"I feel..."


Coaching is a topic I've spent many coaching and training hours on, I gotta admit I fell down a wee bit of a rabbit hole when I started pulling together all of my past materials and reading up on the most current research and best practices for a recent coaching webinar that I did.


In particular, I stumbled upon two opposing opinion pieces dissecting and critiquing the term: "I feel..."

What the heck does that have to do with giving feedback?


Interestingly, quite a bit.

Providing and receiving feedback can be done with anyone you interact with; however, we often think of it in a professional setting between a manager and their direct report.

And while we're making assumptions, another one we make is that, while there are always exceptions to the rule, those in these roles are likely from different generations.

Subsequently, their differing worldviews can result in dissimilar perspectives, assumptions, interpretations, and judgement.


Let's go back to "I feel...".

This has become a popular coaching and counseling term to share how you feel without assigning blame to the other person.


As an example, let's imagine Ray and his direct report Jennifer are talking about her tendency to arrive late to their weekly meetings. Rather than Ray saying, "You don't respect my time because you're always late to our meetings.", he would say "I feel like my time is not being respected when you continue to arrive late to our meetings."


The latter still provides feedback about how Jennifer's actions make Ray feel, but also acknowledges that this may not be Jennifer's intention and gives her the opportunity to take in the feedback without feeling defensive and attacked.


These communication strategies are relatively new, so it should be no surprise that younger generations in the workplace are more likely to use it because this has been ingrained in their teachings and trainings since they launched their careers and even before then. They've also been exposed to the importance of building their emotional intelligence just as much as their intellectual intelligence and, as a result, take into consideration feelings in addition to facts.


However, those who may not be focusing on those nuances can feel like the use of the term "I feel.." is being weaponized to discount, downplay, or ignore facts in the primary interest of feelings and can stonewall any chance at a healthy and productive discourse.


And this is a valid argument. When you see those who claim their personal opinions and feelings about certain hot topics like vaccines, for instance, should be considered equivalent to medical experts' and scientists' opinions and data, this is a false equivalency, bar none.


Ack, so what do we do?


To feel or not to feel, that is the question.

It's not an easy answer, but here are a few tips that will help you get started, as you wrap your head around this quandary.

When it's a-okay to use "I feel...":

  • You are introducing or softening feedback that is opinion based (i.e., your interpretation of the facts)


  • You know it's important to link the behaviors and actions to the outcomes, including feelings, as they are still valid and need to considered an outcome (e.g. "When you are late to the weekly meeting, those who arrive on time feel like they are expected to abide by a different set of rules and are starting to feel resentful.")


  • You are coming from a place of curiosity, care and compassion and it's in the spirit of improving not only the behaviors and actions, but also the relationship.

And, to quote Libby from our first Summer Coaching Series session who was quoting the incomparable Ice Cube, here are a few times you should 'Check yo self before you wreck yo self' and ask:


  • Am I still assigning blame? (e.g., "I feel like you wouldn't be late if you respected my time")

  • Am I being condescending? (e.g. "I feel like it's not that hard to be on time")


  • Am I being sarcastic/passive aggressive? (e.g. "I feel like you totally respect my time when you can't bother to show up on time")


  • Am I stonewalling? (e.g. "I understand that your daycare doesn't open until the same time as our weekly meeting, but I still feel you're disrespecting my time")


  • Am I too focused on my own subjective thoughts, feelings, and opinions? (e.g. "I feel like anyone who arrives fewer than 10 minutes early to our weekly meetings is essentially late")

  • Am I using it to (falsely) equate my subjective thoughts, feelings and opinions with objective facts, data, and science? (e.g. "I feel like you're not respecting my time when you arrive late even if it's because I give you a list of tasks right before each meeting that have to be completed before we meet")

You might have chuckled at that last example, as it's unlikely you'd hear that coming out of your boss' mouth, but it does highlight one popular fallacy -- we often assign blame to others for situational and external forces.


This prevalent phenomenon is called the fundamental attribution error. If you've studied psychology before, you've likely heard of this one, but for those who haven't, here's a link to an article.

Christine