicit certain behavior. At work, we call these behaviors “performance”. Talking to kids is just like talking with adults. People are people. We have the same needs whether we’re four or forty.

Below are six strategies for giving helpful and succinct upgrade feedback:

  1. Write down your message. Save it as a draft. Re-read it later, when you’re not emotional, then cut the words in half. Shorter is better.
  2. Remove emotion. Examples are helpful, emotion is not.  Emotion: You embarrassed me. Example: You raised your voice at me in front of others.
  3. Remove judgments. Vague words are judgmental. Judgment: Your behavior was unacceptable. Specific: You rolled your eyes at a coworker.
  4. When you can deliver your message in about a minute, without emotion or judgment, you’re ready to speak.
  5. Deliver all upgrade feedback in a private setting, behind a closed door.
  6. Then, in the spirit of the Disney film Frozen, let it go. When the conversation is over, it’s over. Don’t stay angry or remind the person of the situation. If the behavior is repeated, discuss it then.

Be a feedback minimalist. Say only what you need to. Deliver messages privately. Protect the ego, which is fragile. Let people save face.


Shari Harley is the founder and President of Candid Culture, a Denver-based training firm that is bringing candor back to the workplace, making it easier to give feedback at work. Shari is the author of the business communication book How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide to Building Business Relationships that Really Work. She is a keynote speaker at conferences and does training throughout the U.S. Learn more about Shari Harley and Candid Culture’s training programs at

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2 Responses to “Intervene Quietly”

  1. Lori Sassali says:

    This. This is amazing. Compassionate, actionable advice that will make us better people – better coworkers, better parents, better spouses. This is pure gold. Now, it’s up to us to put it in practice.

    Thanks for the tools, Shari!

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