One of the most important tasks for a mentor is to provide honest, constructive feedback to teachers on ways they can improve. The challenge is to provide such input in the most advantageous way such that it can be heard without defensiveness or withdrawal. Feedback may be too benign (“You’re doing a good job.”) or blunt (“That wasn’t the smartest thing to do.”) to be helpful. And this seems to be another one of those life skills that was rarely taught to us in a systematic way.
Usually feedback is conceptualized as either positive or negative. But, these labels can be counter-productive, especially considering that it isn’t exactly clear what determines these classifications. It is really positive feedback to hear that you are doing a great job but offered no concrete, specific suggestions for how to improve? Is it really negative feedback if someone offers you potentially life-changing input about how you get in your own way, even though it’s difficult to hear it?
Perhaps better labels for feedback are supportive and constructive. It turns out that the most effective feedback you can offer to someone is the kind in which they are given something concrete to work on and yet also feel that it was offered from a position of caring rather than criticism. In other words, the best feedback has certain elements:
- It is presented in a caring, compassionate, respectful way, with a supportive tone: “I really appreciate how open you are to learning alternative ways to deal with this situation. Not everyone would have the courage and flexibility to look at this so honestly. And I really appreciate you trusting me enough to offer what help I can.”
- The constructive input should contain both areas of strength as well as things to improve: “I know it really bothers you that you lost control, but it’s also impressive that you recognized that about yourself. It seems as if that is an important first step to not letting this type of situation get underneath your skin when it inevitably happens again.”
- Feedback should be as concrete and specific as possible, with supporting examples: “You mentioned that you don’t like being in large social situations, and it’s true that sometimes you appear awkward. I noticed in the lounge that you often sit by yourself and don’t make eye contact with anyone else. But I’ve also observed times when you do reach out to others. For instance, you quite assertively sought me out today to help you with this problem. If you can do that with me, I bet you can do that in other situations.”
- Rather than just giving advice (which is often not acted on anyway) make sure the person has the opportunity to personalize and adapt the idea to his own style: “I’m wondering how what I just told you fits with your experience? What part of what I shared with you strikes you as useful enough to do something with it?”
- Avoid situations in which the other person feels the need to defend or explain herself: “I notice that you want to tell me why you acted that way, but the issue is really related to what it is about this that you’d like to change.”
- Collaborate and negotiate alternative solutions: “I wonder what you could do instead to make a very different impression on those present, and yet also feel like you are protecting yourself?”
Whether you are giving feedback in the position of a teacher to a student, a mentor to a colleague, or in the context of any relationship, the first steps are to build a trusting relationship with the other person and to make sure that the other person is actually open to what you are offering. With these guidelines in mind, you’ll be able to provide meaningful feedback that is considerate and helpful.