Dishing out the tough love

by Sara Marchessault

Lately tough love seems to be popping up over and over for me. On the receiving end, I’ve taken a fair share from my writing coach. And not just any tough love. Her style is to give you the chance for tough love to linger, because she sends it in writing. I get to read it as many times as I want.

The love part comes with reading between the lines. It’s keeping in mind that the person giving the tough love is doing so from a place of caring. But how do you know when it’s tough love verses someone just cutting you down or being mean?

There’s this great part of Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture when he is talking about a football practice he had as a kid. The story he tells is about his coach working him pretty hard through practice. At the end of practice an assistant coach approached him to acknowledge that Randy was worked hard, that means the coach cares and hasn’t given up on him.

Someone not giving up on you, and believing in you enough to give you constructive feedback, is what tough love is all about. When a person doesn’t care, they won’t bother to give you feedback or push you at all. ToughLove

This week I had the chance to pay it forward and deliver my own message of tough love to a student. I like receiving those tough love notes in writing from my coach. It’s helpful to have her notes to refer back to when I’m trying to incorporate her feedback to improve my work. So, I wrote a note to my student.

When tough love is given and received well, it can be life changing. Sincere, deep learning can take place, and even more than that, a deep sense of trust can be established between the giver and the receiver.

I hoped this would happen with my student. As I carefully crafted a tough love message for her, which took almost an hour to get right, the tough love note would need a few key elements to serve as motivation for change instead of a means for resentment and anger.

The first element that makes tough love feel more love-y than tough-y is the message includes thoughtful, specific details. The comments are clearly communicated and make a lot of sense. The feedback includes one or two helpful suggestions for improvement. When feedback is too broad, for example “this sucks,” “redo,” or “your behavior was inappropriate” then you could be left feeling angry or hurt with a lack of constructive ideas for how you could improve.

The second element for effective tough love is a good old Covey classic: Seek first to understand, than to be understood. When giving feedback to another person, try to consider what you might be overlooking or that there is another side to the story that you don’t know. What else might be going on in that person’s life that would account for their choices or lack of performance? It’s okay to include references in your feedback. When I have a student who loses a family member and then starts down a slippery slope, in my attempts to help him or her get back on track, I reference their personal loss and explain it’s perfectly normal to let school slip when we are grieving or emotionally exhausted. Trying to understand where a person is coming from is what makes us human when we give feedback to one another.

And conversely, when it’s your turn to receive tough love, you can seek to understand by keeping in mind that it’s not always easy to deliver. If a person in your life took the time and spent the energy to give you a high level of feedback, than let them know you appreciate it by thanking them for their efforts.

The third element for effective tough love is to find a compliment. Does this remind you of the classic feedback formula of compliment-constructive feedback-compliment? For tough love your formula can change a little bit.

Tell a person what he or she is doing well, address what is not working, and then offer solutions that suggest using what already works for them to address problems. For example, my writing coach has told me my idea was working, but the style of writing needed to change for the work I was doing. (This happened twice. I got there in the end J.)

For this to happen we have to carefully think about the feedback we’re giving and make sure that it’s specific and clear. When we are lucky enough to receive this kind of effective tough love, it can be easier to listen to when we compare what works and what doesn’t and use that information to problem solve.

Finally, the last piece of effective tough love is acknowledging challenges and providing encouragement. In my case, my writing coach tells me what’s working. Then she tells me very clearly what’s not and why it’s not. She even tells me what she thinks is happening with my own thought processes – a good coach can do this.

In the end my student had a breakthrough. After she received my note she came to see me. She started out by thanking me for the tough love. And I thanked her for taking it.

Like this article? Please feel free to use it on your own blog or newsletter. I simply ask that you please include this blurb: Sara Marchessault is a coach, writer, teacher, and mom who helps busy women use journaling to create more space in their life for being productive without feeling overwhelmed. To learn more about Sara and her work in the world, please visit or

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