The 5-Part Feedback Contract

By Tom Coble

A close friend joined me last summer on one of my multi-day river float trips. One of his main purposes for coming along was to learn how to be a better fly caster; he wanted me to help him accomplish that goal. What a sterling opportunity! What great potential for fun! What a terrific change to end a friendship.

Clearly, I would have to make him aware, through preparation and feedback, of the many points of performance to which he was currently blind – things that, from his perspective and experience, he did not know and therefore could not see, including how to initiate a casting motion so that the rod does the work (not the caster), where your hands need to be in relation to your body during the casting process, how to watch the line during the back cast, and so on.

Based on what I’ve learned about how to deliver and apply feedback, we decided to establish some ground rules about my role, his role, and how we would go about this task together. We manually agreed that:

  • The goal of our process was to help him become a “better” fly caster.
  • A shared commitment to that goal was essential.
  • My role was to observe, share information, comment on my observations, and provide encouragement.
  • His role was to practice, be open to new information, practice, be open to performance feedback from me and what his fly line did, and practice.

In other words, we jointly created a feedback “contract” before we ever got near the river or either one of us had to perform in our “role.”

When we first started our trip, my friend looked something like the conductor of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – arms and body in vigorous motion with much passion and swaying, accompanied by the periodic percussion of exclamations of disbelief and frustration. However, over the course of several days’ practice and “feedback” – primarily derived from his own ability to watch the process and its outcomes with newly opened eyes – he learned what to look for, how to see, and how to adjust accordingly. His motions took on new focus, efficiency, and grace. It was a great transformation, something in which we both took real pleasure and pride.

The experience confirmed for us both the importance of asking the following questions in any attempt to instruct and learn using feedback:

  1. Have you clarified, together, your respective roles in the process?
  2. Have you agreed on ground rules for giving – and receiving – feedback?
  3. Do you have an explicit feedback contract that specifies share expectations?
  4. Will the feedback come primarily from the coach, the performer’s self-observation, or both?
  5. Do you, as the coach, know how to discern the difference between adding value and adding noise to the process?

I also have found it helpful to always ask one other question, aloud, before I offer feedback or make comments: “Do you want some feedback?

Of course, the expectation (based upon the contract) is that the answer will generally be “Yes.” The fact is, however, we are only human! Asking the question signals our awareness that the appropriate time for feedback may not always be in the moment. It also serves to remind the recipient that feedback is a choice they continue to make for themselves – a gift they regularly offer themselves to make the learning process infinitely more effective and rewarding.

Every opportunity includes risks; it’s up to us to manage our feedback processes to maximize the opportunity while minimizing the risk. If you apply these concepts to your feedback, you will be well on your way toward enhanced performance, improved satisfaction, and better relationships.

Here’s wishing us all true lines, tight loops, and productive feedback!


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