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FAST - The Four Cornerstones of Effective Feedback

communication executive coach leadership coach presentation skills public speaking public speaking coach speaking coaching speech coaching Dec 10, 2021

I bet you've already struggled to suppress a shudder at the word 'feedback.' We dread it. However, that's usually because it's poorly delivered, ineffectual and, sometimes, downright damaging. Delivered effectively and with the key elements of good communication firmly embedded, feedback can be completely transformative.

In conversations, meetings at work, scrolls through social media or furtive glances in the mirror or at the weighing scales, we confirm our opinions of others or allow those of others (or our own negative thoughts) to reaffirm what we think about ourselves. This is not feedback - these are either judgments or opinions, often with no basis in fact. We need to correct our understanding of what feedback is and the role it performs. Feedback must be sincere, balanced, actionable, specific, timely and lead to growth and development. If it does not, it has failed.   

I wish to outline some simple yet profound principles that will help transform your approach to feedback and the quality of your communication within your professional and personal lives.

Feedback is critical in every arena of life. For good or ill, it can permanently alter our self-perception, businesses and relationships. Failing to take on board good feedback can lose companies customers, investors and revenue, whilst a preoccupation with negative feedback can do just as much damage. The ability to appropriately handle facts and the attached emotions can play a vital role in how individuals and organisations are viewed. The way in which feedback is both delivered and received – and whose feedback we choose to focus on – can be pivotal to successfully starting, growing and maintaining self-confidence, meaningful relationships and a business with engaged employees and satisfied customers.

When delivering training on feedback, I often begin by asking my audience to ponder a single statement:

Reflect on an experience of feedback that really affected you.

Where were you?

What was happening?

What was said?

How did it make you feel?

This simple exercise quickly reveals some startling truths. An overwhelming majority of delegates recall a negative experience that happened in the workplace, often more than five years ago. How much more productive would they have been in the succeeding five years if they hadn’t been carrying such negative beliefs around with them on a daily basis?

I was reading one of those 'Chicken Soup for the Soul' books once - as you do when you feel the need - and I came across a story of a young boy. He had come home from school drenched from head to toe, even though it wasn't raining at the time. Upon inquiry, the boy informed his mother, smiling, that bullies had pushed him into a large puddle on the walk home.

Indignant on behalf of the child and concerned that he would be smiling in response to such a terrible act, she sought to provide comfort to her son: "I'm so sorry you had such a terrible day!"

The boy's response was telling: "Oh, I didn't have a terrible day, Mum. I had a great day - I just had a bad five minutes!"

Though we know we should adopt the attitude of this boy, it's easier said than done. We know we should not allow one negative encounter to ruin our day. We should be more careful to retain, even record, positive feedback more readily and use it to reinforce our self-esteem and confidence when we fall upon hard times. Yet we don't.

We have an unhealthy preoccupation, even obsession, with negativity. We live in a world where doom and gloom sell - the best gossip is who said what to whom and who did what behind closed doors. Problem is, negativity becomes our focus and therefore the focus of the majority of our communications.

If, on any given day, nine positive things happened followed by one negative thing, we often fail to focus on the positive. At best, we mention the negative thing and cause it to dilute the positive. At worst, we abandon the positive and allow the negative to consume everything else. I've done it on occasion - my first words to my wife after walking through the door are about the 'idiot' who cut me up in traffic on the way home. By the time my rant's over and she gets to ask, "How was your day?" I realise I can't recall anything positive. I've not only distorted my own perception, I've neglected my wife's emotional needs by failing to ask about her day and the atmosphere at home has been soured.

To further prove my point, when I pose those introductory statements to audiences, I always start with the negative first. Why? When people have come up with the negative feedback they remember and are reliving the emotion connected with it, they really struggle to come up with anything positive. This provides a valuable teaching moment about the power of our thoughts. It's almost like we are wired to focus on the negative! Worse than this, sometimes people recall negative events from years - even decades - ago! If we are holding onto something for that long, it can do permanent damage to us, even if it is something the other party has long since forgotten about.

I fear that if left unchecked, one careless or overly critical piece of feedback, even given in jest, can do irreparable damage to another person. I would go so far as to argue that a person who does not openly acknowledge the critical role of feedback in someone else's development is in one of two camps: either they are ignorant of just how vital it is, or they demonstrate a potentially fatal level of carelessness about how they speak to others. Both are extremely dangerous.

Feedback can do one of two things: empower people to achieve more than they believe they can or entrap them in negative beliefs that prevent them from achieving what they know they can.

When delivering training on feedback, I use an acronym called FAST. It's a reminder that if we don't alter our habits quickly, more people will suffer. However, changing our approach to feedback quickly can help motivate and engage employees and team members - companies with engaged employees are typically twice as successful as those without. Poor feedback costs companies money and progress - estimates suggest employee disengagement costs around £70 billion in the UK and as much as $500 million in the US each year. The number one cause? Receiving no or poor feedback from managers. Who wouldn't want to sort that out - FAST?

Effective feedback should be:

  1. From the Heart

Nobody will give a second thought to any recommendation unless they feel the one delivering it cares about them. Empathy is at the root of all meaningful human communication; as soon as we show a genuine interest in the welfare of another person and are motivated by a desire to see them succeed, we open the door to another person’s life.

When I have been sitting across a table from someone whilst receiving their feedback and felt a genuine care and concern on their part, their feedback is powerful, even life-changing. The exchange has always begun with questions regarding wellbeing, then feedback has been tactfully adapted to what I might have been able to absorb based on current skill, experience and emotional levels.

The first – and, I believe, most important – question to ask yourself when giving feedback is this: “Is care being shown?” Ask yourself, “Do I really care about this individual as an individual – their progression, welfare, hopes and aspirations? If this question cannot be answered with an honest ‘yes’, it is the wrong time – or you are the wrong person – to deliver feedback.

If you are receiving feedback, you must immediately ask yourself that same question: “Is care being shown?”. If the answer feels like a ‘no’, then that feedback should be taken with a pinch (or more) of salt. If there are valid statements or recommendations, then take them on board. However, any statements that are overly critical or appear insincere should not be taken personally; the damage of allowing negative feedback to fester can be irreparable.

 

Remember, the deliverer is also a person. Be kind. Don’t be confrontational. Do you don’t have to agree with everything. Take something that you can act on and politely discard anything that is unhelpful. Do not let one ill-worded comment rob you of your mental and emotional wellbeing. It is just not worth it.

Seeking out positive, helpful feedback designed to build character and shunning negative feedback is not weakness. It sometimes takes great strength and resilience to become selective about whose feedback you listen to. Even if the circle of people starts off small, carefully choose whose guidance you will follow. Ensure you are only receptive to people who are seeking to build you up; refuse mental and emotional entry to those seeking to sabotage your foundations.

  1. Actionable

We all arrive at a point where we our own skills, knowledge and experience have been exhausted. At this moment, we silently cry out for someone wiser, more experienced and more skilful to step in and say: “I can see you’re struggling with this. You’ve done brilliantly to get this far. When I was in this position, here is what I learned … I suggest you try the following…”.

In my work as a teacher, my feedback to students is broken into three distinct parts. First, I always offer praise on something they’re doing well. This brings a feeling of pride to the individual and opens them up to receive any subsequent advice. Secondly, I suggest an area of focus, something they need to do to move the work forward. For example: “Congratulations on using some excellent descriptive language in this piece of writing. To move forward, we need to make sure your use of punctuation becomes more controlled and secure”. Good feedback, right? No! It is not actionable. It is missing the third – and most vital – element.

The third part of the feedback is the challenge. This is the invitation to act, to implement, to practise. After offering the above feedback to a student, my challenge might be as follows: “Add a further paragraph to your story. Highlight all of the commas and full stops you are using to show that you are remembering to include them in your sentences.” That’s much more like it! That will drive forward the progress of the student’s writing and hold them accountable for implementing the feedback given.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all feedback given was broken into those three elements: praise, recommendation and challenge? That sort of feedback meets the first and second corner stones. It comes from the heart, shows genuine care and can be acted upon. Too much of the feedback passed between colleagues, families and partners lacks one of these two cornerstones: either it lacks empathy or it can’t be implemented. Only with both parts fulfilled can feedback spark meaningful change.

  1. Specific

Feedback that lacks specificity also lacks power. If the individual giving the feedback is not specific, they undermine their own credibility and professed expertise, robbing the recipient of an opportunity to grow. Generalised feedback shows a lack of due care, preparation and is not actionable, so fails to meet all three cornerstones.

Many people talk about the ‘praise sandwich’. You offer praise, give suggested improvements and end with more praise. As mentioned, when I offer feedback to students, I do so in three parts: praise, recommendation and challenge. Whilst the ‘praise sandwich’ structure might boost the confidence of someone in the earliest stages of development, it eventually becomes a disservice as it gives a false impression of progress and can erode trust.

As long as feedback is delivered empathically and with a clear path to progress, there is no rule for the ratio of praise to recommendations. The sincerity of the one delivering the feedback is always more critical than how the points are structured, but any recommendations must show sincere desire to help the individual and be accompanied by specific strategies or actions that can be implemented.

For example, imagine someone telling someone else: “As you have said you would like to improve your fitness, I recommend you go to the gym.” This is actionable, but not specific. If that same person said, “Go to the gym each Friday at 5:30pm for one hour and do these four exercises to improve your leg strength and overall fitness,” then that changes everything. Specificity is the key to progress because it empowers the other person to act.

  1. Timely

The more time that elapses between the event occurring and feedback being received, the less impact it will have. Timeliness is key.

There’s an old adage: “Actions speak louder than words.” If a time is agreed for feedback to be received and the one delivering it runs over in a previous meeting, arrives late or does not show up at all, what is really being said?

“You are not my most important priority.”

When someone is delivering feedback, the one receiving it should be made to feel like they are the only person on earth. The deliverer is in a significant position of trust regarding the recipient’s career, confidence and (in some cases) mental and emotional well-being. Timely feedback is more likely to show empathy and retain sufficient coverage to be both specific and actionable, thus meeting the other cornerstones. If it is late or rushed, it is at best likely to lack sufficient detail or sensitivity to have any real impact.

What happens if the individual receiving the feedback is late or doesn’t turn up? It says, “I don’t care what you have to say – I don’t need your help and don’t feel like I can learn anything from you”. This creates a negative impression and breaks trust.

If you are delivering feedback, be prompt. If you are receiving it, turn up on time and be prepared to chase up someone – even if they are senior – when feedback is not being received promptly.

Action Points

In order to improve the quality of feedback delivered in our organisations, I suggest three specific actions:

First, be prompt to all feedback meetings and exactly honour any follow-up commitments. This will cultivate a culture of trust and collaboration.

If people feel their growth is not being prioritised, feedback will be meaningless and treated with contempt. If someone receiving feedback turns up late, it is a sign of disrespect to the deliverer. Actions speak louder than words.

Second, always talk about the person before the process.

Empathy is at the root of all meaningful human communication. I have a fundamental rule when I am delivering feedback: I do not address the subject of feedback until I have asked the recipient three questions about themselves. I may ask about their weekend, family, health, interests, recent events, goals or aspirations. This encourages me to show a genuine care and concern for them and learn more about their lives. This sometimes even provides additional insight into how the individual might be being affected - positively or negatively – by external factors. This then helps me to personalise the feedback based on what they might be prepared to absorb.

Third, structure the feedback carefully: praise, recommendation and challenge.

A gushing of praise or a barrage of criticism do nothing for progress. Balance is critical - the recipient needs to feel reassured about their current standing and equipped with the tools, and the desire, to improve.

Conclusion

When you run a business and manage a team, it is your privilege to support and guide them.  They may be business leaders of the future. If you treat them like they already are and they’ll make you a great business owner and leader right now, and you’ll be rewarded by contributing to their future success.

Let us create a feedback culture, driven by respect, empathy and compassion, within our organisations. If we give well-structured feedback from the heart and ensure it is actionable, specific and timely, progress will accelerate, relationships will be strengthened and outcomes will improve.

Be FAST with your feedback: from the heart, actionable, specific and timely. The way in which we communicate at work, in our communities, and at home will be a key factor in improving quality of relationships, productivity, happiness and success.

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