It’s a common myth that the way to improve in anything is through consistent, diligent practice. When I studied piano as a child, my mom used to say “practice makes perfect.”
This is not true.
Practice alone reinforces whatever is practiced; it creates habits, not improvement. If you practice with bad form, you’ll habituate to bad form.
To improve, we need both practice and feedback. Specifically, we need effective feedback. Here are five elements for what makes feedback most effective.
Five Elements of Effective Feedback
The best feedback is objective; it comes from someone who is observing and not participating. This may sound obvious, but it often isn’t applied in training situations.
Many training programs use self-assessments and partner work as forms of feedback. Self-assessments can be useful to improvement by helping us create awareness of our progress and limitations, but it’s not feedback.
Partner feedback can be effective for skills that are done alone. For example, a writing buddy can provide objective feedback after reading your work.
In any context in which the skill you wish to improve is conversational, such as coaching, sales, or negotiation, feedback from a practice buddy or partner may be helpful, but it is not objective and not effective to improving skills.
The most effective feedback comes from a neutral, objective witness who has no stake in the outcome.
To help someone improve, the feedback must be focused on things that the person can do to make improvements. This sounds obvious, until you pause to observe and listen to the feedback that most people give. Most feedback tells people what they did wrong, or what not to do.
Sometimes feedback will include what a person did well. This is nice, and it helps build confidence. But it won’t help a person improve.
To help someone improve, you must tell a person what to do differently. You also must tell and show them how to do it.
When I’m taking a yoga class, I appreciate teachers who give hands-on assists. The hands-on assist helps me feel how my body needs to adjust; the teacher can physically guide my body into the right position. When my trainer puts his foot under my heel to keep my heel off the ground in an extended lunge stretch, it helps my body adjust to the right position.
If you’re teaching any type of physical skill, it generally helps to offer hands-on assists. That might mean guiding a child’s hands as she ties her own shoelaces, or learns how to hold a fork.
In other contexts, it might entail talking the person step-by-step through the task, or doing it alongside them.
A big mistake people make in giving feedback is offering too much at once. When you give too much feedback at once, you make it difficult for the other person to take action.
The road to lasting improvement happens gradually, with one small change at a time. You will help your client improve fastest by pacing your feedback.
Pick your priorities. Depending on the situation, you might start with the most important thing to change first, the easiest thing to change, or the change that will yield the biggest results.
This is another one that sounds obvious but isn’t always done in practice. If you want to help someone improve, your feedback should be encouraging.
When you reinforce what the person is already doing well, you help that person build confidence and resilience that will keep her going even when she stumbles. Armed with that confidence, she is more likely to stretch to improve her skills. When we feel good about what we’re doing, we are more receptive to hearing about the places where we need to make changes to improve.
This is not an exhaustive list. I’d love to hear from you: what are other elements of effective feedback? Please share in the comments.