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Feedback versus Failure: A Valuable Coaching Tool

written byMarilyn Atkinsonon 15/11/2020

We are constantly receiving feedback. Sometimes it is given directly, sometimes indirectly. Sometimes the feedback is positive, and other times negative. If we are fortunate, the feedback helps us learn something about ourselves. However, feedback can sometimes create negative feelings and do little to improve our performance.

Feedback thinking needs development in many of the organizational cultures that we serve as coaches. Our heroes in this area are people who we often call geniuses although they often modestly mark their achievements as sourced in persistence and curiosity.

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Thomas Edison made 997 ‘first attempts’ before he found that Tungsten was the metal with the properties that would allow him to build a long-lasting light bulb. If he had believed in the failure model, his curiosity and persistence would have been vanquished. What allowed his breakthrough was his carefully built Feedback Chart, noting 996 preliminary attempts that gave feedback about the other metals and materials that were less suitable and provided stepping stones on the journey towards finding the one that worked best.

This short exercise can quickly align you towards some clear and simple steps to move beyond the fear of failure into the clarity that feedback brings. Examine the Feedback versus Failure Chart below:

Feedback Frame vs. Failure Frame


Outcome: What do you want?
Feedback: How can you learn?
How: How did that happen?
Opportunity: How is this an opportunity?


Problem: What's wrong?
Failure: Whose fault is it?
Why: Why did that happen?
Limitation: How could that limit you?

The second box describes a common mental strategy from many cultures around the world, one learned by children as toddlers from parents, brothers, sisters and teachers. The steps are simple, and you probably know them by heart. First, we notice “something” is wrong. Immediately, then, we learn to check step two: We ask: “Who is to blame for this mistake?” Whoever we find, whether self of others, this question moves us to step three: we ask the mind- shrinking question: “Why?”

Notice that this “ ‘why”’ question is not a “why of value” question. We are not asking why something is of true importance to us. Rather we are questioning with the “why” that leads to “because” or to a story. “Why-Because” as a formula, takes people inward to explore causes, often found as personal failures, (if the source of the problem was in your own shoes). Such causes may also be used as reasons for blame if another luckless soul is found to be the source of the problem.   

The difficulty with the question “why” is that it tends to take us inward into endless reasons and justifications. We can easily go round and round in these purposeless inner conversations: “Why did it happen?”, “Because I am so clumsy, I never get it right, I am always making mistakes”. These routine inner dialogues are often old ‘self-inductions’ to negative mindsets. They have great power and produce results equally certain to cement old negative habits. As people listen, they move to limiting conclusions about themselves and their choices.

Now, look at the Feedback Strategy on the left-hand side of the chart. Here we can also see four strategy steps, yet they lead through open-ended questions to a totally different and very useful result.

We may start with exactly the same difficulty as in the failure example just given, yet the aim starts us immediately into a Solution-Focused trajectory. Start with “What Happened?” Now ask the question - “What is the feedback here?” As with Thomas Edison, this question develops our curiosity and our focus moves out into the world of events and results to find the next steps to take. This leads to the question: “how?” How is an “active exploration” question. How takes us even further out into explorations:  “How did it happen? How can we study the results? How can we do it differently next time?” 

This usually produces a vigorous exploration of the opportunities emerging from what first looked like a limitation. The original difficulty now moves us to further success.

Feedback versus Failure exercise steps

A useful way to explore the chart above is to make a list of one to three events from your past life that you or others characterized as a “failure.” Particularly pick events that you or others characterized as a “‘failure”’ at a later point. Good examples might be “failed” schooling, “failed” businesses, “failed” partnerships, or “failed” careers or marriages. Pick a maximum of three.

After you have made your list take a moment to notice how you made the list. Most people, when they ask the question “Where did I fail?” tend to associatively recall each old experience, jumping inside the event and remembering it quite physically. We notice how we felt and we re-feel the old physical tensions and disturbances.

If instead, we learn to ask the question item by item: “What did I learn from this?”, “Is there anything I would never do again that way based on my learnings from this?” then we respond quite differently. These questions work like magic to have us dissociate from the old negative mindset and view each of the old situations from a learning frame. View them each by pulling out the positive learning and noticing how these learnings have served you through the months or years that followed. Make sure you notice the cumulative results that have brought you to various points of wisdom and self-certainty today.

Once you have explored these questions run these events through the Feedback Frame steps in the chart above. Take each one and ponder it, step by step, until you are clear about how the event provided an inner opportunity for learning and development for you. This works powerfully to neutralize old fear zones and beliefs, especially if you do it in a singular way, and refrain from self-other comparisons. We all have our own inner learning journey and these questions allow us to celebrate our gains with an experience of resourceful dignity.

Complete the process step by step finding your way forward slowly and examining your own feedback or failure habits, situation by situation. 

When complete ask yourself: What can I use the information from this exercise for? What are the longterm implications for my life? How will this information support me to serve others more effectively?

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