Improve Anything – How to Give Feedback That Works

Can you imagine what it would be like to improve everything you do that you care about? You’d become amazing. It sounds too good to be true, but with the right mindset and helpful tools, you can  improve your purposeful doing each day.

We are always doing something. When we do anything to achieve something we care about, we call it a performance. Any performance can be improved with the approached described here. This is a chapter from my book in progress, and I’ve included a form to request a free downloadable tool to help you.

Does the approach to feedback get in our way?

Jonas watched from the bleachers as his son, Jake, swung the bat. Woosh, thwap. The bat missed the ball, and the ball shot securely into the catcher’s mitt with a little cloud of dust. “Strike threeee, yer out!” cried the umpire. Jonas watches as Jake makes his way to the dugout, head down, dejected.

“There must be something I can do to help Jake,” Jonas thought, “but what? Nothing I’ve said so far has made any difference. I tell him exactly what to do and he ignores me. Worse, he puts up the wall, and then he just shuts down.”

On the drive home, Jonas starts to speak, but Jake shakes his head. “Not now, Dad.” And then he puts in his ear buds and stares out the window.

The next day, Jonas is at work when his boss, Mary, comes to his cubicle. “Thanks for the report,” she says, “but can you come to my office? I have some mistakes you need to fix and I want to go over them.”

“Oh, car parts,” Jonas thinks to himself. “I worked all last week on that report, even after hours, and all she can say is thanks, it’s full of mistakes?”

Mary walks in front of him, smiling, but thinking to herself, “I hope this time he listens. His writing hasn’t improved despite all the feedback I’ve given him.

These two examples demonstrate challenges we’ve all faced with receiving feedback. Let’s ask why.

Why does judgmental feedback prevent improvement?

First Jake and then Jonas are reacting to feedback and failing to improve. Unfortunately, feedback that starts with a judgement is all to common, and unless the performer is particularly adept with their emotions, the feedback is pointless after the defensive walls go up.

In Jake’s case, it’s not even the words that Jonas uses — he’s pretty careful. But Jake senses his dad’s disapproval and feels like his dad isn’t proud. He used to stand and take it, but now he just gets angry. And it’s an accurate perception. Jonas is disappointed by his son’s failure to hit the ball. “Maybe Jake’s just got his mother’s genes,” he muses.

In Jonas’s case, Mary means well and wants him to improve. But she’s so frustrated that he’s been slow to change. She thinks, “Maybe I haven’t been tough enough on him. I’ll step it up so he knows how serious this is. Maybe then he’ll pay attention.”

Jonas, on the other side of the perception, knows his boss is powerful, and he knows she’s disappointed. “But when she starts into me about my mistakes, I get mad and I get defensive. She can’t expect me to listen while she’s whacking on me.”

Four things are happening. First, the stakes are high: the perceived and communicated consequences are high for both Jake and Jonas. This makes them very sensitive.

Second, their confidence in themselves is low. Both have not had success in these areas, and they’re even starting to blame the other person.

Third, all three people have a fixed mindset in that they believe that there’s not much that can be done to change the lack of talent Jonas and Jake were born with.

Fourth, all of these trigger strong emotions and defensiveness. No-one listens well when they’re feeling judged “incompetent.”

Fortunately, there’s an effective practice that anyone can learn that avoids these issues. It’s called formative assessment in academics, but a better term is improvement coaching.

What is improvement coaching? 

Improvement Coaching is an approach to preparing and delivering feedback that helps learners listen and then improve their performance. Coaching complements instructing by adding the personal element. Coaching performance involves analyzing a performance to provide feedback to the performer that lets them improve future performances. The coach highlights strengths to repeat, opportunities to improve, and any discoveries made by the coach.

Why coach instead of judging?

Coaching is a key skill for anyone who wants to help another improve performance. It’s particularly important for parents because their children look up to them and place high value on what parents say. As children get older they continue to listen to their parents only if they continue to believe their parents respect them as individuals and want the best for them. Quality coaching preserves trust and demonstrates respect.

When coaching is not done in a positive atmosphere of trust, or when the feedback itself seems judgmental, or if the feedback is directed at the learner and not the learner’s performance, the learner may put up defensive walls that prevent learning. In this case, what’s the benefit of coaching?

An example of unhelpful feedback is, “Hey, Johnny, why are you always so lazy? You need to work harder.” 

On the other hand, when the instructor and student share the same goals and the instructor stays respectful and positive, the mind of the learner stays open and receptive to improvement.

What are the three approaches to improvement coaching?

Different situations require less or more formal and involved improvement coaching.

For minor corrections that don’t take a lot of thought, the instructor may simply adjust the actions of the learner by using non-verbal communication., such as head nodding or signaling the need for more detail by coaxing with the hand.

If required to be more descriptive, an instructor can do a quick coaching by using a method called PCP, which stands for Praise, Correction, Praise. An example from athletics is, “Hey, Johnny, I can see the sweat breaking out on your forehead. Good work. If you lift your knees even higher, you’ll sweat even more.” When Johnny cooperates, the coach offers the closing praise, “That’s it. Good job.”

Sometimes, however, it takes more thought and interaction to coach, such as when much more impactful coaching is needed for a higher-stakes or more complicated performance as demonstrated by a written paper or formal presentation.

Is judgment ever needed?

High-stakes performance is done with judgment. When we judge, the primary reason is to decide whether the performer has developed the necessary knowledge, skills, and attitudes at various standard levels. In martial arts, it’s to award a belt. In school, a grade. At work, a raise or promotion.

True, the high-stakes performance creates stress on the performer. When balanced 90+% improvement coaching vs. 10-% judging, the performer has had the chance to receive sufficient improvement coaching, and the additional motivation to diligently practice.

The main point is that improvement comes from improvement coaching. A decision comes from judging.

Can the process of improvement coaching be learned?

All three of these situations, quick & non-verbal, quick & verbal PCP, and detailed feedback are summarized in the following diagram:

In the diagram, the coach starts with Step A to establish a trusting and caring relationship with the performer. If the coach is already someone trusted and able to coach, that’s easiest. The coach may establish trust by expressing the desire to help the performer, being transparent, and non-judgmental. Trust develops more over several coaching sessions.

In step B, the coach shares the checklist for doing a form with quality. Because as performers we can so easily fool ourselves when we self-coach, we need the formality of a performance to encourage our best efforts. Sharing the checklist ensures performer and coach are working together for the same result.

In Step C, the performer does a physical performance, writes a paper, does a project, or any other purposeful activity with an outcome. Some record of the performance is required. It could be a log, a video, or written project documents. The coach can produce better feedback when the record covers both the process and the results of the performance.

In step D, the coach analyzes the performance and then prepares the feedback. 

The coach delivers feedback in Step E. For example, a martial arts coach might say this to a younger 6th-level performer:

Shana, thank you. I want to give you some feedback because I know you’re going to learn from it to become even stronger.

First, your strengths that I want you to repeat in future forms:

  • You did all the moves with spirit
  • You often used two-handed preparation-execution on the moves
  • You were powerful on your yells

Would you like to know how you can make your future performances even stronger? [Shana says “Yes, sir!”]

  • Practice your timing on the moves so they all take about two seconds. In the first second and a half, prepare your move, stay relaxed but focused, and begin to execute it. In the last half second, finish your move quickly and tense at the end.
  • When you get ready to do a move in the form, look in the direction of your opponent as you prepare your next move.

Do you know what you need to do with the feedback? Tell me what you heard. [The coach nods his head as she explains and then continues with his discovery.]

As I watched, Shana, I discovered how much you’ve been practicing at home and working on this form. Your effort paid off!

The example feedback demonstrates key points about step E. 

  • It is overall positive and affirming. This makes it doable in front of everyone because it reinforces the safe training environment. The coach includes a comment to everyone – feedback makes you stronger.
  • It starts with true strengths demonstrated by the learner. The coach doesn’t have to say it’s perfect, because it’s not. The coach recognizes what contributes to the quality and emphasizes what should be repeated in every future performance.
  • The coach asks permission to share the feedback in front of the class. This action creates trust and focuses the performers attention on the feedback.
  • The most achievable and impactful actions to improve the future performance are given. Generally, these should be kept to no more than three, because saying more won’t be remembered and would lessen the impact.
  • The coach makes sure the feedback is understood by asking for a summary of it. There’s not point in leaving a performer confused about the feedback, so the coach ensures it’s well received.
  • The final step of sharing a discovery is an authentic statement that frames the feedback and honors the efforts of the performer. This is also a message for the watching students about the importance of self-practice.
  • Overall, the coach role-models positive, helpful feedback with respect for the performer, separation of the performance from the performer, and is careful not to be judgmental.

Step F consists of the follow-up practice by the performer to implement the feedback. The coach could have the performer take notes on the downloadable form to aid in tracking improvements.

How can a quality checklist help with feedback?

A quality checklist is a list of observable actions, thoughts, and feelings that are required to improve quality. The more items that are checked, the higher the quality.

When coaching with a checklist, you may observe a performance and determine which of the items were displayed. Since each is written in a positive manner, you can use a list to determine the greatest contribution, that is strengths, that lead to the observed quality. With some exceptions for equally important qualitites, the list is sorted by increasing strength.

Similarly, when it comes time to make a suggestion, use the list of qualities not checked to determine possible opportunities for improvement. Choose the best 2-3 that the performer is capable of implementing next, often from others in the list that are not checked.

To come up with discoveries, you may simply comment on the work that must have contributed to the observed qualities, but sometimes the student will perform with a quality that’s not in the checklist. You can add this quality to your own personal list and thank the student for showing you something new that will help others as well.

For example, if you are coaching someone on being friendly, you may use the following checklist (which is numbered for clarity).

  1. I am open to others by making eye contact, using a friendly voice, and being positive;
  2. I am welcoming to new people and will engage them first if possible;
  3. I ask questions and listen well to answers to learn more about others;
  4. I recognize and genuinely compliment others for their efforts, enthusiasm, and other black belt qualities;
  5. Before I judge a person, I seek to understand their intent and their actions so that I am fair and open-minded.

Assume the strengths for this performance are the following.

Strengths

  1. I am open to others by making eye contact, using a friendly voice, and being positive
  2. I am welcoming to new people and will engage them first if possible

The opportunities to improve are taken both from the remainder of the list, and one you could make up on the spot:

Opportunities

3. I ask questions and listen well to answers to learn more about others

6. I encourage others to do their best by clapping and cheering.

Your discovery comes from noticing that this student sometimes cheers for others and you want to reinforce it.

Discovery

  • You helped me to realize that there’s another aspect to quality which is to support others through encouragement. I have added it to the checklist for myself and others.

Create a quality checklist for any important activity. List the observable actions, thoughts, and emotions using positive language. Eliminate any overlapping items. Then, put them in order from easiest or most foundational to hardest or most advanced. Share this list with your performers in advance of any performances.

Since improvement coaching is a performance, does it have a performance checklist?

Check or Rate yourself on each of the following items when coaching a significant performance.

  1. I believe everyone can learn through kind, effective coaching and I practice to improve my skill;
  2. No matter what the quality, I know any performance can be improved;
  3. My feedback is more effective because I’ve established trust with the performer and demonstrated genuine caring;
  4. I determine what evidence I need to collect and then find or develop a checklist that balances coaching of the process and the outcomes;
  5. When I want to coach a performance, I first measure its quality and analyze it to understand what produced its level of quality. I deliver the feedback to the performer, strengths first, improvements second, and anything I discovered, third;
  6. I do not judge the performer nor the performance, because my only goal is to improve future performances;
  7. During feedback, I avoid mistakenly signaling any judgment, verbally or non-verbally; 
  8. I choose the two or three most important strengths and explain what makes them strong;
  9. I choose the two or three most impactful improvement opportunities that could be made by the performer, and describe how to make them;
  10. I role model learning by explaining one or two of my own discoveries made during a coaching session;
  11. If possible, I verify that the performer has understood the feedback by asking how they plan to implement;
  12. If possible, I follow-up in future coaching sessions to notice and comment on improvements
  13. I recognize that performers are stronger learners when they can self-coach a performance, and appropriately choose to coach their self-coaching;
  14. I coach my own coaching by getting feedback on my coaching and use it to improve.

You may start your self-coaching by treating this as a checklist and noting which aspects you do, and which you don’t.

Next steps

Experts make their own checklists and keep improving them over time. Note that this checklist displays both the process steps and the keys to quality of performance outcomes. It also covers the critical knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are required.

Make creating such checklists to support your coaching. And use the one above to improve through self-coaching.

You owe it to the performers in your care.

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