Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth Consulting

My six-year-old son, Bennett, recently learned to tie his shoelaces. I’m so proud of him. Getting there was a bit of a saga. How to get those “bunny ears” just right? How to find the correct hole through which to thread the loop? How to pull tightly enough to fully secure the knot?

I remember one particularly tough moment, about two weeks ago. He looked up at me in tearful frustration after his eleventh unsuccessful try in a row, and said, “Mom, I CAN’T! It’s too HARD!!!”

It was hard for us both. I was doing my best to strike a balance between direct assistance and letting-be. I didn’t know if I was getting it right. I sure was trying.

I asked if he wanted me to show him again. He nodded, so I did. And then I heard something come out of my mouth – something that immediately calmed and encouraged him:

“Buddy, you’ve already learned to do lots of hard things! You can whistle, snap your fingers, and skip a rock. You’re an impressive six-year-old! I know you’ll be able to tie your shoes soon.”

Well. Those words gave him the renewed courage and focus he needed. He wiped away his tears, redoubled efforts, and mastered shoe-tying that afternoon!

Nineteen Words

I wondered: What was it about that feedback that inspired and motivated Bennett so much?

I found a clue in a fascinating study* done several years back. Some psychologists from Stanford, Yale, and Columbia had middle schoolers write an essay, and then had teachers deliver different kinds of feedback.

The researchers discovered that one form of response was incredible in its ability to boost student effort and performance. So much so that they called it “magical feedback.” The students who got it revised their papers more often than those who did not, and their writing performance improved dramatically.

 So, what was the magical feedback? This:

 “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know that you can reach them.”

That’s it. Nineteen words that convey, “I see you. I know you. You belong. You’re special. I believe in you.” 

Three Steps to Magical Feedback

If you’re a parent or people leader of any sort, providing constructive feedback is part of the gig. When folks are struggling to get something right, it can be hard to know what to say, and how to be. In these situations, try these steps.

  1. Convey support: Make sure they have what they need to keep improving.
  2. Convey expectations: Let them know you have high hopes for them. You’re excited about their specialness and potential.
  3. Convey confidence: Reassure them of your belief in them. Let them know you’re sure of their ability to achieve.

When someone helps usher us into our best possibilities and potentials, it’s an incredible gift. Especially when we’re struggling to believe in ourselves.

Next time you’re called on to provide constructive feedback, let it be your opportunity to tell someone how special you think they are.

And then, watch the magic unfold!

About Andrea

Dr. Andrea Hollingsworth is Founder and CEO of Hollingsworth Consulting, author of the bestselling book The Compassion Advantage (2024), and one of today’s leading global experts on compassionate leadership. Since 2008, she has been studying, speaking, and writing about the science and spirituality of human emotions and relationships. Her articles have been published more than a dozen times in peer-reviewed journals, and she has taught at prestigious institutions like Princeton, Boston University, and Loyola University Chicago. In addition, Dr. Andrea has delivered talks to audiences at some of the top-ranked universities in the world—including Cambridge University in England and Heidelberg University in Germany.

Dr. Andrea spends most of her time inspiring leaders and teams to use The Compassion Advantage to build supercharged organizations through cultures of care— especially in times of challenge and change. Andrea lives with her family in Minnesota where she cheers hard at her son’s soccer games and relishes every opportunity to visit the north shore of Lake Superior.