On giving constructive and helpful feedback
Last time I spoke about how to deal with negative feedback, and how you can cope with it. However, as you transition from undergrad, to graduate student, to senior graduate student (to life afterwards), you’ll be placed more and more into positions of responsibility. When that happens, it will be your responsibility to give feedback, and at this point, you realize that it’s really difficult to give good, constructive feedback that doesn’t come off as harsh.
Depending on the person, this feedback could be to a student, a colleague, or even a senior student. My research group has had a lot of success with practice run-throughs of presentations for conferences and defences, and once the person has presented, giving them useful and constructive comments is something we strive for. The easy route out is to give them “soft” feedback and avoid major problems. However, that doesn’t help them as, if you don’t point out major points they can work on, someone else will. The goal of this post is to help you frame that feedback.
And, in honour of Thor: The Dark World, coming out this week, I’ll be recruiting my good friend and gym buddy Chris Hemsworth* to help me with this post.
1. Real life or email?
The first question is how to give feedback – face to face, or via e-mail. As we move more towards an electronic presence, sometimes it’s not only easier to give feedback electronically (such as when you’re in different cities), sometimes you have to (such as when you’re using track changes in word). People disagree over which is best, with this article falling on the email side, and this article falling on the face to face side. Frankly, I think both can be done well, and both can be done poorly. Finally, if you do choose to provide feedback in real life, keep it respectful, and, if necessary, private. Do not publicly shame someone.
2. Follow up
This relates to the point above, as one of the major benefits of face-to-face feedback is that you can provide instant feedback and clarify concerns on the spot. Email does not allow for quick clarification the way a face to face meeting does. One option is to send the email and then follow up on the phone or in-person soon afterwards, or meet first, and then provide written feedback. Similarly, once the feedback has been given, that’s not the end of the process. Improving oneself and developing skills takes time and effort, and small “course corrections” may be required, especially if the person has a hard time interpreting what you’re asking them to do. If they want more help or clarification later on, that should be available to them.
3. Be specific
If you have an issue with something, say that. Don’t be vague as that can lead to further confusion. For example, some people when they present, never make eye contact. So when providing feedback, say “you need to make more eye contact.” Don’t say “you need to engage the audience.” The latter is not helpful, and can mean a number of different things, ranging from more eye contact, to more audience participation, to revamping your slide deck. Providing specific comments bypasses this concern.
4. Present facts, not opinions
Avoid subjective words and emotional descriptions of events. Rather than saying “you didn’t care about this project” you want to focus on the specifics “your introduction needed more detail about X.” Continuing in the same vein, remove emotion and wait if things are too charged. Waiting for people to process their own feelings following an experience allows for everyone to think logically and productively, and at that point, feedback (may) be welcomed. This is as much for you as it is for them:
“The exception to this is if the situation involved is highly emotional. Here, wait until everyone has calmed down before you engage in feedback. You can’t risk letting yourself get worked up and risk saying something you will regret later.”
We often dwell on the negative, and only provide feedback about areas of improvement. However, also consider providing positive feedback! If someone does a really good job of explaining a concept, or writes a very clear article, then tell them that! One of the tricks is learning not only what you need to improve, but capitalizing on what you do well and putting that front and centre, and stating that can help boost a person’s morale, confidence and make the whole process a lot more enjoyable and positive for all involved.
This was published simultaneously on Gradifying
*Note: I’m not actually friends with Chris Hemsworth, and I’m not getting anything from Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures to include these GIFs.
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