I was recently involved in a discussion on Facebook about coaching. Specifically, ways that we can coach people which are palatable, effective, and don’t hurt feelings unnecessarily.  A few folks wanted to share it but it was posted inside of a closed group, so I’m placing it here to make it publicly accessible.  Help yourself!

How to tell a student what they did wrong without telling them what they did wrong.

Each of these phrases is in response to something I just looked at which I believe was not handled particularly well or not the way I prefer. Note that my phrases allow for the fact that there might be information that I don’t have, especially with an experienced person. I don’t see teaching as me telling you what to do. I see it as working together to find the right answer, and I honor the fact that I could be wrong. Just because I say it doesn’t make it right.

“Another way you might’ve handled that tricky corner was….”

“I’d love to see how your dog responds if you try….”

“Was there a specific reason you did X in that corner rather than Y”?

“I think your dog perceived your hand signal to mean….”

“Let’s see what happens if we….”

“that can be a difficult problem to solve, here are some of the things that have worked for me…”

The phrases below are for a more beginner student:

“When I’m looking at your hand, I only want to see your first finger. Right now I can see your fingernails.” ( Can you see how I told them they were wrong, but more important, what would make them right?)

“When you make a right turn, look about 6 feet ahead of your right foot” (Can you see how I would say that when they did something else, but instead of telling them what they did wrong I just tell them how to make it right? And if that analogy doesn’t work, I find another one)

“Good. Now let’s add this.” ( In my head, the person just did the exact opposite of what I wanted. They’re nervous! Trying to please me! So rather than telling them they did not follow my directions, I give my directions again with a new set of words. There’s no reason to tell them they got it wrong the first time because they’re trying!)

What I say and how I say it depends on who I am talking to and what kind of a reaction I get in return. I watch for those quick flashes of emotion in the first second or two after I speak – people can’t hide those from an astute observer.  I also assume that a neutral expression may be an attempt to mask anger or irritation and I react carefully.  And enthusiasm?  I don’t think a person can fake those very easily without some planning. Those reactions set my course going forward.

You have to make the words work for you! These are the phrases that are comfortable for me, but I would not expect my language to work for other people without being tweaked. I’m just giving you some ideas for how you can tell people they were wrong without telling them they were wrong.

Two more caveats. Sometimes I use tough love. I try to be kind about it, but sometimes I believe it needs to happen. And sometimes I screw up. I acknowledge it in my head, try to do better the next time, but I do not stew over because it is never intended to be hurtful. I do not take personal responsibility for hurting the feelings of another person if I was genuinely trying to be careful with them. I recognize that some people are exceptionally fragile, and while I feel bad that they got their feelings hurt, it doesn’t make me feel bad about myself. Do you see the difference? On the other hand, if I was not careful and I hurt someone’s feelings and I recognize that…. now you have a window into a personal source of shame . I take that very seriously about myself and I will resolve to try harder the next time.

On another note, I look forward to seeing some of you in my Leadership webinar this Thursday evening.  If you struggle to determine when you should give your dog choice versus when you should structure their decisions, then this is the webinar for you.   Excellent leadership provides for a much more confident team, both in dog sports and in life.   See you there!