Here’s a situation. A direct report of yours just gave a presentation to senior management. The presentation went okay but frankly could have gone a lot better. The direct report knew her material but didn’t demonstrate self-confidence in her body language, didn’t dress appropriately, and didn’t think fast on her feet in addressing some of the questions. You noticed your boss start to lose confidence in your direct report in the meeting. You secretly wonder if she’s losing confidence in your judgment to have the direct report present in the first place. What do you do?
Well, if you’re like most managers, you do nothing. That’s right. Zip. Zilch. Nada. Feedback, particularly developmental feedback, is often hard to give, so most of us avoid giving it. Here are some good excuses “Well, it wasn’t that bad”. “I’m sure she knew she didn’t do her best. She’s a grown-up, she’ll figure it out”. “I’ll have to make sure I mention it in her performance review”.
Why is Feedback Important?
Why is giving (and asking for) feedback so important anyway? A Corporate Executive Board survey suggests that firms whose culture encourages open communication outperform peers by more than 270% in terms of long-term (10 year) total shareholder return. Good coaching also builds strong employee engagement. In my twenty years of managing people, there have been some good coaching conversations, some not-so-good, and some that didn’t happen at all, so I stepped back to distill what worked well and also what I learned from the ones that I failed on pretty badly.
Five C’s of Great Coaching Conversations
1. Clarity – Before you have the conversation get clear and specific on what you want to communicate. What is your intention for the impact you want to have on the individual? Start with acknowledging what’s working well as it creates a positive environment where the employee can be more open to listening. Get clear on the following:
- What working well? What employee strengths have created that?
- What are the specific behaviour changes that will serve the coachee in the future?
- What specific words will I use to describe the positive and derailing behaviours?
Specificity is really important when giving feedback. And specificity is hard when we’re giving feedback on “softer” behaviours like a person’s self-confidence or the way they speak or present. “You need to have more self-confidence” is not exactly helpful as I’m not sure what behaviour change is required. On the other hand, you can be more specific by saying “your posture and the intonation of your sentences reflected that you didn’t have complete confidence in your own expertise”.
2. Compassion – We often tie ourselves up in knots because we make giving the feedback about us rather than a behaviour change that will serve the coachee. Many of us are averse to conflict. Some have a desire to be liked so avoid giving feedback. To be an effective coach or leader of people, we need to be compassionate toward both ourselves and the person we’re coaching because after all giving and receiving developmental feedback can be hard.
Compassion for the coachee helps us put ourselves in their shoes and have a more emotionally intelligent conversation. How we say something is much more important than what we say. Start your conversation with the mindset that all feedback is a gift
- Let the employee know that you’re both working toward the same goal of helping them reach their potential
- After the feedback ask the employee what support they need from you to respond to the coaching you gave them
3. Curiosity – Coaching conversations are more about listening and asking good questions than talking. Do 80% of the listening and 20% of the talking. Ideally, the talking happens in the form of questions that help the coachee or employee discover the answers within themselves.
When we come from a place of curiosity rather than judgment or attachment to our own point of view, new insights can appear and solutions can be co-created that will help us capture stronger commitment. It helps if you invite the coachee or employee to give you their point of view first. The questions that invite curiosity are:
- “What did you do well? What strengths did you use to achieve that?”
- “What were things you could have done better? What strengths can you use to achieve that?”
- “Here’s what I observed in terms of what you could have done better (be specific). How does this resonate for you?”
- “If you were able to master these behaviours how would this help you?” (this is a great question to understand what motivates the person).
4. Confirmation – Feedback conversations are difficult because our own emotions are often caught up in them. When emotions get involved it’s hard to really listen clearly. So seek confirmation that you’re both on the same page. Pay attention to what’s said but also what you observe in the body language that may not being said. Here are some good ways to do that:
- Start by restating your understanding of what the other person said. Then ask “Did I understand you correctly?”
- “I can see that you’re upset by the feedback. Am I reading that correctly?” Acknowledging emotion is a great way to have a more authentic conversation.
5. Commitment – The end result of any great coaching conversation is a clear commitment to results and a strengthened trust in the relationship. Ways to capture commitment is to be specific in the list of agreements. Here are some good questions to ask:
- “What are the most important takeaways for you from this conversation?”
- “What are the new behaviours you will now practice?”
- “What are follow-up action items that are important, by whom and by when?”
- “What will success look like when these actions are taken?”
- “How would this success help you?”
- “What are some ways you suggest we can keep track of progress?”
One last coaching question to ask if you’re looking to grow in your own ability to coach is to ask your coachee “How was this coaching conversation for you? What worked for you and what can be improved for the future?”
In part reproduced from a recent article by April Sweazy.