Giving constructive feedback: the salt and pepper of effective coaching

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Coaching Skills Series

This is one of many articles I intend to post this year considering the range of principles, skills and experiences you’ll need to be an effective coaching manager for the people in your team.

Here we consider the matter of feedback. Next time we’ll look at the crucial trait of self-awareness.

feedbackLet me say firstly that I am extremely dubious about the quality and value of the typical feedback offered at work. It is usually thinly veiled criticism or destructive, judgemental nonsense that does neither giver nor receiver any good. It creates new sources of interference and results in awareness and focus collapsing rather than being enhanced.

However giving the people you coach solid, constructive feedback can be an extremely valuable part of effective coaching but only if it is done well. This means that the feedback needs to be free of value judgements and offered as pure information and this is easier said than done. Bear in mind as well that you can only give feedback on what you see or hear. You cannot give feedback on how the person felt – this is their domain – but it might be precisely where the problem lies. Finally, remember that the best feedback is self-realised and this is best achieved through questioning. Nevertheless, there will be times when you’ll want to offer feedback and the following hints and tips will help.

Start with the positive. People need encouragement and to be told when they are doing well – it will help the receiver to hear first what you have observed them doing well. If the positive is registered first the negative is more likely to be listened to. This approach also helps to balance out our natural tendency to dwell on any perceived negative points.

Be Specific. Avoid general comments like “you are really great” or “that was not so good”. These types of comments do not give enough detail to be useful sources of development. Pinpoint if possible exactly what was ‘good’, etc.

Question whether behaviour change is possible. Don’t give people feedback about something over which they have no control, e.g. “You’d be more assertive if you were taller”. Instead give people something to work on e.g. “The customer responded with more enthusiasm when you spoke slightly faster”.

Offer alternatives. If you do give negative feedback then don’t simply criticise but suggest what the person could have done differently. This can turn the negative feedback into a positive way forward.

Be descriptive not evaluative. Tell the person what you saw and heard and the effect it had on you rather than merely saying something was ‘good or ‘bad’ e.g. “Your tone of voice as you said that made me feel you were really concerned”.

Own it. If you say “You are” it gives the impression that you are offering a universally agreed opinion on that person. You should only give your opinion of people at that particular time. Similarly, begin you feedback with “I” or “In my opinion”. If a third party has brought something to your attention try to corroborate the facts first and make it your own feedback when it’s offered.

There is a difference between negative feedback and feedback on a negative situation or outcome. Remember that in itself, feedback is neither positive nor negative it is simply information.



Matt Somers

Matt Somers

Matt Somers is the UK’s leading trainer of managers as coaches. His coaching skills training programmes, books, articles and seminars have helped thousands of managers achieve outstanding results through their people.

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