Turns out your mother missed the mark when she said, “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

The truth is, the thing we say that wouldn’t be called “nice” can change a person’s performance or their career, even their life. If we say it well.

Talking to a colleague, a direct report, or a spouse (haven’t you offered some feedback at home?) we want our comments to create some kind of change. And we usually want to preserve the relationship at the same time.

How do we deliver our assessment well, so it has the impact we hope for? Here are some guidelines for giving meaningful feedback.

Address observable behavior.

What, exactly, did they say or do? What results did that create? When I work with clients who are becoming better speakers, it doesn’t help them much to say, “That talk was great,” or “Your delivery skills need work.”

It is useful to tell them, “Your opening question drew me in and made me want to hear everything you have to say.” Or, “You told us you’re interested in how we feel, but you stared over our heads when you said it—not looking at us undercut your message.” They need to know specifically what they did (or didn’t) do. Otherwise they can’t correct it.

Link your feedback to impact.

The issue isn’t only what they did or didn’t do. What did that mean to the organization? “When you missed the deadline for that report, it meant others had to wait to add their input. The whole project was delayed and the client was unhappy.”

It may seem obvious to you, what that late report meant. But feedback is always more useful if it includes a specific outcome like that.

Make your comments specific rather than global.

Refer to one thing the person said or did or wrote. “Your response to Emily’s proposal closed down the discussion. If you’d stated your objection in a more measured way, we could have kept working toward a solution.” That has a different sound than, “You’re always so negative.”

But…pointing out a pattern can help.

Say that scenario about a negative response to someone else’s work is common. It makes sense to offer several examples—specific conversations and the impact they had.

And it’s still wise to stay away from absolutes. “You never support anyone else on the team” or “You’re always shooting down other people’s ideas” will only make the person defensive.

Just the facts, ma’am.

Speak about what happened rather than speculating about the person’s emotional state or deep beliefs. “You sat on the sidelines in that meeting. Next time, please let us know what you’re thinking.” As opposed to, “You don’t have the confidence to speak up.”

It could be true that lack of confidence holds her back. Or, maybe she’s preoccupied today. Or she has a sore throat. Or she wants to give someone else more time to talk. It’s easy to jump to conclusions about motivations; and it’s usually not helpful.

Include something positive.

Yes, some people think you’re throwing them a sop when you offer a compliment along with correction. Here’s my theory. We learn as much from knowing what we do well as we do from mistakes pointed out to us. Maybe more.

When I offer feedback to a workshop participant, I start with, “Here’s what’s working well for you.” I call out exactly what they said and did that was effective. They’re going to build on those strengths, after all. And often people are unaware of what they naturally do well, precisely because it’s natural to them. So it’s worth mentioning.

Be timely with your offer of feedback.

We learn best when there’s a close connection between an experience and the analysis of it. Doesn’t do much good to tell someone how they offended you three months ago. They’re more likely to “get it” if you leave a meeting and immediately say, “When you interrupted me mid-sentence, it created the impression that you don’t value my experience. Next time, please let me finish my thought.”

Prioritize your input.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when a colleague or coach gives us fourteen things to change. Pick one or two and offer your assessment of those. This speaks to the value of regular feedback, as opposed to letting it all build up until you blow and give them a litany of things they should be doing better.

Be direct.

Yes, the whole process of offering feedback can be awkward. We may not be sure what to say, or how the person will react. In the end, it doesn’t help to pussyfoot around.

When we hold back, we get frustrated and the other person misses out on chance to learn something that will help them. So be brave enough to put it out there. The balance I strive for with clients is to be candid. But not cutting.

Perhaps you have some feedback about these suggestions? Share your experience in the comments below.