"Do you have any specific examples?"
The question can be both helpful and triggering.
Consider two examples:
You're in a performance review situation, and your manager makes a broad statement like, "You need to slow down to bring other people along on the journey!" What do you do? Your chest tenses up, and you feel threatened. The broad, sweeping statement cuts deep. You ask, "Could you give me an example so I could better understand?"
Meanwhile, the manager might think, "This is actually a broad pattern, and I'm worried that we'll go in circles if we start going example by example." But maybe not—they might not be prepared, prone to broad sweeping statements, or both.
You're talking to a leader at your company about a broad, systemic issue (e.g., burnout, leadership misalignment). The leader asks you for details, "Who has the issue impacted? How did it impact them?" Your chest tenses up. You are worried the example will be treated as an edge case and discounted. You want to avoid causing problems for your team. You feel doubted and wish the leader could take your feedback at face value.
Meanwhile, the leader might think, "I need something to work with here. I genuinely want to help, but this is a broad statement, and if I try to fix this incorrectly, it could cause lots of problems." But maybe not—they might feel threatened or prone to singling out individuals as "the problem" versus addressing things more holistically or a bit of both.
The examples are remarkably similar. How can we better navigate these situations?
Performance Feedback Example
If you're the manager:
Instead of a broad statement like "you need to slow down," you could provide a recommendation, such as "try scheduling regular check-ins with your team members to make sure everyone is on the same page," and be ready to provide an example. The feedback is more actionable and less threatening.
If you're the non-manager:
Asking for an example is a good idea, but you'll need to be open to the idea that there's more to it. Take a couple of deep breaths. Assume good intent. Try something like, "I'd be curious to hear about a couple of examples if anything comes to mind, but I'm also open to the idea that this is a pattern, and I'd love some actionable tips to improve."
If you're the leader in the example:
Knowing the challenges related to specific examples (power dynamics, fear of singling people out and not considering the broader issue), you could ask for suggestions on safely gathering more information or promise to set up an inclusive workshop. Ask what YOU can do to improve the situation.
If you are the person bringing up the systemic issue:
Avoid broad sweeping statements like "people are burnt out" or "leaders are misaligned, and it's sending us on a wild-goose chase," and instead focus on personal observations (e.g., "I'm feeling...") or more detailed but anonymous descriptions (e.g., "When we were stuck in the release freeze, and..."). Remember how YOU get threatened when presented with broad, sweeping statements.
No examples: "The problem is too abstract, not real.” Specific examples: "The problem is local, demonstrates special circumstances.” Bringing up patterns of how the problem manifests itself in different parts of the org tends to be most helpful.
What do these strategies have in common?
Taming the initial feeling of threat and blame
Awareness of the power dynamic
Striking the right balance between specifics and the big picture
Ask for and use examples with care. Good luck!
Funny enough, your use of the two contrasting examples really helped make your central point come through very clearly :)
Stepping back - if you tend to require a specific example more often than not, it might be a sign you can benefit from engaging with more proactive curiosity.
This is an incredibly thoughtful way of framing this. I really like the concept of self-awareness/other awareness.
It hits the same human skills as emotional intelligence but feels so much more....emotionally intelligent! Its so challenging to effectively communicate human skill growth. I always struggle to coach in a way Makes the person feel seen but not feel like a sociopath. Thanks for sharing!