Communication skills exercises, part VI: feedforward

August 2, 2011 by Joshua
in Blog, Education, Freedom, Tips

[This post is part of a series on Communication Skills Exercises for Business and Life. If you don’t see a Table of Contents to the left, click here to view the series, where you’ll get more value than reading just this post.]

Do you wish you could get the best advice for you, tailored perfectly to you, at the time you wanted it? This exercise gives you that, in a conversational way that helps build relationships too.

The technique, called feedforward, comes from Marshall Goldsmith — master author, executive coach, and happy, friendly guy. My advice is when his advice applies, use it. His two most recent books, Mojo and What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, were best sellers. He was ranked the 14th most important thinker in business.

His personal web page offers tons of free resources. One, feedforward, stands out as useful for anyone and everyone at virtually any time.

His page on feedforward gives all the instructions on how to do it and reasons it works you need. The video below adds more.


I’ll note two reasons (out of his eleven) that stand out particularly for me.

Feedback from others is important for improving yourself. For all it helps, feedback has two main shortcomings. It is only about the past, which you can’t change, and people don’t like to give or receive feedback that could be hurtful. If I ask you for feedback on my presentation and you say three positive things, I don’t know if you had nothing negative to say or you just avoided saying things you thought I might not want to hear.

Feedforward is structured to give you the help you need to improve yourself without hitting the pitfalls feedback does — all the benefit and none of the problems. And you can implement it in a few minutes.

The exercise

Marshall’s page has the full script for feedforward. My abbreviated script is

  1. Identify something behavior related you want to improve — e.g., public speaking.
  2. Identify a person who can help and why they would be helpful — e.g., the person has observed you and others speaking in public.
  3. Say to him or her: “I’d like to improve my public speaking. You’ve seen me present and others who are great. Can you give me two or three things that could help?”
  4. Write them down. Clarify if necessary. Do not evaluate.
  5. “Thank you”
  6. Optional: ask for accountability.

Steps 1 and 2 are preparatory and you do them on your own. You can pick anything about yourself you want to improve — being on time, sleeping better, reading faster, losing weight, quitting smoking, saving more money, whatever.

Your area of improvement will determine whom to ask. The other person could be someone close to you, whom you trust, a random stranger, a family member, an old teacher, a colleague, your manager, your child, or anyone. You’re only asking a few minutes of their time to give advice, which people enjoy.

Note that the exercise is precise. Unlike the storytelling or meaning connection exercises, where embellishing and following tangents contributes, feedforward doesn’t benefit from deviating from the script.

In particular, steps 4 and 5 avoid judgment. People rarely like being evaluated, especially on a favor they are doing for you. If you say “That’s a great idea” or “Oh, I don’t like that idea,” they’ll recoil from giving you any more ideas. Even if you evaluate one positively, you still implicitly evaluate others negatively.

In step 3 you avoid judgment from them as well. If you phrase your question to be about the past, people will evaluate your past, which is not as helpful as suggestions to improve your future. One great thing about this exercise is that you end up getting the value of the feedback without the discomfort. When I ask people for feedforward about public speaking and three people tell me I should use humor more, I can figure out they don’t think I’m funny, even though they would not likely have told me had I asked.

Asking clarification helps, as does taking notes. Giving them attention and appreciation motivates them to help people in the future, possibly yourself.

Follow up

Step 6 can be the most important and enduring step. Accountability is how things get done. If someone gives you advice you want to follow, you will increase your likelihood of doing it as well as the quality of your work by asking if you can follow up with them.

For example, if you asked for advice on public speaking and they suggest speaking every chance you get from making a toast at dinner to someone’s eulogy, you might say “Thank you, I would like to follow that advice. I figure I’ll have a couple chances to speak per week. Would it be okay with you if I check in once a week for a few weeks to make sure I’m following your advice? A phone call or email once a week is all I’m asking, though I’d welcome more advice on how I’m doing it.”

Notice I’m not suggesting saying it’s a good or bad idea, which would be evaluative and risk discouraging them.

You will know or can figure out with the other person how to follow up — how frequent, how to interact, for how long, etc.

Finally, this exercise works great in the middle of conflict. Nothing disarms someone mid-argument like saying “I hear what you’re saying. I’d like to improve on that. Can you give me a couple ways I could improve?” Without accusing or admitting right, wrong, good, bad, or evil, you move the argument from evaluating the past to improving the future. You’re listening to them and asking for advice. You are creating a foundation for future change.

You, right here, right now

I recommend starting by watching Marshall’s video and reading his feedforward page for more background. Then start thinking of something you want to improve (step 1) and do your first feedforward.

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