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Coaching Toolkit: The Art of Feedback

My instinct when I started out mentoring and coaching was to solve people’s problems.

I wanted those that I mentored and coached to use my solutions to overcome the problems they were dealing with and avoid the problems they didn’t yet see coming. I, like many coaches, wanted them to see how smart I am. Honestly, I wanted their adoration.

At the core, it was about me.

I offered unsolicited feedback. I imposed my solutions and resisted any doubt. I’d like to think I’ve gotten better.

Over time, I came to realize how effective feedback actually works. The spirit of effective coaching can be found in just two questions.

Solicitation & Consent

3 children in white and blue shirts

When someone hires a coach (or agrees to be mentored), they are stating an interest in being helped.

This is where many coaches get tripped up.

Many coaches, especially early on, will take the acquisition of a new client as the green light to give advice and feedback on virtually anything that comes up in their work together. What’s important to note is that, unless specifically stated, the act of hiring a coach or finding a mentor is not a blanket universal acceptance of terms. The limits of where a coach should provide feedback are defined by what a client has specifically consented to. This boundary is not only what is arguably the ethical thing to do, but it’s also the most effective method.

How often in your own life have you been receptive to unsolicited feedback?

Exactly, not too often.

This is not to say that people are unwilling to hear advice or feedback that is uncomfortable. It’s that people want that type of advice to be on their terms. They want to be mentally prepared for it. They want to choose who they are willing to hear it from.

So, as a coach, you should only give feedback and advice when you have explicit consent to do so.

There are three ways this can happen:

  • Your client gives you carte blanche to give feedback on anything and everything at the start of your work together.
  • Your client asks you for feedback on a particular issue.
  • You ask your client for permission to give feedback.

If you find yourself about to engage in unsolicited feedback, pause, and then ask this question instead.

“Would you like my feedback about X?”

It may be helpful to add the following…

“As a reminder it is perfectly acceptable for you to say no when I ask if you want my feedback. My coaching is always on your terms.”

If they say yes, they are going to be more receptive to your feedback, especially if you have done the work to ensure that they know your commitment to their growth and success. Once you’ve done that, the only thing left to do is frame any negative feedback with kindness.


macro photography of sea wave during daytime

The second type of feedback is one that many coaches may not learn to use until very late in their career as they still assume that they need to earn their fee through giving advice and council. I’ll use myself as an example to illustrate the point I’m about to make.

Here are some things that I know about myself…

  • I can be overpowering, dominating, and controlling.
  • I have difficulty with my attention causing me to occasionally become sporadic with my work output.
  • I talk fast, I think fast, I move fast…and it’s often too fast for many people.
  • I engage in hardcore “info dumping” which is something that people with varying degrees of ADHD and/or autism do where they may uncontrollably explain absolutely everything they know about a subject without context, paraphrasing, or summarization.
  • I get overly excited and talk over people.
  • …the list goes on.

There is so much that I don’t know about myself or how I occur to other people, but if someone told me any of these things, I would already know it.

So, where am I going with this?

I have often found that much of my best coaching wasn’t from something that I pointed out, but from letting my client coach themselves about something they already knew about themselves.

It goes something like this:

Client: “What do you think about how I handled X?”

Me: “I’ll tell you what I think in a moment, but let’s start here, what did YOU think about how you handled X?”

The client then, typically, goes on to show an amazing level of self-awareness about their strengths and flaws, while simultaneously giving me more information that I can use as a coach to help them.

My job isn’t to tell my clients what they already know. It’s to help them work through what they already know and help them see the things that they don’t yet know.

The Two Kinds of Feedback

There’s the feedback that the client expressly asks for, and the feedback they already know and expect.

If you want to serve your clients, only give them what they need by letting them tell you what they already know and then getting their consent to tell them what they don’t.

I told you at the beginning of this post that the spirit of effective coaching can be found in just two questions. Here they are:

  • What do YOU think?
  • Do I have your permission to tell you what I think?
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