How do we best give challenging feedback to others? What are the little tips and techniques that can make the difference between having our message heard and understood rather than triggering a defensive and hostile reaction? Recently, I learnt a new coaching tip on this topic which surprised me through its simplicity and its impact. In this blog post, I will share this tip with you and explain how to use it in your coaching and leadership roles.
A few weeks ago I was attending a training course in the US as part of my induction in my role as Group Chair for Vistage – the world’s largest CEO organisation. It was a fascinating week for all sorts of reasons and, on the Tuesday afternoon, we had a session on giving challenging feedback, or ‘carefrontation’ as it was called by our facilitators. Now Ian and I have done a lot of work on feedback over the years and we devote a chapter to it in our own book so I wasn’t expecting any dramatic revelations. Sure enough the session started with sound advice I had come across many times before including a five step model for giving feedback similar to the one Ian and I recommend in Challenging Coaching. We then moved on to look at eight words that should be avoided in giving challenging feedback and that is where things got very interesting.
The eight words to avoid were revealed as:-
Some of these I immediately recognised as ‘no-go’ areas such as ‘never’, ’always’, ’why’ and ‘should’. I have often been taught that these generalised and accusative words will provoke a defensive and hostile reaction. However, it was the last two words that caught my eye. How can you possibly deliver feedback without using the words ‘you’ and ‘your’? What purpose could there be in missing out these words? My colleagues in the group had similar reservations and a noisy debate struck up. Our facilitators brought the debate to a halt through a demonstration where they contrasted the following two pieces of feedback:-
- “When the classroom has discussions, you aren’t really paying attention or asking questions; it seems like you’re pretty detached”
- “In the classroom discussions, I have noticed not paying attention or asking questions; I wondered if this was detachment.”
The second statement misses out the use of ‘you’ or ‘your’ and I was struck by how different it landed with the receiver of the feedback. We next practised this technique ourselves in pairs and , despite it feeling very awkward grammatically, I experienced first hand how much easier it is to receive challenging feedback when it is not pointing a finger at YOU with the words ‘you’ and ‘your’ – ‘This morning I noticed late arrival to the meeting’, ‘When speaking I observed little eye contact and hard to hear,’ ‘As I look around, I can’t help but notice small piece of scrambled egg on chin from breakfast’.
By now you may well be thinking that this sounds unnatural and awkward and wondering how it could possibly make a difference when giving feedback. Yet how many other aspects of great coaching did you feel exactly the same about when you first came across them such as being non-directive, active listening and asking powerful questions? In the same way that you experimented and practiced with those skills, I would encourage you to try giving feedback without using the words ‘you’ or ‘your’. Have a bit of fun with it, practice in a low risk situation and judge it on its impact on the other person, rather than on whether it makes YOU feel comfortable or not.
What other tips do you have for giving challenging feedback?
John and Ian developed a unique FACTS coaching model, which provides a practical and pragmatic approach focusing on Feedback, Accountability, Courageous goals, Tension, and Systems thinking.
John is one of the UK’s leading executive coaches and board advisors having worked with CEOs and MDs in Europe, Asia, Australia and the US in recent years. He has been coaching leaders in organisations such as British Airways, the BBC, Kelloggs, the FSA, Jones Lang LaSalle and Telenor AS.
Ian is an inspirational coach, facilitator and speaker working at Board and management level for blue chip international clients to create sustained individual and business change. Everything he does is to help leaders unlock their potential and achieve greatness.