Coaching and Mentoring
Using the Process of “Feed-forward” to Coach People
Giving people constructive feedback is a core skill of anyone who engages in coaching. As its name implies “feedback” focuses on past circumstances, situations, events, behavior or actions and the discussion is therefore about what happened historically (even if it is only in the recent past) so that we can ideally make changes for the future. This is a valuable approach in coaching (and is central to other professions such as social work, counseling and psychiatry for example). However, feedback tends to often be heavily biased towards performance shortfalls, problems and unwanted behavior that have occurred and we therefore need to either adjust our approach to give more balanced information or adopt a different method which has a more positive focus.
Although the idea is not his invention, the widely known executive coach and author Marshall Goldsmith has been responsible for popularizing one positive approach that can be used as an alternative to traditional feedback. Goldsmith calls this process “feed-forward”.
Goldsmith contends that while feedback takes a historical perspective and thereby concentrates on what can only be learned from but not changed, by looking forward positively we set ourselves free from what’s happened before – we allow a fresh start. And another well-known executive coach and author, Sir John Whitmore tends to agree with Goldsmith when he says: “Coaching focuses on future possibilities, not past mistakes”. This suggests that coaching is well served by a “feed-forward” approach.
The “rules” of the feed-forward process are very simple. Both parties in the coaching relationship are asked to follow a 3-step process:
- make each question about future possible improvement a dialogue, not a dictate,
- focus on the future, not the past when offering ideas -e.g. say “You could…
- listen to the coach’s ideas without clarification and just respond by saying “thank-you” before asking for another idea.
Putting Feed-Forward into Practice
Goldsmith’s approach is one that most coaches can immediately start using by adopting the following steps:
- Ask the coachee to identify one or two key changes, improvements, actions, etc. he or she wants to start making. This works well when the coachee wants to improve a skill such as listen more effectively or improve my presentation skills.
- The coachee then ask the coach for one forward-looking suggestion – a coach’s suggestion must be focused on what they can positively do from this point on (he or she may not refer to the past). For example, a coach may say “let people finish speaking completely and pause to think for one or two seconds before responding”
- The open-exchange idea here is important. A Coachee needs to be ready to ask a coach to give him or her one piece of forward-looking advice about a change, improvement or behavior that he or she wants to work on. By doing this, the coachee is already modeling the fact that improvement is “the name of the game” and that he or she is open to the input from the coach.
- An individual can actually collect responses or ideas on what he or she could adopt as a new approach or behavior in the future from one coach (who offers several ideas one at a time) or from several different people if he or she wishes.
Offering feedback is an important part of how any coach communicates with a coachee. However, by adding the “feed-forward” approach, as described above, we can often more readily help an individual to open up new possibilities for the future.