One Sentence Makes Feedback Constructive

Posted: January 11, 2014

The Friendly City Files

We all love to know how we’re doing. When we’re trying to learn, to improve a skill, to make people happy, we need to know how we’re doing. Spouses, kids, employees, everyone wants feedback, even if it’s as simple as, “That meal was wonderful.”

Still, when we give constructive feedback, a response designed to help the other person do something a little better, the results are sometimes great, and sometimes, not so much.

Fortunately, there’s one phrase you can use that will instantly improve the impact of the feedback you give, whether the actual feedback is positive or negative. I learned it from Daniel Coyle, author of “The Talent Code.”

According to Coyle, every leader, every teacher, and every one worth their salt knows there is no moment more important than the moment feedback is delivered. Do it correctly, and the learner takes a step forward. Do it poorly, and the reverse takes place.

The deeper question is, what’s the secret of great feedback? We instinctively think that effective feedback is about the quality of the information, telling the learner to do this and not that. But, is this true, or is there something else going on?

A team of psychologists from Stanford, Yale, Columbia and elsewhere recently set out to explore that question. They had middle-school teachers assign an essay-writing project to their classes, after which the students were given different types of teacher feedback. To their surprise, researchers discovered that there was one particular type of teacher feedback that improved student effort and performance so much that they deemed it “magical.” Students who received this feedback chose to revise their paper far more often than students who did not and improved their performance significantly.

What was the magical feedback? Just one phrase:
“I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”

That’s it: just 19 words. But those words are powerful because they are not really feedback. They’re a signal that creates something more powerful: a sense of belonging and connection.

Looking closer, the phrase contains several distinct signals:

1) You are part of this group.

2) This group is special; we have higher standards here.

3) I believe you can reach those standards.

The key is to understand that this feedback isn’t just feedback — it’s a vital clue about the relationship. The reason this approach works so well has to do with the way our brains are built. Evolution has built us to be cagey with our efforts; after all, engagement is expensive from a biological standpoint.

But, when we receive an authentic, crystal-clear signal of social trust, belonging and high expectations, the floodgates open.

The lessons for leaders are pretty simple:

First, connect: Like John Wooden said, they can’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Then, highlight the group: Seek ways (traditions, mantras, fun rituals) to show what it means to belong in your team, your family, your congregation, etc.

And finally, don’t soft-pedal high standards: Don’t pretend that it’s easy, do the opposite. Point out the toughness of the task and emphasize your belief that they have what it takes.

Next time you need to give a little constructive feedback, try it. It works.

Jeff Haden lives in Harrisonburg and is a ghostwriter and a columnist for Inc. Magazine. He can be reached at