I often meet new coaches who are excited about getting started with clients and wondering how they will know if they are doing a good job or not. They, like me, are wanting to be the best coach they can be for our clients. To access such information requires asking the client for feedback, a topic not always included in coach training and one of the things that many new coaches struggle with.
It has taken me a bit of trial and error to find ways to get this vital information on how clients are progressing and the usefulness and effectiveness of my own behaviour and coaching style. In particular, it has taken an awareness of my own responses to giving and receiving feedback.
Experienced coaches will no doubt be familiar with the value of asking for and being open to receiving feedback from their clients. While this article is mainly directed towards coaches setting out on their journey, old hands with a deal of experience will hopefully also find these thoughts useful as they reflect on their own practices.
Let’s begin exploring what I have learned about asking for feedback from clients.
My coaching journey - what has changed for me?
When I started coaching as an internal coach with a full time day job I had the opportunity to coach a few colleagues across the company, I used to look forward to the results of the post coaching feedback questionnaire. It took a few months to arrive as there needed to be three different coachee responses to maintain anonymity. The report would arrive and I would find out how the three clients had rated:
- The effectiveness of the coaching (1-5) and
- The quality of the coach (1-5), and
- To what extent their goals were met (1-5), and then
- Any comment they had written. “Doug was great”, “the coaching helped me to be better at …”,
After a while it dawned on me that while this was nice and gave me a warm feeling of doing a good job, it didn’t really tell me anything about what I was actually doing. I also realised that I was waiting a long time after the event to get this feedback, and that some of my clients did not complete the questionnaire and so I had no idea what they thought and I assumed the worst. I also worried a lot about what a score of less than 5 meant and assumed that I had failed in some way.
Not very satisfactory, and certainly not useful for my learning and developing as a coach. How could I fill this gap? Obviously I could ask the clients for feedback directly.
And yet, I was not!
What was stopping me? When I thought about it there were lots of barriers and limiting beliefs going through my head about asking for feedback:
- Do I really need it – I can tell that it is working – can’t I?
- Fear of what they might say – what if I’m not very good?
- What if they are wrong? I’ll need to put them right and that could result in an argument.
- They may not be honest with me – especially if its negative feedback – we don’t do negative feedback around here!
- If they do tell me it will just reinforce what I already know I’m bad at – do I really want to know that?
- It will feel a bit embarrassing hearing that I did something really well
- They might not be good at giving feedback or used to being asked – that could be awkward.
And when I thought about how felt when I was asked for feedback I realised that:
- I was often anxious about the response I would get – would it start a fight or an argument in which I would need to defend my feedback
- What if I’ve got it wrong – how embarrassing that would be!
- I felt horrible when I’ve been told I’m not good at something before – I don’t want to impose that on others
Then it struck me … my relationship with giving and receiving feedback was largely driven by my experiences of being judged when receiving feedback. I’m sure I am not alone here. It was around this time that I was introduced to David Kolb's experiential learning theory (ELT) (1984) in a group supervision session and feedback really started to make sense.
My relationship with feedback is now very different. Feedback is critical to my learning, so I do ask for it regularly and I offer it regularly. The biggest shift for me is that feedback is just data, it may feel like a judgement of me at times, yet it is just data that feeds my learning and development.
Why receiving feedback as a coach is important?
As a coach, I want to learn from my clients experience of being coached by me and so I want to know when I am doing a good job for my client and when less so. One of the best ways to find out is through feedback.
- Feedback on progress towards their stated goals.
- Feedback on what I am doing that is proving useful to them.
- Feedback on what is not working so well and is getting in the way of trust and creating the space for them to really think and change.
All these aspects are important for me to know how effective the coaching has been and how to make it as effective as we can from here onwards. Asking for such feedback gives me information and also raises my client’s awareness of what is going on for them. Without feedback I have only my instincts and assumptions about whether the work is on track, and my client having a useful experience.
Experience has told me that I can be wrong in my assumptions about progress! For e.g. I have commented to a client that I was sorry the progress is so slow, only to be told they were feeling so much clearer and further on than they could have believed possible. I’ve also had that cold water feeling when a session I thought was going well, turned out to be heading in completely the wrong direction for the client. The feedback woke me up to the fact that I had got caught in an aspect of their story that was of great interest to me at the expense of where they wanted to focus!
What does useful feedback look like?
Over many years as an employee and as a line manager my observation is that the art of effective feedback is poorly understood and poorly practiced. For feedback to be useful to me, whatever role I am in, it needs to be:
- Honest, and
- Focused on my behaviours and impact on the client.
Timely feedback is really important, particularly when things I am doing are not working so well for the client, allows me to respond immediately and adjust my behaviour to something more useful. Much better than finding out at the end of a 6 session assignment that I was not challenging enough throughout the last 6 months! It’s too late to change.
Specificity takes us to the key value of the feedback. If I ask “please give me some feedback on my coaching?” I may be told that “it was brilliant” or “it really worked” or that my client “loved the session”. My ego can bask in such praise. However this feedback is not helping me to be a better coach. It's much more useful to know what it was I did specifically that made that session really useful for the client. By asking specific questions I can get specific feedback. So I may ask
- “What did I do that was most useful for you today?” or
- “What did I do that was not so useful to you today?” or
- “Where have you have got to so far with respect to your first goal?”
Specificity allows me to take risks and know that I can adjust quickly. For example, if a client has asked to be very challenging in today’s session, I can, ask them what that means – maybe scale it compared to my normal level of challenge (from 1-10).
As the session progresses, I will ask how challenging they are finding me so far. We can use the scale again to describe the level of challenge and I can compare what it feels like to me with what it feels like for them. I can ask what I can do to close any gap between where we are now and where they want me to be. All useful data that informs my style in that session.
Honesty needs to be encouraged for feedback to hone learning. Feedback thought by the giver to be critical or negative, may feel very awkward or hurtful to give. It may feel easier to say “it was ok”, or “it was good” to save the feeling of the coach when in fact the session wasn't very productive or the coach’s particular style wasn't very useful or the client felt rubbed up the wrong way.
This fear of being honest is particularly unhelpful to me and my client as I will be unaware that my behaviour is not helping them and I am very likely to carry on being unhelpful. Dissatisfaction in my client may result, at best, in them making less progress than they could and, at worst, them leaving the relationship feeling deeply unhappy with me and unfulfilled in themselves.
This is why it is really important to create the conditions in which the client can share what is not working for them honestly, and know that their feedback is welcomed by me as valuable insight. A client who believes that they will need to justify any negative feedback is less likely to offer it. So I work hard to be remain open minded and non-judgemental of all the feedback I am offered.
I can choose how I hear it, and I choose to hear it as data to reflect on and not as a judgement of me.
By asking for specific information, I can focus the feedback on what I did or did not do. This helps the client to offer feedback on my behaviour rather than on me as a person or coach.
By focussing my behaviour, there is a greater chance of receiving useful data that I can do something with as part of my learning and development. Let me share another example. Feedback presented as a compliment e.g. you are brilliant coach or an attack e.g. you are a useless coach is focused on who I am. These examples are respectively nice and painful but both are unhelpful if I want to develop as a coach. And while these statements may both be hard to hear, they hint at some potentially useful data that a follow up question may elicit.
- “What is it that made my coaching brilliant for you?”
- "What was it about my coaching that you found useless?”
By treating these statements as data rather than good or bad judgements of me, I can allow myself the space to ask about my behaviour and its impact that lie behind either statement.
Knowing the impact of my behaviour in a timely fashion is much easier to hear, learn from and to do something about. It is relatively easy for me to change my behaviour when I know what to change. So a little education of my client on how to provide me with the feedback I need may be a good investment for us both. An added bonus may be that we are creating a positive experience for my client as they enjoy a safe place to learn and practice offering effective feedback and discovering that it is welcomed.
When to ask for feedback.
For sure, there are lots of opportunities to ask for feedback.
I was taught to check-in on progress during each coaching session, around half way through or more frequently in longer sessions. The check-in asks the client for feedback on progress so far towards the stated goal of the session and allows for adjustment of direction as necessary.
I often ask “where are you now in relation to the goal?” or “are we still on track?” to find out what the client is thinking. A positive response allows me to proceed in confidence, a negative response allows adjustment in direction and ask about where the client wants to focus for the remainder of the session. This is also an opportunity to ask if what I am doing is useful and what could be more useful.
The end of the session is an obvious time to ask about where the client has reached in the session, what has changed for them, what they are taking away, what they are learning about themselves and how that will be useful elsewhere in their lives. This is both useful feedback and leaves the accountability for determining progress and learning in the hands of the client. My focus at the end of the session tends to be on the clients progress rather than on what I did so that they leave with their attention on themselves and their action plan.
A review of progress towards the overall goals for the coaching assignment half way through a series of sessions (say end of 3rd or beginning of 4th session out of 6 sessions) is good practice and is another opportunity to reflect on what you did that was useful and not so useful.
And of course reviewing progress at the end of the assignment gives the coach feedback on the effectiveness of the relationship. I use a short questionnaire at the end of the assignment to gather feedback on progress towards goals, changes the client has noticed, learnings and feedback on what I did that was effective and what could have been more effective for the client. This is a useful prompt for the end of session conversation and gets the client thinking about the resources they are taking inti the future. I’m noticing that when I have been active in seeking feedback throughout, throws up very few surprises.
There are opportunities to get feedback on what you are doing throughout the lifetime of the coaching relationship. All you have to do is ask.
Contracting for Feedback
I contract with my clients at the outset of the coaching relationship about how we will work together. Part of this psychological contract is about feedback.
I usually start by asking about their own experience and relationship with feedback. I will be asking for, especially feedback on how what I am doing is impacting them and their thinking.
Exploring with them how they would like me to share my observations of their behaviour, body language, stories, and any apparent contradictions with them is a good segue into asking them for feedback and explaining what makes it important to me and that I want it “warts and all”.
Talking frankly and honestly about what could go wrong and what we will do when it does – through feedback- is part of creating an equal partnership of peers in which anything can be raised.
By setting the expectations of feedback to each other, I feel free to experiment and to seek instant feedback. This in turn allows me to be more risk taking, knowing that I can readjust quickly if it is not working for the client.
The art of asking for useful and effective feedback feeds my development as a coach. To become the best coach I can be for each and every one of my clients I need timely, honest, specific feedback that focuses on my behaviour and its impact.
Including feedback in the psychological contract at the outset of the relationship is one of the stepping stones towards the trusting equal partnership I want to create with my clients.
Asking for and receiving feedback as data feeds my professional learning and development. There are many opportunities for seeking feedback that enhances the quality of the coaching for me and my clients.
So let me leave you with some questions to reflect on…
- So what is your relationship with Feedback?
- What are you doing to get more of it?
- What are you hearing when you get it?
- How are you using it to learn and develop your coaching approach?
David Kolb 1984, Experiential Learning: Experience As The Source Of Learning And Development. Pearson Education Ltd.