Thursday, October 21, 2010

Feedforward will improve the accuracy and quality of your communication

On the first day of classes, just after students were settled in their classroom seats, I began my first-day lecture outlining some of the rules and expectations designed to govern their future behavior in my class.  When we took in a computer for repair, we gave the technicians an explanation (supported by a written list) of all the things we had previously done to get to the place where we needed their help.  In a third example, an employer began an interview with a prospect by clarifying the skills she expected from those occupying the position being sought, and by telling the prospect, “The questions you will be asked today are designed to examine how well you have demonstrated the skills we expect.” 

We use feedforward prior to future messages.  It is the information sent before new messages are delivered.  They may help recipients predict, anticipate, understand, or prepare for forthcoming messages, but their point, clearly, is to set the stage for what might come next.  They don’t always appear at the beginning of a message sequence; they can occur at any time during an interaction.  The only prerequisite for feedforward messages is that they come before what may follow. 

In a potential romantic situation, they may indicate whether those involved have any interest in each other.  Antonio saw Maria in the produce aisle of a grocery store, and when both reached for the same bunch of bananas, he smiled at her and chose another similar bunch instead of the one she wanted.  After that brief encounter, a very small door had been opened (feedforward).  Then, as Maria turned to go down the cereal aisle, she immediately met Antonio picking out cereals.  This time, she smiled at him — a prolonged smile that indicated there was interest.  By the time they accidentally met while waiting behind each other at the checkout counter, they were talking.  Notice in this instance how feedforward opened other channels of communication and paved the way for anything else to happen. 

As in each of the opening three examples feedforward can be used to provide a preview of what is to come.  Also, it can be used to offer disclaimers.  A disclaimer is a verbal device designed to ward off and defeat, in advance (feedforward), doubts and any potentially negative results from intended future conduct.  The goal in using feedforward as a disclaimer is to present others with cues that will lead to desired responses.  For example, if you knew, in advance, that you were going to act in a way that others might think is stupid, or even take offense to, you use feedforward to try to deflect those impressions.  You might say, before acting, “I know this is going to look stupid, but here goes....”  Or, if you thought what you were going to do might be offensive, you might say, “Now, please don’t take offense to what I am going to do.  I’m not trying to be offensive.”   

Disclaimers are used to define forthcoming conduct in such a way that the typical, expected, potential characterization of our behavior does not occur.  They can take many forms.  Here are examples of a few common disclaimers: “I’m not prejudiced, because some of my friends are _________, but...,” “This is just off the top of my head, so...,” or “What I’m going to do may seem strange, so bear with me...,” or “This may make you unhappy, but....” 

Feedforward messages can also suggest roles for others to take.  What we want them to do as a result of a message we give them is to take on an identity that will be consistent with our goals.  For example, we might say to a friend, “If you were me, what would you have done in this situation?”  Often, this is said to try to have a friend confirm for us that our behavior was appropriate or proper.  Examples are numerous: “What would you do if you were the teacher?,” or “If you were the boss, how would you have handled the situation?,” or “If you had a million dollars, what would you do?” 

Like feedback, feedforward is something often taken for granted in our communication.  We just do not think about it often.  But, as demonstrated here, it is not only common, but it relates to a wide variety of situations; thus, the more we understand it, the better we will be able to control our use of it and get the results we desire in communication situations.  Understanding simply gives us better control. 

There are six ways to improve your skills in feedforward.  First, when you know how valuable it is to opening channels, previewing what is to come, disclaiming, and suggesting roles, you can learn to make your feedforward signals clear, accurate, and distinct.  In this way, one you become aware of what you are doing, it is more likely that your signals will be easily and accurately received. 

Second, feedback is likely to occur at the same time as feedforward.  For example, to your smile you might receive a smile in return.  To your preview of important forthcoming information, you may perceive increased attention or alertness on the part of receivers.  Also, it is likely others will provide you with their own feedforward messages simultaneously with yours.  Thus, feedforward is unlikely to be a completely unilateral (source to receiver) process.  You need to be aware of both sending messages and receiving messages in these situations at the same time. 

Third, feedforward messages are likely to most effective if they are brief and to the point.  Attention spans are short, and people consider their time valuable.  Thus, when feedforward is especially complex, includes too much specificity, or involves needless information, it may not serve its purpose well. 

Fourth, strive for accuracy.  Feedforward messages must accurately reveal the message to come.   Inaccurate feedforward may negatively affect a communicator’s credibility, or it may cause listeners to discount future feedforward messages or, perhaps, any message that follows. 

Probably the most important suggestion regarding using feedforward is the same as the one that applies to using all forms of communication: monitor it.  Don’t just monitor your own use of feedforward messages, but monitor their effect as well.  When critical feedforward messages have not been received or understood, or if they have been received inaccurately, you may need to adjust or repeat the message.  This could be especially important when a life-or-death message is going to follow, or, too, if the message to follow could be critical to a third person. 

The heart of the feedforward process lies in your ability to anticipate situations.  Your ability at feedforward will help improve the accuracy and quality of your interpersonal communication. 


Marshall Goldsmith has a great essay, “Want to give feedback?  Rather try feedforward,”   —especially his 10 suggestions for trying feedforward.   For the introduction to his essay, he writes: “Focusing on solutions, rather than mistakes, on the future, rather than the past, will enhance the self-image of business leaders and employees alike and propel them on the road to success.” 

At the Self-Defense website, the essay, “Anticipation – How to Prepare Yourself for a Dangerous Situation,” offers specific advice that would be incorporated in a feedforward perspective.  I quote here from the essay: “Anticipation in regards to self-defense means that you use whatever is handy in protecting yourself against an attacker. It means buying time while assessing the environment around you for a way out or potential weapon. Anticipation also means you should always carry with you a few items for self-defense that cannot be seen but can easily is reached in case of an attack on you as well as know how to use them comfortably so that the act is effortless.” 


Copyright October, 2010, by And Then Some Publishing, LLC.

1 comment:

  1. Before I post a comment, let me tell you that I am in a good mood...


Essays, SMOERs Words-of-Wisdom, Fridays Laugh, book reviews... And Then Some! Thank you for your comment.