Getting Back to People-centered Feedback

December 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

A businessman on twitter noted that most people see constructive feedback as negative feedback. Being that it is the end of the semester, giving feedback already weighs heavily on my mind, and my curiosity was piqued. I assumed we all worked from the same definition for constructive criticism: kind feedback that focused on a person’s growth rather than his or her mistakes. I mean, the dictionary defines constructive as “helping to improve; promoting further development or advancement (opposed to destructive ).” It shouldn’t be negative, right?

How do HR offices define this concept? I found one HR definition from the Canadian Northwest Territories government website that stated “Communication that brings to an individual’s attention an area in which their performance could improve, in a manner that helps the individual understand and internalize the information. Constructive feedback does not focus on fault or blame; it is specific and is directed towards the action, not the person.” The focus in this HR definition, though still positive, is more instructive than constructive.interview

Instructive is different than constructive. Instructive tells someone how or what to do. The focus is on the act, the words, the situation and whether or not things were correct. Speaking of correct, when was the last time you remember receive constructive feedback on doing something correctly?

If the focus is on instructing correction instead of constructing, or building up, the development or advancement of people, I can see how this feedback has become seen in a negative light. And I would say there is some truth to what this man points out. Constructive feedback is often critical and uncomfortable, but how did we get to a point where something intended to inspire growth (constructive feedback) evokes defensiveness instead?

As a professor, I often spend hours thinking about how to best craft my feedback to maximize the positive impact it can have on my students. I want them to feel empowered to grow once they finish reading it. In the end, I usually receive one of three responses: no response, a defensive response, or the rare but valued positive response. How can I be less instructive and more constructive?

My goal every semester is to nurture my students’ writing, evolving it from personal to professional while preserving their voice in their prose. It’s not about correction – it never has been. Don’t get me wrong. I give feedback on grammar, punctuation, formatting, and the rest, but my grading has never been driven by these things. Every semester, I’m driven by a desire to understand. I want to know my students better through the lens their topics, their thinking, and their writing, but most of all, I want to know them better by connecting and communicating clearly and authentically. So, I can’t help but wonder how my feedback impacts those connections, that authentic communication. Do they hear my desire to know them in my feedback? Or do my corrections clutter my intended message?

I think – and I am only speculating here – that feedback has become perceived as negative because of how it is given, and I do not mean that the feedback isn’t worded kindly enough. I am not talking about simple word choice though I do recognize that word choice is a factor. I also know that most people are aware of their audience and actively choose words they believe will have a positive impact on that audience when giving constructive feedback. However, I think most people tell and don’t show in their feedback. They tend to tell students, employees, friends, family, whomever what, why, and how things went wrong, could be enhanced, or should have played out. I have yet to meet someone who likes to be told they were wrong.

So how is showing different? Showing versus telling is a concept that often comes up in writing courses especially creative writing courses. I have grappled with this concept since a poetry writing class during my undergraduate work. The easiest answer most can give about how to spot showing is “You’ll know it when you see it,” but that doesn’t help those who are struggling to “see it.” Though I still struggle with knowing when I’m telling instead of showing, I have gotten better at knowing when I get it right.

And as someone who still unknowingly tells while trying to show, all I can do is explain what I have learned about the showing that I have noticed. I know that showing requires a connection to the audience, a meaningful connection, an authentic connection that can’t be copied as a one-size-fits-all approach.

I know that showing communicates on a level that includes logos, pathos, and ethos, instead of picking one. When we show someone we care, it is deeper than statements (“I like you”), deeper than actions (smiling and laughter = care), and deeper than relations (my neighbor for twenty years). When we actually show others – coworkers, friends, family, neighbors – we care, we do more than just tell them; it is more than just an act; caring requires selfless thought and consideration. Constructive feedback should be done with care, right? If we treat constructive feedback the same way we treat those we care deeply about, we will invest ourselves in building up our coworkers, students, and anyone else with whom we share or thoughts and ideas.

As an educator, I know that showing when providing feedback takes into consideration the whole student, not just the assignment, the course, or the correction. When we give constructive feedback in our classrooms, we strive to build up our students so that they can take on bigger and more complex tasks. If that is our goal, telling just doesn’t cut it.

I also know that writing in any form – even the essay – is a personal endeavor that too often causes us to take all feedback personally. So we can’t take the person out of it; we have to care for the person during it.

So here I sit, thinking and grading and thinking and grading. As I contemplate each word I write in my feedback, I am thinking about my students: how will Megan respond to this phrase, will Malcolm know I agree with him even though I question his source, does Tom realize that I think he is capable of great things when I point out the areas of his paper that seem hurried? All of this boils down to one simple concern, “Will my students see my feedback as a condemnation of their worth or as an opportunity for improving a skill?”

I don’t know if I’ll ever really know how my feedback impacts every one of my students. I do know that I’ll forever strive to hone my craft, my feedback. I know that I will not stop investing of myself in every one of them, in every word they write, in every struggle they overcome each and every semester.

Back to my earlier question, how did we get to this point, to a place where constructive equals negative? I am not sure. Is it as simple as focusing on correction and instruction rather than construction and positivity? Maybe. I do know we didn’t get to this practice of negativity alone, and we can’t move on from this practice by ourselves.

So, what say you dear reader? How do you show instead of tell to make your constructive feedback a conduit for positive impact?


What words would you add?

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