Feedback is a conundrum and a contradiction. It is absolutely necessary for growth, yet it triggers the threat-based pathways in the brain that prevent acquisition and deep learning. Particularly feedback done poorly.
Those of you who know me know that I love David Rock’s SCARF model - Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. These are the five elements or ‘channels’ of social engagement that drive threat and reward responses in the brain, and, as it turns out, feedback can trigger a threat response in all five of these channels.
Threat in the brain is not all bad however, there is a growing appreciation and permission for safe levels of discomfort, for deep learning needs some level of difficulty and effort for the brain to respond with resources to the learning moment.
The gift of feedback is dependent on its delivery. Done well, feedback provides impetus for learning and purposeful motivation for forward action. Too often, feedback is made’ palatable’ through the agency of the ‘crap sandwich’: say something nice to prepare the person, give the feedback, then finish with another positive statement to soften the blow. We avoid discomfort, for the recipient and ourselves’, and in so doing, trade away any chance for deep learning or purposeful motivation.
A single, simple question can help you: “What are your thoughts?”
The beauty and elegance of this question lies in its invitation to consider, to reflect, to integrate the key observation being fed back. This invitation provides layers of brain reward through Status (you are important to me), Certainty (through the recipient processing the feedback), Autonomy (as the recipient has the opportunity to respond), Relatedness (we are actually in a conversation together) and Fairness (the recipient has the opportunity to respond).
Imagine that you have successfully opened up a feedback conversation with a colleague (more on that in the next post), and that you are now at the point of landing the feedback:
“Anthony, I noticed that, for this presentation, you seemed under-prepared. What are your thoughts?”
The language is very deliberate. It gives space for interpretation, refection and integration. It is not perfect, never intending to be the silver bullet of delivering feedback. Yet it does increase the chances that the feedback will be considered and used for the recipient’s growth. Moreover, it works in any context. It is powerful language for classroom teaching to promote metacognition in students, and, as a parent, I use this question regularly.
So, what are your thoughts? What might be your magic question that works well in conversations that matter?