How to approach those uncomfortable conversations

This is the last of three posts dedicated to the art of giving feedback to students in piano lessons. This post focuses specifically on how to communicate with students and their parents during those “uncomfortable” moments.

The premise of this series is flipping typical feedback to feedforward. The inspiration comes from Jennifer Gonzales, and her podcast interview with Joe Hirsch, educator, researcher and author of The Feedback Fix: Dump the Past, Embrace the Future and Lead the Way to Change.

Read the first post called Flip Feedback to Feedforward here.

Read the second post called How to Open the Door to Creativity here.

In the podcast, Hirsch talks through the steps to fix or repair traditional feedback using this acronym:

R is for Regenerating Talent

E is for Expanding Possibilities

P is for Particular

A is for Authentic

I is for Impact

R is for Refines Team Dynamics

This post focuses on A and I and R.

These last three steps are ripe for application for piano teachers! Direct quotes of Hirsch are marked by the green quote mark. I’ve included examples of how Hirsch’s advice could be applied to feedback in communicating with students and their parents. These are marked with quotations.

A is for Authentic

This portion of the acronym is helpful for us as teachers when we face those uncomfortable conversations with parents. You know the ones where we feel compelled to tell parents that home practice seems to be nonexistent.

Hirsch claims that most of us tend to avoid giving honest feedback and instead we default to a praise sandwich.

For example: we tell the parents how much we enjoy Tommy at lessons, then mention that he could be practicing more and then tell them again how wonderful Tommy is.

We slip the “meat” of our message (something critical and important for parents to know) between slices of  praise.

I’m guilty of serving these “sandwiches.” How about you?

Research has found that we all tend to remember the most recent thing we hear so if parents hear praise last, they’ll miss the “meat” you were trying to communicate.

To avoid the sandwich approach, Hirsch advises that we follow his effective four-step process he labels with an acronym he calls PREP. It can be effective without being “soul-crushing.”

P = Point

An important part of this process is asking the parents’ permission to give them honest feedback. This gives them “voice and choice” in the conversation and put’s them at ease.

Next, deliver the specifics of what the issue is authentically and quickly.

Get to the point and say:

“Tommy’s home practice seems to be sporadic and is not helping him make progress like he could.”

R = Reason

Then give the reason why you think this:

“We have not moved forward in any of his pieces, over the past weeks. Perhaps he is playing the piano every day, but it doesn’t appear that he is playing what is assigned.”

Now they know what’s happening and what you’re seeing.

E = Explain 

Next, be clear and explain why it’s a problem.

Most people reject feedback because they don’t understand what is being said.

“Progress at the piano only happens when practice happens. Because Tommy doesn’t practice his assignments, he’s not making progress. Because he doesn’t make progress, he’s not motivated. It’s an important loop to experience if you really want Tommy to succeed at the keys.”

P = Prompt

Finally, give the parents the opportunity to say what they think. Give them a “voice” in the process.

“Are you seeing a lack of practice at home?

Next give them choice in the process.

“What could we do to change Tommy’s practice habits?”

Asking for their thoughts validates their opinions, puts them at ease and takes them off the defensive. This prompting offers the opportunity for a partnership and a collaborative solution.

“What if you attended lessons for a couple of weeks so you see what’s happening at the lesson and what’s expected at home? What could you change at home so that practice could be part of the daily routine?”

People want the truth. Negative feedback may appear like you are trying to change a person. Giving those who receive feedback a “voice and choice” in the process makes it easier for them to hear and change because it’s a collaborative action.

None of us want to change each other and others don’t like being change.

“It’s not that we fear change, we fear being change.”

This is why negative feedback can be hard to give because we ultimately want others to be themselves. Using a collaborative approach will give feedback a positive outcome and impact.

I is for Impact

If you want feedback to make an impact. It must be understandable and operationalized.

The research on transfer of the feedback (Showers and Joyce) shows that telling people what to change or a simple demonstration has minimal chance of making a difference. When the process of feedback is joined with coaching, reflection and guided support, the transfer rate of feedback sky rockets.

We tend to treat feedback like a cleaver and chop off big pieces of a performance at once. We need to think of feedback like a toothpick–in small precise, spot treatments guided by incremental support.

Use a toothpick, not a cleaver.

Changing a habit or practice makes it feel like you need to change part of yourself and no one likes to be changed.

Moving students towards a change and helping them to uncover improvements through guided discover will help specific changes to occur and stick. This can be done by isolating elements and a hyper focus or tunnel vision.

“Jane, now that you’ve learned the first page with the correct notes and hand position and rhythm, let’s add another level of listening. Notice how I lift my wrists at the ends of slurs. Can you hear how it softens the last note? Now you try it. Good! This week, look for the end of every slur and lift your wrist to soften the end.”

It’s important to make a specific plan for reshaping habits, to…

Turn ideas into commitments and resolutions into results.

A checklist of small steps will help to make changes manageable and doable. Instead of thinking of mile markers, think “pebbles.”

Shrink the change.

For example, instead of asking students to add every articulation at one time, make a checklist of all articulations and add them in one at a time.

“Jane, circle and count all the ends of slurs. Watch for and lift wrists at the ends of slurs each day. Once you master the ends of slurs, make sure all the staccatos are short and crispy.”

R is for Refines Team Dynamics

Feedback is a team sport.

We need to dump the command and control nature of feedback and make room for something for more collaborative.

Putting heads together with students to encourage practice habits or improving technique leads to creative abrasion. This might mean that they come up with a different idea than you would prefer!

Creative abrasion is the collision of ideas that are so unique and different that it leads to something altogether new.

Companies like Google offer “jobcrafting” which allows people to shape parts of their jobs. It’s important that we appreciate the input our students contribute at lessons. Let them determine what needs to be fixed. Let them shape what their job is for the week of practice–before you jump in with corrections and advice. It may surprise you that they may have clearer objectives than you!

“Jane, some parts are mastered but it sounds like there are a few gaps. Where are they? What will it take to fix them?”

The smartest person in the room is the room.

The best feedback givers understand who their students are and who they can become.

They ruthlessly drive that potential and talent to the forefront and make people into the very best version of themselves.

Are you willing to flip feedback to feedforward in your lessons?

What part of Hirsch’s recommendations has resonated with you the most?

Do you feel more empowered–maybe relieved?– knowing that feedback is a team effort?

-Leila

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Leila Viss

Creative Pianist, Piano Teacher, Organist, Blogger and Author of The iPad Piano Studio

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