Empathetic Feedback: Using Coaching Skills in Your Relationships

Delivering feedback to others is one of our most challenging tasks, both at home and in the workplace. Here’s how to do it well using the tools of coaching.

Using Coaching Skills in Your Relationships

When it comes to giving feedback, we do things a little differently here at Lumia HQ. Over time we've developed a process that is really effective, and would like to share it because we believe it can be really helpful in many situations where feedback is required.  

What kind of feedback, you may ask?

We are not talking about day in and day out conversations. We’re specifically focused here on the type of feedback that is required in order for another person to gain awareness that a behavior, lack of action, or an incident or pattern has created an impact that is harmful.  

Before we dive into the technique, there are some important things to address about the concept of “cause and effect” up front. It may seem like a simple idea for people to embrace awareness and course correct voluntarily, but that’s not the case for most of us. So let's start by taking a look at why feedback is so hard to deliver and receive. 

In reality, we live in a punitive society wherein all of us have been socialized to “do things the right way.” When there is a mistake or misstep, most of us have been socialized to expect punishment, admonishment, poor feelings, fear, or to possibly be ostracized from whatever group we are a part of.  

Unsurprisingly, a punitive approach is not a very productive way to help others learn, grow, and experience psychological safety. In order for learning and growth to actually occur, people need to know that they will always be treated fairly and with dignity. 

According to positive psychologist and author Todd Kashdan, psychological safety is 50% of the recipe that is required for innovation. The other 50% is represented by feelings of belonging.  

“Belonging” is nuanced

It includes factors such as: 

  • Knowing that your thoughts and ideas will be heard and considered
  • Having your contributions to any relationship respected
  • Being able to share aspects of your whole self and identity without fear of disapproval
  • Knowing that you will be treated with respect and dignity  

Today we're explicitly focused on that last element - respect and dignity - as central to the equation in Lumia’s feedback system.

We all make mistakes. We all have triggers. 

There are things that make all of us uncomfortable, and it is a universal human tendency to want to hide or avoid when we experience disappointment, fear or discomfort. 

Here’s what’s also true. What ultimately allows us to learn and grow is the experience of being part of a supportive environment or relationship; one that allows us to bravely push through discomfort to harness accountability and do things differently.  

This idea is implicit in coaching, and we take our own medicine at Lumia!

Since we are an evidence-based coach training institution, let’s dig into a little psycho-education to understand why having conversations like these are so gosh darn hard sometimes! 

The human mind in action

Our brain has three layers. As we evolved as humans, each layer grew on top of the other and each of these has distinct qualities. 

The most primitive layer of the brain is the reptilian complex. All of our instincts are located here - sleeping, eating, and fight or flight. This part of the brain is 500 million years old and governs binary drives, like avoiding danger in order to stay alive. 

Binary thinking (good/bad, dangerous/safe) is driven by the reptilian brain, and these drives move very fast.  This is known as “System 1 thinking” as it is fast, effortless, with no self-awareness, uncontrolled, and automatic  (Source: Unconscious Cognitive Biases in Our Coaching by Carlos Davidovich, ICF Career Coaching Community Practice - Producer, 2020.)

The second part of the brain is the limbic system where emotions are stored. This is known as our emotional headquarters, and it is where emotions are organized. We hold this layer in common with larger mammals, such as apes and horses. The limbic system is 200 million years old and also runs on the automatic response of System 1 thinking. 

For better or worse, this is the part of our brain that is running the show most of the time. As a species, we have not evolved enough to harness our awareness to make decisions regarding which part of our mind is most useful at any given time!

The neocortex is the newest part of the human brain. It is what we call the rational brain. This layer is 100 million years old, and has given our species the gift of System 2 thinking. System 2 is slow, effortful, uses awareness, controlled, and reflective.

As a species, System 1 thinking is not terribly useful for navigating the complexities of modern life. However, because system 2 thinking is new (relatively speaking) we have to work a lot harder to harness it.

At this point you might be asking yourself - what does brain science have to do with giving another person constructive feedback?  

EVERYTHING as it turns out!

Because System 1 is our dominant response system, the majority of people work off of their emotions and black and white thinking most of the time. Because let’s face it: we were trained for millions of years to act automatically in situations that we perceived as threatening. 

100 milliseconds or 0.1 seconds is the amount of time it takes to determine if something is a perceived threat. Because of System 1, our brain defines whether or not we feel safe very fast, and in an unconscious, automatic way.  

From an evolutionary perspective we learned that when we do things “right,” we are safe and if we are “wrong,” we are unsafe. (Source: Unconscious Cognitive Biases in Our Coaching by Carlos Davidovich, ICF Career Coaching Community Practice - Producer, 2020.)

So, if feedback around things that could be perceived as “doing wrong” is not handled with care, the person receiving that feedback could immediately feel as if they are not safe. Once this response is activated, it can be very difficult to have an effective conversation that supports all parties reach a place of true understanding. 

It is important to note that feelings are not a one way street.  Folks who have to deliver feedback can be triggered just as much by our ancient systems and patterns. 

Coaching to the rescue!

At its core, coaching is a communication methodology. What coaching does (and why we like it,) is to provide you with pacing and frameworks for communication so that you can ease into the benefits of psychological safety. It’s like bumpers for the bowling lanes of communication that flow through life.

When someone makes a mistake, there is an incident, or a harmful pattern is detected it is in everyone's best interest to bring the situation to light for support and course correction. 

Of course there is lots of nuance here too. Not all things are big enough to warrant a feedback session, and some things are too egregious to warrant an opportunity for correction. Use common sense and gauge if whatever it is will continue to cause harm if left unchecked.

So how do we do it?

Step 1

When you have detected a mistake, incident, or pattern that has created a negative impact, your first task is to empathy map the person who needs feedback.  

When we empathy map, we consider the employee in their full context:

  • How is this person doing generally as a whole person?
  • What has their life been like - have there been any major changes or stressors?
  • When information from a feedback session reaches this person, how will they feel?  What might they say or do? 

An empathy map gives you a chance to step into the shoes of the person who needs feedback for a moment and orient yourself to a place of concern for their wellbeing. 

For more on this topic, tune into our podcast episode: Empathy Mapping Technique for Life Coaches.

Step 2

Next you need to run your own empathy assessment and gather some factual data about your own expectations and assumptions.

  • What were you expecting to happen?
  • What happened instead?

Here it is very important to be absolutely factual about the information that you have. Be sure not to project. Stick to real examples that are based on your direct experience and observations. Separate facts from emotions.

In taking accountabilty for your assumptions and expectations, you're sharing the burden of responsibility with the other party. After you have done this, imagine what support might be needed to help the other person bridge the gap between your expectations and reality.

Step 3

Now it’s time to reach out to the person who needs feedback. At this stage, it is important to do your best to set up an environment of psychological safety.  

The person needs to know up front that a feedback session is being requested out of a desire for course correction and growth, and that they are not in trouble. 

Be clear that the purpose of the feedback is to draw awareness to a mistake, incident, or pattern so that everyone can course correct and grow. Mutual success and reassurance is the goal of the session! 

Step 4

Here’s a simple script of a message you can deliver to initiate the conversation.

  • We need to have a feedback session regarding X
  • The goal of this session is to create awareness about a gap in understanding or impact (or both)
  • I will provide a detailed rundown of exactly what will be discussed so that you can prepare ahead of time - you are not in trouble - my goal is to support you
  • Offer a few dates and times for the meeting

Step 5

Take the time to go through a preparation process. 24-48 hours in advance of the scheduled conversation, provide the other person with your empathy map. Ask them to come to the table prepared to offer additional information and solutions to help bridge the gap between your expectations and what has occurred.

Kindly and factually outline your perceived impact, and let the person know that even though there has been an impact, you are coming to the conversation with an assumption of goodwill. Close with a confirmation that the goal of the conversation is support for growth. 

It will be important to also source for how your person likes to receive information - are they visual or auditory? Voice memos work great for auditory learners.

Step 6

When it’s time to have the conversation, stick to the outline that was sent in advance. Focus the conversation on the following:

What you expected > what happened > ideas to close the gap

Invite the other person to provide additional information and ideas to close the gap. Co-jointly agree on a plan for course of action, and set a follow up to check in. 

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