Feedback, in order to be effective, simply can’t — or shouldn’t, rather — be a comfortable process. Feedback exists to ignite awareness in how another person is doing — and often this means identifying areas in which improvement should occur. A coach correcting a player’s form, a spouse commenting on a partner’s insensitivity in conversation, a math teacher suggesting a different way to solve a particular problem — they’re all examples of one person offering feedback with the intention of inciting change in another.
And change, no matter how minute and seemingly insignificant, is uncomfortable because it means deviating from our normal process. It means having to put cognitive and/or physical effort into changing a certain part of our life we’re accustomed to, changing a way we were living that likely was habitual and didn’t require much effort or thought.
The Necessity of Negative Feedback
As a mental performance consultant, my profession centers on offering my clients — most of whom are high performers in their respective sport or industry — feedback with the goal of fostering growth, as a performer and a human being. Oftentimes the feedback will be positive, but sometimes it will be negative.
Research shows great value in both approaches, if administered correctly. So, instead of avoiding giving negative feedback, it’s served me well in learning how to deliver negative feedback in ways that minimize the client’s threat response. Here are some ideas that may assist you in delivering feedback optimally:
1. Resist telling someone how to fix problem.
2. Harsh feedback rarely works.
3. Focus on the impact of the behavior, not the behavior itself.
How to Deliver Effective Feedback
Resist telling someone how to fix problem.
This is a critical one; it’s tantalizing to serve up the solution to a client’s problem — especially if you’re of the opinion that you possess the solution.
I often view the process of “resisting the fix” similarly to a fitness coach’s relationship with her client. A competent trainer understands her client’s physical abilities, and therefore knows that it’s occasionally appropriate to let the client struggle through the process of lifting on his or her own, even though the trainer is more than capable of assisting. Often, growth — at any age, in any discipline — comes when we gain personal insight, which sometimes involves struggle, rather than obediently follow the insights of others.
For an adolescent client who obviously needs to do a better job of expressing his needs more clearly to his parents, instead of looking for the fix — “Try telling your dad that you want him less involved in your sport” — ask questions that encourage reflection and a deeper exploration: “Does your dad know how he affects you before games? Can you think of ways to start making this clearer to him?”
This will foster more learning and, eventually, growth.
Harsh feedback rarely works.
If a client of mine is consistently missing morning practices due to oversleeping, I suppose I could deliver my comments as, “Listen, it’s not that difficult to just get out of bed. You’re ruining your chances of making the team!” Although I suspect that would lead to a heightening of this player’s defensiveness, which may weaken his motivation to actually make a change. Sometimes the intended feedback content — “get the heck out of bed” — can be harsh, which makes it all the more important to deliver that message with respect and care.
I often “sandwich” my difficult or corrective feedback; that is, I flank it between two more digestible, oftentimes positive, comments. For example, “Hey, listen, I love the fact that you’re willing to bring this issue up with me; it means that it’s important to you and you’re eager to change, and I love that (positive). It seems like whatever you’re doing to wake up in the morning isn’t working right now (feedback). Although usually, waking up on time can be easier to do than you may think, it may just take the right strategy and routine. Let’s talk… (positive).”
Not only does this approach soften the blow, it provides helpful information for the client to digest and engage with.
Focus on the impact of the behavior, not the behavior itself.
Imagine someone close to you hasn’t followed through with something they’ve promised to complete the week prior. It may be tempting to focus on the behavior: “Why didn’t you do it? You made a promise. It didn’t require much work at all.” But that often comes off as accusatory, which, unsurprisingly, awakens a defensive response and an unwillingness to continue engaging in conversation about it.
I try to focus instead on the impact that person’s behavior had on my thoughts, feelings or actions. For example, “When I realized you didn’t do what we discussed last week, it left me feeling disappointed, as though this wasn’t important to you. Can you tell me if this is true?”
This manner of feedback is devoid of judgment or unnecessary analysis of the person’s character — “This makes you a lazy and unmotivated person”– and opens up the possibility for a healthy and productive conversation.
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