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So many feedback acronyms… which to choose?

(March 25, 2024 Newsletter)

I’m fascinated by the proliferation of three-letter acronyms to help us remember how to give feedback. In most other forms of communication, we don’t need to memorize step-by-step guides, so why is this the case with feedback?

Why it matters: Being skilled at giving feedback is a crucial competency for people leadership.

  • We want to give team members feedback because we want to help them reach or exceed organizational standards of excellence.

  • But it’s a hard skill to master because we recognize (or worry) that it could have the opposite effect than that which we desire. We can end up lowering, instead of raising, motivation to improve.

What are these three-letter acronyms?

SBI: Situation, Behavior, Impact

  • This one, developed by the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) put a focus on being as specific as possible to avoid giving the impression that we’re making overarching character claims when that’s not what we mean.

  • They offer a follow-up on Intent (making it SBII) to ask a question about what the person meant, which can help open conversation.

CPR: Content, Pattern, Relationship

  • I learned this one in the book Crucial Accountability. I like the emphasis on pointing out the pattern you’ve noticed and naming the ways in which you see it impacting your relationship.

  • Their follow-up is breaking “Relationship” into Consequences and Intentions, which again takes the elegant three-part acronym and ruins it with… real-life complexity.

AIR: Action, Impact, Request

  • Collins Dobbs taught this on a podcast episode of “Think Fast, Talk Smart” about handling challenging conversations.

  • What distinguishes it is the request at the end – being clear about your ask. What I find not totally satisfying is that a request is only one way to open up conversation (and is often a way to shut down conversation).

Put all together, they’re helpful for remembering that feedback should be short and direct. But I find that none of them fully satisfies what feedback should focus on – opening a conversation about how a team member can keep growing in a crucial area to the organization or their role.

If I could create an acronym (and maybe I am right now…) it would be the following:

  • Reflect

  • Encourage

  • Ask

Step 1: Reflect – share a specific observation (it could be a one-time instance or a pattern of 2-3 similar instances).

Step 2: Encourage – a remark meant to increase motivation by pointing out a strength, value, or resource available to that person.

Step 3: Ask – show curiosity. It could be about their intent or options they’re considering, for example.

Here’s an example: “Hey Lisa, I noticed that your email to X client was shorter and more curt than usual. I know you care about keeping up a strong relationship with them, so what was going on for you when you sent it?”

Why I’m suggesting it: It covers a few things that frustrate me about the existing solutions – it treats the observation as what it is… a data point. It offers a reminder of care and belief that the person is in the right direction. And it genuinely opens conversation (doesn’t include it as an afterthought).

Maybe the world doesn’t need another acronym, but when the existing options are dissatisfying, make up your own solution. I’d love your thoughts and feedback.


The Coaching Corner

Clarifying versus probing questions

Some questions will help you get more info about the situation from your team members:

  • How long has this been going on?

  • What have you already tried?

  • What did s/he say in response?

Other questions help the person understand something about themselves:

  • What’s your biggest concern?

  • What would be an ideal outcome here?

  • What assumptions are you making?

In many cases you need more information about the situation to help support the person in finding a solution, but sprinkle in probing questions too for deeper and more insightful conversation.



Since the main body of this newsletter already includes a bunch of recs (see above for a blog, book, and podcast episode), I’m going to recommend something a little different this week, for a different kind of inspiration.

What it means to choose freedom” - the speech given by Bari Weiss 3 weeks ago at the annual “State of World Jewry” event. Longtime readers will know that it’s pretty rare for me to write about or post about Jewish topics specifically. This one set my heart on fire, so I shall recommend it to you all.

I also finished The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride last week. Highly recommended recent work of fiction!


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