Do you give feedback or do you address? 

The terms ‘address’ and ‘give feedback’ are regularly heard in discussions about behavioural change. It strikes me that many change-leaders use them as if they are interchangeable. While, in my opinion, they are two very different interventions. 

Why is that?  

The Van Dale dictionary lifts the veil. At least, not in the case of the entry ‘address’, because it says both ‘speak to’ and ‘bring before the court’. That covers just about everything. But the description of feedback gives food for thought. It says: 

“Comparison of the result of an activity with the intention thereof”. 

Ah. When we give feedback, we measure what the other person does along the bar of an intention. The big question of course is: whose intention? 

Therein lies the sting. 

The conversation in which you measure the other person’s behaviour against your bar is a fundamentally different intervention than the conversation in which you measure the other person’s behaviour against their own bar. So we need different words to give each their own box in our toolbox. 

What is your suggestion? 


When you measure the other person’s behaviour against their own bar we call it feedback. You hold up a mirror to the other person to see if he is achieving what he wants to achieve. Your intention is to help him. You give the other person the space to decide for themselves what to do with your feedback. 

If you measure the other person’s behaviour against your bar, we call it addressing them. You appeal to the other person to stop behaviour that is harmful to you or to a third party you want to stand up for. Your intention is that it does not happen again. You do not give space. 

Giving feedback is a coaching intervention, addressing is a directive intervention. 

So what? 

It throws a different light on the oft-repeated statement: “we should address each other more often”. It would be better to replace it with “we should give each other feedback more often”. 

By doing so, you are saying that feedback is your preferred intervention, because it is the most natural way to lasting behavioural change. After all, you are appealing to a bar the other person already owns. The relationship thrives much better under it. 

This means that feedback should be preceded by something: a conversation about what you want to achieve. Not only does this provide you with a supported framework, it is also an excellent way of inviting the other person to do the same for you. 

Then, addressing can be reserved for those situations in which giving feedback is inappropriate, because you cannot or do not want to give the corresponding space. You accept the bellyache with which you enter the conversation, because you know that the relationship will be put to the test. But you do it anyway. Because you feel the urgency to stand up for yourself or for a third party to reverse harmful behaviour. 

Annemarie Mars, february 2022

Photocredits: “Family quarrel” by Jevgenijs Slihto is licensed under CC- BY-2.0

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