The COIN Conversation Model
Taking the Sting Out of Difficult Feedback
Giving feedback can be tricky at times. Perhaps you need to have a "quiet word" with a team member about poor performance or negative behavior, but what starts out as an informal chat quickly spirals out of control. Harsh words are traded, accusations fly, and the relationship might be seriously damaged.
Or, you might find that the person nods in apparent understanding throughout your meeting, but his or her behavior or performance fails to improve.
What can you do to make sure that your feedback is assertive, fair and clear? And, most importantly, how can you ensure that he fully understands the changes or improvements that you expect from him?
Executive coach and author Anna Carroll, MSSW developed the the COIN Conversation Model in 2003 and discusses it in her book, "The Feedback Imperative: How to Give Feedback to Speed Up Your Team's Success."
It is a simple framework that you can use to plan and structure difficult conversations and feedback in a non-confrontational way.
About the COIN Conversation Model
COIN stands for Context, Observation, Impact, and Next steps:
- Context: the circumstances, event or issue that you want to discuss.
- Observation: specific, factual descriptions of what has happened.
- Impact: how the event or issue that you're discussing affects others in your team or organization.
- Next steps: a clear agreement on the changes or improvements in behavior or performance that you expect going forward.
Successful COIN conversations encourage positive, long-lasting change. They enable you to feed back to people firmly, but fairly, on what needs to improve.
They also help you to focus on the steps that your team member needs to take in order to achieve these objectives.
The COIN model has similarities with other feedback and coaching tools, like the GROW Model and The Situation – Behavior – Impact Feedback Tool. However, it has a stronger focus on how to communicate feedback successfully.
How to Use the COIN Conversation Model
The general rules that apply to most feedback conversations apply to COIN, too.
First, make sure that you hold the conversation with your team member in private, where you won't be interrupted.
Second, give the feedback from your point of view. Use "I" statements, such as, "I heard that…," "I understand that…," or "I noticed that…." This way, you emphasize your view of the issue, and you avoid making snap judgments or accusations. For example, you could say, "I don't understand what you've done here," rather than, "You've done this wrong."
Let's look at an example of how you can apply the COIN Conversation Model when you're delivering feedback.
You've noticed some friction between two of your team members: Jason, a junior team member, and Corinne, a senior project manager.
At first, you wait to see if they can work it out by themselves. But then Jason approaches you in private. He's upset about a specific issue with Corinne and her behavior. She's refused to accept a project handover from him because he hasn't properly completed some of the documentation. He also feels that her attitude is becoming unnecessarily aggressive.
You decide to talk to Corinne to resolve the issue, using the COIN Conversation Model.
First, you need to establish exactly what you want to discuss with Corinne. In this step, you set out the circumstances of the issue, and the behaviors that you want to address. It's vital that you stick to specifics. Remember, your discussion needs to be tight and controlled, and it must avoid spilling over into other issues.
For example, you might start your conversation with Corinne by saying, "I'm aware that there's been some tension between you and Jason over his project handover notes. Let's see if we can work out a solution together."
This lets her know that you are aware of the issue, but that you're not apportioning blame to either party. It also highlights that your main focus is to seek a solution, rather than to criticize or punish.
Some versions of the COIN model use the word "Connection" instead of "Context." These versions emphasize the importance of empathy during this stage.
Next, explain what you've observed. Take care to remain objective. Keep your tone of voice neutral, and only state the facts. It's important to avoid judgments, bias and third-party hearsay, or you risk making accusations that could prove unfounded.
You might say to Corinne, "I understand that you refused to accept the project handover from Jason, and that you told him that his work was sloppy. Is that correct?"
Then, allow Corinne to give her side of the argument. Be sure to hear her out, but don't allow the conversation to go off on a tangent. Try to keep it on the right track by reminding her of the main objective of the discussion.
If Corinne starts to describe other reasons for her behavior, or if she tries to deflect the conversation by focusing on another issue, explain that you're happy to discuss these at a later time. Then remind her that this meeting is about dealing with the project handover and her behavior toward Jason.
The next stage of the COIN model is to outline the effects – positive or negative – that the situation is having on other team members, the organization, or other stakeholders.
Again, stick to the facts. Your intention isn't to make Corinne feel bad, but to help her to understand the negative effects of her actions. For example, you could say, "Jason was very upset, and the project handover was delayed by a day, causing scheduling problems for people in other teams."
Finally, suggest some ways that Corinne could improve the situation, and invite her to contribute some of her own ideas in return. Listen to her answers with an open mind, but remember to focus on the practical steps that she will need to take to ensure successful change.
So, for instance, you could explain to Corinne the resolution that you have in mind by saying, "I'd like you to work with Jason so that he knows exactly what he needs to do to achieve a successful handover. I know that you've suggested a written handover checklist, so maybe you could work together to develop that."
You can use the COIN Conversation Model to communicate positive feedback, too. Imagine a scenario in which you're praising Corinne for helping a junior team member to achieve a successful project handover. In this instance, your "Next steps" might be asking Corinne to help Jason to learn more about how your team manages its projects.
The COIN Conversation Model provides a structured approach to giving feedback in a constructive, non-confrontational manner. You can conduct a successful COIN conversation by organizing it into four key stages:
- Context (or Connection).
- Next steps.
You can use the COIN model to give detailed, objective feedback to your team members, and to help them to achieve positive, long-lasting change.
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