A simple, effective strategy for improving yourself — probably the best I know, and it’s totally free: Feedforward
[This post is part of a series on Mental models and beliefs: an exercise to identify yours. 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.]
What if I told you the best way for you to improve yourself takes two minutes, costs nothing, and people will feel honored and flattered to help you with it? And you can do it anytime. Sound too good to be true?
Oh, and make sure you get to the section on when I use it for how using it can help in your most important relationships at the most important times.
Have you noticed the one person you can never see from another perspective is yourself? Yet you’re the one you most wish you could see from another perspective than your own. After all, everybody else sees you from another perspective.
If you want to improve your life, getting others’ perspective is indispensable. Most people get feedback. At work they get reviews from their managers. In sports their coaches give them feedback. They ask friends how they did at something.
As much as feedback helps, it has limits. Fundamentally it evaluates the past.
When you ask someone to evaluate, you always create communication issues. People often hold back sharing information they think you won’t like hearing or might react in a way they might not like. If you ask someone how you did on a project and they say “You did part X great, part Y great, and part Z great” does that mean you didn’t do anything badly or just that they didn’t want to tell you the parts you did poorly? You’ll never know, not because they aren’t a great friend, but because of inherent issues with communicating evaluation.
When you ask about the past, you’re asking about something you can’t change. If you want to improve, you have to translate information about the past into something you can do now.
Today’s model and strategy show how to get the information and advice you want without the baggage of feedback. I wrote about it before in the context of my communications and social skills series and recommend it for all my clients and students.
Strategy for improving yourself: Feedforward
The term feedforward is a pun on feedback because it looks forward instead of backward. Feedforward is a simple, two-minute practice that can get you more useful information than feedback. I’ll give some background, then write the practice in a simple script.
The technique comes from Marshall Goldsmith — author and executive coach. 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.
His page on feedforward gives all the instructions on how to do it and reasons it works you need. The video below adds more.
Marshall’s page has the full script for feedforward. I teach an abbreviated one.
- Identify something behavior related you want to improve, e.g., public speaking.
- Identify a person who can help and why they would be helpful, e.g., the person has observed you and others speaking in public.
- 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?”
- Write them down. Clarify if necessary. Do not evaluate.
- Say “Thank you”
- Optional: ask for accountability.
Steps 1 and 2 are preparatory and you do them on your own before approaching others. 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. If you want to improve something at work you might ask colleagues or a mentor. If you want to lose weight it might be someone you know who lost weight. If you want to improve your relations with a family member you might ask another family member or someone you know with great family relations. If you want to improve your first impressions you could ask random strangers on the street. You’re only asking a couple minutes of their time.
By the way, the person you ask the advice from will feel like you consider them an expert. People usually feel honored and flattered when asked feedforward. Notice you don’t have to tell them you’re doing feedforward. They just feel like you considered them important enough to ask their advice.
Note that the wording of the exercise is precise. Marshall cut out many things people say that would hurt the exercise and included only what’s necessary. Unlike the storytelling or meaningful connection exercises, where embellishing and following tangents contributes, feedforward doesn’t benefit from deviating from the script. If your change adds judgment, which I see happen often when people first practice feedforward, you’ll hurt its effectiveness.
In particular, he wrote steps 4 and 5 to avoid you expressing judgment of what they say because judging discourages their open communication. People rarely like being evaluated, especially on a favor they are doing for you. Saying “That’s a great idea” or “Oh, I don’t like that idea,” no matter how well-meaning or inadvertent, discourages them from giving you more ideas or sharing ideas openly. Even if you evaluate one positively to be nice, you implicitly evaluate others negatively.
He wrote step 3 to ask for advice, not evaluation or judgment. If you phrase your question to be about the past, people will evaluate your past, which creates the problems I noted at the top of this post. Marshall’s wording gets past that. The most common mistake I see people make is to rephrase step 3 to include something like “can you tell me how I do now,” prompting judgment, thereby discouraging openness and asking about the past.
This exercise done properly gets the value of the feedback without its discomfort or holding back. If 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 for feedback almost never gets you that kind of information, often the most useful.
Asking clarification helps, as does taking notes. Giving them attention and appreciation motivates them to help people in the future, possibly yourself.
Step 6 can make the difference between just hearing advice and doing it. Most of us do what we’re accountable to someone else for. If someone gives you advice you want to follow, accountability will increase your likelihood of doing it and the quality of your work.
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 don’t suggest saying it’s a good or bad idea, which would be evaluative and risk discouraging them from helping.
You will know or can figure out with the other person how to follow up — how frequent, how to interact, for how long, etc.
When I use these beliefs and strategies
I use the beliefs underlying feedforward any time I want to improve something about my behavior or another person’s perspective on my behavior.
Since asking feedforward makes people feel honored and flattered, and because it gives me useful, or at worst, neutral, advice, I often use feedforward when I meet people, just as regular conversation. If I meet someone knowledgeable in a field I’m curious about, I’ll ask them feedforward about something. Or if they work in an area I want to move into, I find it opens them up and gets them talking. If you meet someone at a company you want to work at, try using feedforward before asking them if the company is hiring.
Following up my teaser at the top of this post, feedforward helps in arguments, especially with loved ones or other intensely emotional situations. When someone is yelling at you for something they think you did wrong, it’s incredibly disarming to respond with
I’d like to improve that. Can you suggest how I can do it better?
By the way, I use the word disarming deliberately. Fights, especially with loved ones, get people to arm themselves — to create verbal weapons to attack each other — which provoke defenses, which gets people to stick with their positions. Disarming means taking away weapons, which allows people to lower defenses, which allows them and you to move and change.
Note feedforward doesn’t require anyone to admit wrongdoing, nor does it accuse anyone of wrongdoing, demand apology, or anything judgmental. It merely asks advice from someone who wants to tell you something and feel heard.
I should note that in my experience using feedforward in times of intense emotions, sometimes I have to politely repeat the requests for suggestions because people don’t often get that you’re really simply asking for their advice. Stick with it. It works.
What these beliefs replace
Feedforward and its underlying beliefs replace shutting people down by asking them to judge you and getting information you can’t use about the past.
In arguments, feedforward replaces trying to convince others about how right you were or listening to them tell you how right they were with giving them a chance to voice what they want to see in the future.
Feedforward replaces judgment with useful advice.
Where these beliefs lead
Feedforward and its underlying beliefs lead to productive direction and change.
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