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Challenging Coaching pt4: How to deliver feedback


Continuing their series on challenging coaching Ian Day and John Blakey, co-authors of 'Challenging Coaching: Going beyond traditional coaching to face the FACTS', take a look at how to deliver feedback within coaching.
"We don't do feedback here!" a senior manager of an international manufacturing company once said to me. I wonder how common this belief is; is feedback reserved for the annual appraisal meeting or when something has gone wrong, like a critical parent chastising a child?
Why is this so, particularly when everyone would agree that logically, feedback affirms strengths and overcomes blind-spots? Most would agree that feedback is a fundamental part of development, and is a core skill for line managers and coaches working on a one-to-one basis. In this article we will discuss how a coach can provide effective feedback, but this approach can be readily transferred into a line management context.
In an organisational culture where feedback is not valued, feedback from a coach is even more important. This feedback can be on the levels of individual and organisational as well as relating to strengths and areas for development. The coach is ideally placed to take an organisational perspective through working with the coachee, the contracting meeting, and observing what is happening around the company. The coach will observe signs, symbols and stories which provide valuable information about the culture. Through this the coach gains an understanding of the organisational system and can question norms and assumptions which impact on the behaviour and performance of the coachee.
"In an organisational culture where feedback is not valued, feedback from a coach is even more important. This feedback can be on the levels of individual and organisational as well as relating to strengths and areas for development."
We are all familiar with feedback which highlights weaknesses. The majority of feedback seems to be about problems and weaknesses. But feedback is particularly valuable when highlighting strengths. Consider the phrase 'the ordinary is extraordinary'; a coachee may take for granted certain attributes and not realise that they have a talent. A coach can highlight these hidden strengths. Through conscious competence and by focusing on these newly understood strengths, the coachee will excel.
It could be said that a coach and coachee are in the laboratory of learning, experimenting with behaviour and observing the reaction. If we assume that the behaviour of the coachee in the coaching room is typical of their behaviour in 'normal life' then the coach is in an ideal position to provide feedback. It is like holding up the mirror, or playing back the video as the coach describes their thoughts, feelings and assumptions based on what the coachee did or said. The coachee is likely to be blind to how their behaviour or words are interpreted by another person and the coach counters this through feedback.
So how does the coach provide feedback which informs, inspires, and ensures that recognition for a good job is balanced with honest feedback about mistakes? Feedback draws on the principles of Challenging Coaching which we have described in previous TrainingZone articles.

The Zone of Uncomfortable Debate (ZOUD)

To provide honest and open feedback, the coach must be willing to enter the ZOUD as and when required. ZOUD is the area of creative tension during a conversation. If a conversation is more than a social chat it is necessary to enter the ZOUD to get to the heart of a matter. Frequently people feel the tension rise and fear damaging the relationship and so defuse the pressure by exiting to a safer place. The relationship is maintained, but the 'elephant in the room' is still there. Skilfully entering the ZOUD is crucial for delivering challenging feedback which will transform the coachee's awareness and create a breakthrough. 

Speak your truth

This is the world as you see it; your reality and your truth. Speaking your truth is feedback of what the coach saw, heard and how this was interpreted. Feedback is most powerful by speaking your truth, stating your reality in a rational, factual way and non-judgemental way.
Effective feedback is a balance of support and challenge. Support is the concern for the individual, acknowledging, displaying empathy, etc. Challenge is pushing, provoking, confronting, holding someone accountable, etc. Low support linked with a low level of challenge produces bland 'why bother' feedback of going through the motions. Highly supportive feedback, but with low challenge leads to positive affirmation but no traction, for example "I don't believe what the board said, I think your project plan is very good. Maybe they were having a bad day." Feedback with low support but a high level of challenge is stressful, for example "That was rubbish, my 5 year old could do better, think harder!" The sweet spot for feedback is an optimal balance of support and challenge. This is 'tough love' and the area for greatest growth and development.
"Effective feedback is a balance of support and challenge. Support is the concern for the individual, acknowledging, displaying empathy. Challenge is pushing, provoking, confronting, holding someone accountable."
The 'ego state' of the person delivering feedback is crucial. If coming from a stressed line manager who needs to prove superiority, feedback will never be constructive. If the feedback comes from a person genuinely wanting to make a positive contribution and trusting the future potential, such as an external coach, then it will be supportively challenging.
The balance of high support and high challenge when providing feedback is achieved through the following stages:
  • Observation - the coach observes what happened. This is not judgemental, but as it is, speaking your truth. This can be an observation of a positive strength or of something not going to plan
  • Preparation and opening statement - the first words are the most important, so the coach can carefully prepare an opening statement considering the individual and the desired outcome
  • Impact - the coach describes the personal impact of what the coachee said or did, stating what they thought or felt and the implications
  • Invite input and listen - the coach explores the shared reality and asks the coachee "How do you see this?"
  • Reflection - if this is a significant issue, allow time for reflection and don't rush to force a resolution. The quality of the action which follows is the most important thing, not the pace of decision making
  • Action - feedback is only effective if it is future-focused and leads to action. The coach and coachee agree a specific action plan with courageous stretch goals, building an explicit 'contract' of who will do what, by when.
By applying the principles of Challenging Coaching and following the six stages above, a coach can provide transformational feedback as well as role modelling constructive behaviour.
Ian and John's book 'Challenging Coaching- Going beyond traditional coaching to face the FACTS' published by Nicholas Brealey Publishing is available on Amazon. More resources can be accessed via This is the fourth of a monthly column on TrainingZone to explore the detail of challenging coaching

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