The Feedback in the System

FireI’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to give feedback. It’s always been a topic of interest for me, since I grew up feeling, and still feel, pretty awkward in unstructured social situations. I appreciate and understand it much better now, because giving feedback has been a big part of my professional life, in Outdoor Leadership, in Wilderness Therapy, in Education, in Writing Support—and in activism. I come to all of those places with lessons from the others. I come to all of those places trying not to repeat mistakes I’ve made in the others. And I see lots of other people giving feedback around me, and sometimes making mistakes I’ve made myself.

The easy mistake is to go straight for the constructive feedback, and to actually be providing criticism when you think you’re being constructive. In some activist communities especially, I feel we’ve lost a lot of the constructive approach. Emotions run high, people put their identities on the line, and slights real and imagined draw quick, acerbic denouncement. Maybe it’s because we’re often online now, speaking publicly to people we only sort of know. Maybe it’s something else. Whatever it is, I feel like my progressive community tends to abandon the middle ground and claim the high ground instead.

I think we need a habit of giving each other feedback, but in a way that improves our community instead of a way that excises things we don’t like. Feedback, I think, should not be battlefield surgery.

One conventional piece of wisdom is to give feedback as a shit sandwich: constructive criticism book-ended by positive ideas to soften the blow. It sometimes works, but I don’t really like that approach; to me, it feels like the constructive is the only point there and the positives are hollow. Even as someone who looks for constructives and wants to grow and change, the shit sandwich ends up feeling like what it is. I can certainly remember times I didn’t take it very well.

It was a while ago that I found the idea of the positive-constructive. Does feedback really have to be about cutting out the things we do badly? Can’t it instead be able magnifying the things we do well?

With a positive-constructive approach, that’s the majority of what you do: focus on the things you appreciate, and name them, and ask your colleagues/community/family to keep doing them, or do them more. If you need to give feedback on something you want to stop, look for the opposite thing—the time the person in question did what made you feel better. Then use that example when you give feedback, and ask them to focus on doing that more. And recognize when they do.

I honestly don’t see a lot of this in my activist communities. But I see it plenty in my professional communities—we support one another by working together to improve what we do overall, not by tearing each other down. That’s the kind of feedback that meets our real needs: the need for change and the need for camaraderie both.

It seems like this would be a perfect fit for activists. I’ve seen it given in private settings. Can we do it in public, too? Can we bring ourselves to stand in front of the world and help each up instead of put each other down? I hope so—actually, I think it might be a fundamental part of social change.

There are very few places where I think the “being the change you want to see” will actually, by itself, make it happen. Structural problems are not so easy to solve. But this is an exception—this is a game where we have all the pieces; we just need to stop playing both sides.

Photo Credit: Me

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3 comments on “The Feedback in the System

  1. Willson Gaul says:

    Excellent thoughts. I especially like the strategy of focusing feedback on positive things in the hopes that people will do more of those good things, (and hopefully do less bad stuff). I’ve found this approach really helpful in my work with high schoolers and college students, but it doesn’t seem to work as well when I try it with adults. It seems like young people (especially high schoolers) are more willing to change their behaviour and even identity, increasing behaviours that get positive feedback, perhaps because they are trying to find their spot in the world and in society. It seems to me like adults frequently take positive-constructive feedback as confirmation that they are doing things perfectly and don’t need to change. It often feels like there is too much “politics” in feedback situations with adults – like people assume that if I’m giving positive feedback I’m trying to demonstrate that I’m on their side, and that tends to get polarized into a “you must be with me” position which leaves no room for being critical (or the opposite).

    I think that humility is a requisite condition for positive-constructive feedback to work. Someone who is receiving that kind of feedback needs to go beyond seeing confirmation of their rightness and ask themselves “Am I doing enough of this positive behaviour? What can I change so that I do more of this?” Without that, positive feedback is just ego-stroking (valuable for politics, useless for learning). That kind of humility and willingness to accept the possibility that we are wrong and need to change requires a certain trust in the community, though. If there is the possibility that we will be excluded if we appear inadequate, it makes it hard to honestly admit that we could and should be doing better than we are. This is particularly problematic in work and/or academic settings when there is significant competition for positions or funding, or where there is a real or perceived risk of being fired. I suspect it’s also a problem in activist communities where there is a risk of being pushed out of the group if you aren’t toeing the line. It is a special kind of community in which members can be confident enough in the support of their peers that they can honestly hear and act on feedback. I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of a few such communities, but also unlucky enough to spend plenty of time in situations where admitting any uncertainty or error is viewed as showing an undesirable weakness. Most unfortunately of all, I’ve spent time in some communities (liberal, “activist” type communities) where hearing feedback honestly but still disagreeing with it is viewed as traitorous; it is in these situations where it seems that any positive feedback I provide is viewed as confirmation that things are already being done “right” but there is no further consideration of whether that is good enough or could still be improved.

    Thanks for your frequent insightful writing on this blog. I often read it and usually have thoughts in response to what you’ve written. I rarely take the time to comment, and this comment is more spontaneous and probably less well-thought-out than I’d like, but I think about feedback a lot and always appreciate the chance to exchange ideas on how best to do it.

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  2. Naomi Craig says:

    I’d always heard that method described as the “ice cream sandwich” approach, which always made me think, yeah, the ice cream part of the sandwich is all that matters…those soggy wafers just make it worse.

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    • JSD says:

      I guess that does sound slightly more appetizing than the shit sandwich, but yes, not too much better. Plus at Summit, anyway, sometimes the folks trying to give positive feedback were really just coming up with random things they could wrap around the constructives.

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