How to Give Better Feedback

4 min read
Source: RDNE Stock project / Pexels

Source: RDNE Stock project / Pexels

One of the questions I’ve learned to ask as a coach before giving anyone feedback about their ideas, content, delivery, or performance, in general, is, “How do you want your feedback; should I give it to you straight, or sugarcoat it?”

Now, everyone always says, “Give it to me straight,” but it’s the way they say it that tells me what I need to know. Their body language and tone indicate whether they can genuinely take straightforward advice at that point or need the classic advice sandwich with a gentle wrapping of delicious homemade honey oat bread carefully swaddling the “meat” inside.

Straightforward Feedback Is Not Always the Best Way

Very few people genuinely want straightforward advice. The few people who have made me believe that’s indeed what they wish to have gone on to very successful careers. So have some of the methinks-they-protesteth-too-much sugar-coaters, of course.

But it’s the clients who asked for and received a blunt talk that, in general, have moved the fastest.

Come to think of it, the one person—one—in 25 years who said, “I want some sugar-coating,” also has gone on to a stellar career. Maybe he was just as self-aware as the more challenging cookies.

Is self-awareness perhaps the key to getting the most out of a coach?

Ask About Their Ideal Self

A recent study reveals that I’ve been asking the wrong question after all these years. I should have asked something along the lines of “What kind of person would you like to become?”

Asking someone about their ideal self helps people feel better about themselves and become more open to new ideas. If you base your coaching on the natural person in front of you and their current problems, your coachee becomes defensive and self-critical. Brain scans show the brains of the advice recipients reacting in these two disparate ways.

This insight comports with all the recent research, which shows that people don’t like feedback. They don’t want either to receive it or give it. The result is that feedback sandwich I alluded to earlier, which is sometimes so bread-heavy and meat-light that the recipient misses the significant middle bit altogether.

Worse than that, I’ve been brought into executive teams in various organizations where the whole point is to deliver some bad news to one particular executive—and the work gets wrapped elaborately in a large project to conceal its real purpose. Indeed, one such organization threw a group of employees into a training seminar billed as personal development.

Still, it turned out to be the last guilt-induced nice thing the company was doing for these unwitting employees before they got laid off. I was mortified when I learned what was going on behind the scenes. But, of course, it was too late.

My anecdotal research working in various other countries over the years suggests that this may be a peculiarly American problem. The English are blunter by half than Americans in a typical business setting, despite the cultural stereotype that the British are too polite to give direct feedback. And the Dutch and Germans are blunter still.

The French, too, though perhaps not quite as much. Do these apparent cultural differences mean their brains respond differently to feedback than American brains? We want more research.

A Coach’s Real Work Is to Tailor Feedback to the Individual

All of this leads me to believe that the real work of coaching is to advise one person at a time in a way uniquely suited for that individual to hear. It’s the work of a lifetime, and there is always something to learn and ways to improve.

If you want to give effective feedback, you need a bag of tools that offer many ways to accomplish the same task, like having a hundred wrenches to tighten various bolts in just the right ways. You need to understand your craft, of course, and you need to make the infinite varieties of human nature your lifetime study.

Then, be prepared to put the two together in creative ways. That’s all there is to it.

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