In the first instalment, I explained that the four cornerstones of effective feedback spell the word FAST. The first cornerstone was that all feedback should be ‘From the Heart’. In this second offering, I will explain the second cornerstone.
Cornerstone Two: Actionable Feedback
If feedback is not actionable, it is worthless. If it does not present the recipient with a specific course of action that will yield growth, development and new ideas, we must seriously question why it is being given.
We are all limited people. 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 and this is what worked for me to move things forward. 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 are 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.
Consider this hypothetical example: a husband walks through the door after a long day at work. He asks his wife how her day has been. Her reply is as follows:
‘The kids have been a nightmare, the dishes haven’t been done and the rubbish still needs taking out. Nobody is helping me’.
This is feedback, sure, but it shows no empathy for the other party and doesn’t offer the husband a chance to act. Yet we do this all the time; we complain and criticise and don’t give anyone else the time or inclination to help us.
Consider a second reply in the same situation:
‘Today has been difficult. The children have been challenging and I’m struggling to stay on top of the housework. I appreciate you’ve had a really busy day, but please would you be able to help me by taking out the rubbish and washing the dishes when you get a moment?’
That took a few seconds extra to say, but the difference is profound. Sensitivity has been shown to the other individual’s situation but there has been a specific request made. The husband now knows he is not to blame and knows exactly how to provide support.
In all our interactions and all our feedback, let us remember to be kind and empathetic. Let us also remember that all suggestions given should be actionable, for it is through acting upon feedback that transformation happens and we get closer to where we want to be.