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To Feed Back or to Feed Forward?
Feed Forwarding, a future and soluion-oriented alternative to giving feedback.

in a number of training, consulting and coaching circles, feed-forwarding is an original communication technique that has been taught and used at least since the early 1990s.  In these circles and other communication and personal development environments, feed forwarding is used to enhance and sometimes even to replace positive and negative feedback

Over time, feed forwarding has gradually proven to be much more than a simple communication tool.  When correctly implemented, this rather simple one-to-one and collective communication skill has proven to be a very powerful, strategic change-management tool.  In short, feed forwarding can quite successfully help create important changes in perspectives.  It can usefully be implemented in problem solving, in conflict resolution, in training and consulting, in personnel evaluations, in project management, etc.  Implemented on a larger scale in organizations, it can support a delegation management posture and can foster changes in organizational cultures.  To be sure, feed forwarding is a very powerful and innovative communication process.
So what is feed forwarding?

Very simply put: rather than providing positive or negative feedback, feed forwarding consists in giving future-oriented options or solutions.

Examples:

  • Next time you perceive a curve in the road ahead, I suggest you slow down before the curve, and accelerate when you are in the curve.  Try that, and see how it feels.
  • For the next meetings, I suggest you agree to have Bob pick you up on his way here, as he always manages to arrive a few minutes early.

This feed forward type of comment can advantageously replace positive or negative feedback on the way a given person has managed past behavior, such as poorly handling curves while driving or coming to meetings on time.

In a large number of personal and professional situations, implementing this type of communication technique offers a number of obvious advantages.

  • It is solution-oriented, providing clear indications on how to solve a problem without offering positive or negative criticism.
  • It is future-oriented, avoiding comments on past behaviors or results, that indeed cannot be changed.
  • It is behavioral or focused on actions rather than on principles, (such as in the above example: “you drive dangerously”, or “you are always late”).
  • It is not perceived as judgmental.
  • It is empowering, very simply offering optional avenues for improvement or for autonomous development.
  • It is respectful, and will help reinforce a positive and partnering relationship.
  • It is participative, as it allows all involved persons practical means to help solve potentially repetitious negative experiences.
  • It helps resolve conflicts by positioning the relationship in a positive and supportive dimension.
  • It paves the way to prepare for future shadow coaching, as in the above situation: “Here’s a curve coming now...  do you want to test how it feels to slow down before the curve and then accelerate into it?”

The practical advantages in feed forwarding e numerous, and they rapidly become obvious to anyone who makes it a point to practice the technique on a regular basis.  There are however, a number of comments concerning the development of the skill.

The contexts for feedback, positive or negative

In collective settings, reacting to other people’s inappropriate behavior is useful if not necessary.  In most social contexts, this need is obvious.  There are, however, many different habits and traditions as to how this reaction should be expressed. These different cultural habits are so deeply engrained that conflicts often arise when they are not respected.

In some cultural settings such as in Latin environments, when one is dissatisfied with another’s actions in any personal or professional relationship, negative feedback is considered to be the natural automatic response.  “That move was not very successful”.  “Don’t do that.”  I don’t like it when you…”   “Your sales have not been very good for a few weeks.” Etc.  In these social environments, such a direct approach will often create an expected positive or negative response.  The choice of response will help reveal the underlying nature of the relationship, and will allow it either to evolve in a more positive dimension or to dissolve into a conflict or separation.  In those cultures, negative feedback therefore helps reveal the need to make positive choices, should one wish to preserve the relationship.

In other cultural contexts such as in Anglo Saxon environments, this type of negative feedback is obviously considered not acceptable.  It indicates that the relationship is already in a conflict or close to rupture.  In Anglo Saxon cultural contexts, negative feedback is considered much too direct or directive, uncouth or unpolished, and not at all motivating for anyone to receive.  As such negative feedback has often been withheld for some length of time, the tone of voice may also demonstrate impatience or anger, which will add to the relational problem.  In those environments negative feedback directed at behavior is generally perceived as critical of the person, and as such, it is rightfully rejected. 

Consequently in Anglo Saxon cultures, negative feedback is very rarely considered to be enlightening or developmental.  It is even perceived as proof that the relationship has already evolved into a negative dimension and that separation or conflict is to be expected.  When provided on a regular basis in those cultures, negative feedback has proven to provoke a stifling communication process, if not a clearly de-motivating parent-child relationship.  As a consequence, giving outright negative feedback has gradually become politically incorrect in the Anglo Saxon world, and in many multicultural settings historically managed by Anglo Saxon influences. 

As a consequence of these cultural differences,

  • To members of a more Latin cultural context, one needs to learn how to read between the lines to understand circumvallated Anglo Saxon relational expressions that soften or sugarcoat and sometimes avoid expressing what could be clearly stated with direct negative feedback.
  • To members of a more Anglo Saxon context, one needs to learn how to accept the very direct and efficiently behavioral negative feedback without taking it as a personal affront and immediately feel as if defensive or offensive strategies should immediately kick in to save face.

Which to choose?

Of course, the question is wrongly put.  The real question is why choose?  Experiments with learning machines have proved beyond doubt that the good mix in giving feedback is to respect a strict 50-50 equilibrium.  Too much negative is surely de-motivating, and too much positive develops complacency.

One dimension that these studies have not measured, however, is if positive and negative feedback on past behavior may help create new unexpected behavior in the future.  Indeed, while the champions of one or another cultural bias argue on the merits of one or another form of feedback, both camps buy the limiting point of view that giving feedback, positive or negative or both and maybe neither, is the only way to go.

The truth is that giving feedback is focused on the past and not on the future.  That is the equivalent on commenting on what can be perceived in the rear-view mirror rather than proposing optional actions for what may be coming on the road ahead, and could be perceived through the windshield.  And this is how the feed forward communication technique suddenly changes the perspective on how to communicate optional solutions for future situations.

The manager-coach perspective in feed forwarding

To be very explicit about feed forwarding in coaching, most professional coaches consider that it is absolutely not advisable for coaches to offer their clients any options or solutions.  So feed forwarding does not have its place in a formal coaching relationship.

On the other hand, feed forwarding is future-oriented, action-oriented, and solution oriented.  And all three of these orientations are quite fundamentally coherent with a coaching frame of reference.  Indeed, the main perspective characteristic of a coaching stance is that coaches apply their art to helping clients focus more on their ambitions than on
their problems, on their aspirations than on their shortcomings, on their future than on their pasts, on their useful strengths rather than on their limiting weaknesses, on their available supports rather than on their missing means.  In short, if coaches help their clients focus on their future rather than on their pasts, they should be better wired to feed forward than to feed back.

It so happens that managers, trainers, consultants, leaders, recruiters, teachers, and all other professions that deal with human development do not have any qualms about giving outright advice.  As a matter of fact, it could even be considered part of their job to suggest preferential behavior:

“To develop a more powerful tennis backhand, try turning your back to the net when you prepare your swing.  That will significantly increase its span and the strength you put into the ball.”  That was one good piece of advice my tennis instructor gave me in my teens.  It worked, that built my confidence, and I became a much better tennis player.

As a young entrepreneur, I wish someone had given me the advice to be careful to never have a single client account for more than twenty percent of our business.  When our one most important client decided to in-source our services, our business almost crashed, and it us took over a year to get back in the game.

Both of the above advisory examples are forward-looking options for development.  In the case of the tennis instructor, the advice surely rested on the observation that my backhand was indeed rather terrible.  The instructor did not give me positive or negative feedback, however.  And indeed, neither would have been of much help.  In the case of our entrepreneurial mishap, a more attentive accounting firm could have seen the potential danger in our client portfolio and given us the advice before our business hit the rocks.  In other words, feed forwarding advice can be given to avoid possible negative consequences, before these even appear on a radar screen.

Consequently, feed forwarding is an excellent way to give future and solution-oriented advice, or advice with a coaching perspective, when one is a leader, a manager, a trainer, or a consultant.  To be sure, this is often already done by many of the above professionals.  What could take these professionals even farther, however is if they almost systematically made a point to replace all feedback with feed forward.  Now that would be a more thorough change of habits.

Addressing solution-oriented actions rather than concepts.

In order to deliver effective feed forward requests or suggestions, one needs to focus on proposing very practical behaviors, actions or words rather than general ideas, principles and concepts.  Consider the difference between the following proposals.

  • “Next time, I suggest you participate more in our team meeting”, or “In future team meetings, every time John participates in the discussion, use that as a benchmark to remind yourself that you need to participate at least as much”.
  • “In the next meetings, I suggest you develop more presence to the team work, and avoid consulting your phone and having side discussions with your neighbors”, or “At the start of our next meetings, I suggest you establish an agreement with your two neighbors, that they would interrupt you if you initiate a side discussion or start consulting your phone messages.”

Note that in these examples, the issues are addressed on different levels.  One level is conceptual with feed forward suggestions focused on developing participation and presence in a team meeting context.   The other feed forwards are focused on suggesting a very practical memo-technical reminder and precise behavioral solutions.  The effects of each level is very different:

  • When people are addressed on a conceptual or principle level, they will react on that level, agreeing or disagreeing with the validity of the concept or the principle.  Is it indeed important that I participate more?  What if I have nothing to say? What is the issue with consulting phone messages if I don’t disrupt others? Etc. 
  • When people are addressed on a behavioral level, they also react on that level, agreeing with the validity of one or another solution.  Is that a good solution? Are there other solutions? What would work even better? What would be my type of solution? 

When we challenge solutions, we are not in fact challenging the underlying principles or problem definitions that those solutions are there to resolve. In the case of our meeting issues, one may think of other ways to participate more or other ways to be more present.  One will not challenge the principle level that we do in fact need to change.

Consequently, the more a feed forward is general, conceptual or principle-based, the less it will offer a clear indicator of what behavior is in fact to be experimented as a solution.  The more practical and operational a feed forward, the more it is illustrated by behaviors or sentences, the more the situations they are aiming to solve will be considered valid and accepted, and the more change behaviors will be in fact implemented. 

To give a practical example, the above text offers a principle that all effective feed forward is future oriented.  We generally understand this principle very well.  Unfortunately when starting to formulate a feed forward, may people start by making feedback comments, in order to justify whatever change they will want to suggest.  And these feedback comments are not well received.  It is consequently very important to be practical as to how to formulate all future oriented requests or suggestions. 

  • Examples: it is strongly suggested that learners start their feed forwarding phrases by saying: “In the future…”, or “Next time you prepare for a trip…”, or “In the next five meetings, I suggest….”, etc.  Starting your sentences with words that set you mind to focus on the future will help you formulate future-oriented solutions.

Developing new Communication habits

Consider the following assignment:  In a personal or professional setting, first consider one person with whom you want to test a complete feed forwarding process, and then consider a change in behavior you would like to propose.

1) Prepare your phrasing 

  • A member of the family: When you borrow my car in the future, and return it with an empty tank, can you please tell me about it in the evening sot that I can plan to get it filled in the morning rather than get late to work? 
  • A manager of another department: Next time there is an order from Texibio, can you send us a full copy of the file in advance so that we can really secure the invoicing process with their accounting?

To introduce these feed forwarding requests, it may be useful to first secure an agreement to do so:  May I formulate a request?  Should the feed forward be offering advice, then the question could then be: Could I offer some advice.

Another useful introductory attitude consists in adopting a low or humble attitude:  Tell me if I am disturbing you now, but I would like to formulate a request.  Or, I know you didn’t request it, and this may be out of bounds for you, but I think I could offer you some advice here.

2) Test your complete phrasing several times before applying it with your concerned partners.

3) Repeat the process on different issues, advices and requests with different people in your work environment and in your private life, at least twice per day for a full 25 days.  As you become more proficient, let yourself improvise more experimentation in unexpected situations and unexpected people.
At the end of this period, measure the effects.

Concluding observations

For many people, developing such a new communication habits can be quite a strain.  Formulating future-oriented or feed forward comments, requests or advice in the place of positive or negative feedback will almost feel like a mind-bender.  This is the initial period, when the body seems to be struggling to wire new brain synapses.  The effort to install new thought processes and linguistic habits can be almost physical.  Gradually, however, as these new mental routes are tested, used and developed, they will become more comfortable and start feeing like new habits.   After a few weeks, the new behaviors will start feeling natural.  They will have become automatic responses, or new habits.  The change process takes a little over 22 days.

What may come as a surprise is that many people will respond very positively to the proposed feed forward requests, advice or options. Culturally, many of us have developed negative anticipations, or even fear, concerning possible reactions others may have to our behavior-oriented feedback.  That is why we often avoid the issue altogether.  When we change our communication process from offering feedback to offering feed forward, however, we still have remnants of this negative anticipation.  It can be quite a surprise when people are thankful for your comments.

After practicing feed forwarding with others for a few weeks, you may start feeling that your general perspective is changing.  You may notice that gradually, you look more for solutions than focus on problems, you are more centered on future options than on past issues, you are more centered on possible actions than on analyzing what happened that went wrong.  In general, you may have shifted to looking a little more forward than looking back.  In this way, you will have developed a little more of a coaching perspective in the way you live your relationships and your personal and professional life.

When a feed forward habit has been developed on a larger scale, in teams and organizations, the process gradually becomes a cultural process, in the true sense of the word.  It becomes a collective behavioral habit that individuals recognize a being an integral part of the collective identity. New members are trained into it, older members model it, and the constructive benefits of the process become collective.  This collective behavioral trait helps really implant into organizational cultures the true meaning of being solution-focused, constructive, action-oriented, future-oriented, proactive and responsible.  The organizational system can then claim that it has developed a true manager-coach type of culture.