By Brian Marshall
Imagine the situation at training:
You hear one of your athletes, Sam, talking negatively to his teammates during practice.
How does the coach react and deal with the situation?
The coach is feeling frustrated and goes over to Sam and says, “You don’t care, you’re demotivating the team and affecting team spirit!” Sam replies… “no I’m not”.
The conversation hits an impasse and does not progress very far. Apart, perhaps, from the coach-athlete relationship deteriorating.
The coach is feeling frustrated and goes over to Sam and says, “I feel frustrated when you talk negatively to your teammates”.
Sam replies…. “I couldn’t find any rhythm in my technique and I am pissed off!”
The conversation can move forward to discuss the behaviour (talking negatively), but also Sam’s reality (his technical issues).
The key difference between these two scenarios is that the second example used behaviour specific feedback. That is: “you talked negatively to your teammates”. Because the behaviour was observable and described specifically about what happened, then Sam could hear it without becoming defensive.
In scenario 2, it is fine that the coach expresses his feelings, their reality: “I feel frustrated”. Sam cannot deny what the coach has said. The problem lies in scenario 1, where the coach makes assumptions as to the intention, feelings, and motivations of Sam: “You don’t care, you’re demotivating the team and affecting team spirit”.
The Stamford lecturers David Bradford and Carole Rubin write in their book Connect that when we give feedback, we need to understand that there are three realties that exist in any situation:
INTENT – BEHAVIOUR – IMPACT
This can be explained by going through the scenario described above.
The first reality is Sam’s intent. He is furious about not finding the desired rhythm on his technique.
The second reality is Sam’s behaviour. Anybody at the training would agree that Sam was talking negatively to his teammates.
The third reality is the impact on Coach. Coach is an expert on how they feel. In this situation, Coach was frustrated and perhaps hurt because the team had been working on developing a better training environment.
Each actor in the conversation only knows (or is aware of) two of the three realities. So, Sam does not know the impact of his behaviour on Coach. And Coach does not know what Sam’s motives or intentions are (why he was making those negative comments). The only shared reality or understanding is the observable behaviour (negative talk).
Bradford and Rubin use a tennis analogy to help us understand and apply behaviour specific feedback. In tennis, you are only allowed to stay on your side of the net (if you cross the net, you lose the point). On your side of the net, you know your understanding (your reality). The behaviour is like the ball going over the net (the second reality). The person on the other side, has their understanding to which you cannot be sure of what it is (the third reality). Thus, when we give feedback, we need to stay on our own side of the net. We can describe our feelings or thoughts about a described behaviour, but we cannot place attributions or assume to understand what the other person’s feelings, reactions or responses are.
A new scenario
The athlete, Marie, has come to late to training three or four times. Coach is becoming more and more irritated by this. The only reality that is shared here, is that Marie has come late to training – this is reality number 2. It is a fact and could be observed and proved if somebody were watching videos of what was happening.
Staying on your side of the net feedback:
Hey Marie, this is the fourth time you have been late to training in the past two week and I’m getting irritated. I think we need to discuss this as it doesn’t help us, that I’m getting irritated.
Going over the net feedback:
Hey Marie, it is obvious that training and being a better athlete is no longer a top priority for you.
Why is it over the net? Because Coach has no idea whether Marie’s prioritises have changed.
Bradford and Rubin also highlight that we should be careful about using the word FEEL in our feedback.
“Both of us are fanatical about how the phrase “I feel is used”, because it can be used in two different ways – one useful, and one misleading.” (page 38)Connect
When staying on your side of the net, it is OK to express your feelings, your emotions. I feel irritated, angry, frustrated, reassured, excited. But when you say, “I feel like you don’t care”, then you have gone over the net. You don’t know whether the other person cares or not. So, the clue in this is that when we use expressions such as “I FEEL LIKE” or “I FEEL THAT” then we are making imputations that are not behaviour specific and cause defensiveness in the other person. In fact, the word “feel” in expressions such as “I feel that” and “I feel like” can actually be replaced by the word “THINK”. And by using the word think, it is easier for us to become more aware of whether we are going over the net – that we are guessing or making attributions as to the other person’s reality.