Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Magic Words

Let's say you're a coach, or a teacher. Your job is to help young people get better at performing a certain task -- running, singing, writing, whatever. And there's a particular young person in your keep who needs feedback from you today.

Wanna learn a secret that will increase his effort by 40%?

A team of psychologists from Stanford, Yale, and Columbia did research on how to give helpful feedback. "How" because as we all know, how you give such advice is as important (if not more important) than what advice you give.

They discovered a secret phrase, a phrase that, when used, increased the effort among white students by 40% and increased the effort among black students by 320%. (They didn't go into the reasons for that discrepancy, so I won't either, though I have my thoughts.) Here's the magic sentence:

"I'm giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them."

Let's dissect that a bit.

"I have very high expectations." No soft-pedaling here. No dumbing down to what they can do easily. You have to have high expectations and own them, without apology.

"I know you can reach them." Confidence in the student's abilities. No doubts. You have to have the vision of the student succeeding and then communicate that vision to the student, because their vision is hazy.

The article about this research brought out another important factor here: "The secret is to understand that this feedback isn't just feedback. It's a vital cue about the relationship." When you build a connection with your students or trainees, and build a sense of teamwork in the group that identifies them as special and capable of great things, then words like these become "authentic, clear signals of trust, belonging and expectation."

A key word there is "authentic". You can't manufacture this kind of faith in your kids; they'll see right through that.

This was awesome for me to read, because I already feel this way about one class I'm teaching this fall. I already have a vision for each of them; they already are on their way to this kind of bond. Now, the other class, I don't know as well . . . and I suspect they will need some building up.

But more than that, I see application here for every relationship we have in our lives -- particularly in our families. Our children need to catch our vision for them. Our spouses, too.

Nineteen magic words. The trick is to believe them when you say them.

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