How to Master the Art of Learning and Practising Feedback
Updated: Apr 3, 2019
As we covered in blogs one and two, being great at giving and receiving feedback speeds your development, accelerates the development of the people you interact with, and builds trust in all those relationships. This will cause you to be more influential with others (whether those others are across the C-suite or around the dinner table).
So now you have read our first two blogs, you are dramatically better at giving and receiving feedback, right? Not so fast. Unfortunately, internalising something cognitively is not the same as mastering it as a behaviour. The intent with this third blog is to clarify that difference and provide you with a road-map for improving your feedback in practice.
Feedback and tennis
Surprisingly, mastering feedback has much more in common with mastering a sport, like tennis, than it does with mastering accounting, marketing or strategy. Accounting, marketing and strategy are cognitive activities, success at them is based on what you know.
Feedback is not like that. It is less about what you know and more about who you are being and what you are doing in any interaction.
Three domains of development
When it comes to developing behaviours, there are actually three distinct domains, or separate areas, to pay attention to: knowing, doing and being.
Knowing is what I have cognitively learned.
Doing is the specific behaviour(s) I am engaging in.
Being is how I am engaging in those behaviours right now.
It is important to understand that not paying attention to all three domains of development can lead to performance gaps.
1. Knowing-doing gap
The knowing-doing gap is where there is a disconnect between what we know is best practice, and what we actually do in our interactions. For example, when someone gives you feedback, you understand that you should engage in active listening but what you actually do is argue back.
2. Doing-being gap
The doing-being gap is where you have built the skills to engage in productive feedback behaviours but you are not being your best self while engaging in those behaviours. Experiencing someone as having a doing-being gap will cause you to question their authenticity. At its core, in-authenticity is a dissonance between who you are being and what you are doing in any interaction. The most common causes of this are being rushed, distracted or cranky. Eliminating this dissonance by ensuring you come into an interaction present, focused and open will make it much more likely the other person experiences you as authentic, which builds trust.
It is also important to understand that the domains of knowing, doing and being are not equally important for mastering feedback. In any interaction with someone, who you are being will have the greatest influence on the impression you create, what you do will have the second greatest influence, and what you know will have the least influence.
Our bias for cognition
Smart people, however, are much more comfortable being in cognition: thinking, talking, discussing than they are in doing: practice and feedback. Being in cognition plays to their greatest strength: superior mental processing.
And that is a major reason why many feedback development initiatives fail. They take a cognitive approach: reading, talking, discussing. You cannot become better at feedback from a lecture, a case study, a TED talk or a book.
Four stages of learning
It can be useful to think about the four stages of learning:
For most skills we start off at the bottom of the ladder as unconsciously incompetent (UI), we do not know what we do not know. This is also known as blissful ignorance! Then we become aware of a skill deficit, becoming consciously incompetent (CI). With practice and feedback, practice and feedback we can become consciously competent (CC), able to summon effective behaviours when we focus on doing so. Continued persistence with practice enables us to ultimately achieve unconscious competence (UC), or mastery, proficient performance without needing to deliberately think about it.
The important thing to understand about this model is that for a behavioural skill, like feedback, knowing will only ever get us to conscious incompetence. It is the very process of practice and feedback that are the access to proficiency at feedback, whether conscious or unconscious.
So what does that mean for our blog series? Is it important to start with an understanding of best practice giving and receiving feedback at the start of the journey? Yes, absolutely. Is that sufficient? Absolutely not.
Going back to our tennis analogy, you can certainly learn things about tennis from a video or a blog: rules, strategies, techniques. But you can only become a competent tennis player by actually being on the court doing drills: breaking the game down into its component elements, running repeated reps, with real time feedback, away from a competitive match situation.
Learning feedback is the same: isolating key skills, repeated practice, continuous feedback, away from the match pressure of the office.
So, what is next? Start by enlisting someone you trust (or more than one person) who gets to see you in interactions. Share these blogs with them and get their commitment to be your feedback partner (ideally you can be each other’s coach). Now you can hold each other accountable for the behaviours we have talked about here. Rather than try to do everything at once, you may find it more manageable to start with one skill at a time.
In which order should you practice each skill?
In terms of building your skills over time, our recommendation would be to work on mastering the skills we’ve identified in the following order:
1a. Active listening (doing) – are you doing it technically correctly?
1b. Active listening (being) – are you present, focused and open?
We would recommend that you break each subsequent skill into those two parts: are you doing it correctly and then are you being effective while doing it?
2. Recognition feedback
3. Receiving feedback
4. Improvement feedback
5. Agreeing expectations
Reps within reps
Remember, while you may be coaching each other one skill at a time, you will likely be practicing giving recognition feedback, giving improvement feedback, active listening and receiving feedback each time you share observations. This is a perfect opportunity to give feedback on feedback, engaging in additional reps, circles within circles.
Like tennis, the rate of development is determined in large part by the number of reps, frequency of sessions and quality of feedback. Embrace the practice!
Also remember, irrespective of how close and trusting your relationship with your feedback partner is, this is the start of a new learning journey together. And as you have learned from blog 2, your most important tool at the start of a relationship is recognition feedback. Get great at noticing your feedback partner’s excellent performance at these skills, and then recognise it consistently and authentically.
Blogs one and two of this series equip you with what you need to know to be great at feedback. But getting great at feedback requires practice and feedback. This blog lays out a process for getting exactly that and combining the knowing, doing and being.
You have the opportunity to transform your feedback effectiveness: speeding your development, accelerating the development of the people you interact with, and building trust in all those relationships, making you more influential with others. Whether those others are across the C-suite or around the dinner table. The only question now is will you take up the challenge?