I’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