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 I’ve used: “Gosh, I’ve got other things I’ve got to do immediately”.  “I’ll find a more appropriate time”. “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 year-end review”.

Sometimes even if we give feedback, we deliver it in such a “sugar-coated way” that the coachee misses it altogether. It’s like exchanging pleasantries at a tea party. Everyone feels good but no one can quite recall what was discussed. Or, we race through feedback like we’re going for a root canal, wanting to get it over with as quickly as possible, without any consideration for the pain or numbness of the person on the receiving end.

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 behavior changes that will serve the coachee in the future?
  • What specific words will I use to describe the positive and derailing behaviors?

Specificity is really important when giving feedback. And specificity is hard when we’re giving feedback on “softer” behaviors like a person’s self-confidence or the way they dress. “You need to have more self-confidence” is not exactly helpful as I’m not sure what behavior 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 behavior change that will serve the coachee.  Some of us are averse to conflict. Some have a desire to be liked so we avoid giving feedback.  To be an effective coach, 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.  Some of my best bosses gave me very direct feedback.  They did it in a way that it was clear that they were on my side and believed in my potential.

  • 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

If giving the feedback is still a bit uncomfortable for you, experiment with being vulnerable and simply stating “I wish I was more practiced at giving feedback” creates an environment of greater trust and authenticity for the conversation. They can probably read your discomfort anyway!

3) CuriosityCoaching conversations are more about listening and asking good questions than talking. The rule I like to follow as the coach is 90/10. Do 90% of the listening and 10% of the talking. Ideally, the talking happens in the form of questions that help the coachee discover the answers within themselves. If you happen to be the coachee, the 90/10 rule applies as well. Do 90% of the listening and 10% of the talking. Two people doing 90% of the listening makes for a great coaching conversation!

In my book “Wired for Authenticity“, one of the seven practices of authentic leaders that I talk about is “Stay Curious”. 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 (see below). It helps if you invite the coachee 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 do these resonate for you?”
  • “If you were able to master these behaviors how would this help you?” (this is a great question to understand what motivates your coachee).

4) Confirmation Feedback conversations are difficult because our own emotions are often caught up in them (both on the side of the coach and the coachee). When emotions get involved it’s hard to really listen clearly (more on this in the blog post “Listen to how you Listen”. So seek confirmation that you’re both on the same page.  Pay attention to not just what’s said but also what you observe in the body language. 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 surprised 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 behaviors that you will 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 we will want to 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 did we do well, what can be improved for the future?”

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Additional Resources

Coaching Leaders for Transformation – Workshop for your organization

To further develop coaching skills by listening: “Listen to How You Listen

This article was written by Henna Inam, executive coach, speaker, and author of the book Wired for Authenticity. She works with people to help them realize their potential to be authentic, transformational leaders. They create organizations that drive breakthroughs in innovation, growth, and engagement. Her corporate clients include Coca Cola, The Home Depot, and others. Join the thousands who follow her blog here. Connect on Twitter @hennainam.

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