The Art of Giving (Welcome) Feedback

In the latest issue of T+D (training and development), the magazine of the American Society for Training & Development, is an article by consultant Philip Friedrich entitled “Feedback as a Gift.” He makes the excellent point that “if people view feedback as a gift, it becomes more valuable—both for the giver and the receiver.”

We bcomm teachers often have our students give each other feedback—and we certainly give a lot of it ourselves. Friedrich’s article has gotten me thinking about how we can all make this process more productive.

His advice for the giver?

• “Be clear about the ‘why’ for feedback.” This reminder helps us stay focused on the larger goal of doing something positive for the receiver—not just saying “you screwed up” or “this is wrong.” Harking back to my post of two weeks ago, we should remember the larger goals of our feedback and, with those in mind, approach the feedback-giving task with confidence and goodwill, not with dread and negativity.

• “Ensure the receiver is receptive.” Here Friedrich talks about being sure that the recipient is ready to hear constructive suggestions—that he/she wants to improve his/her performance and understands why doing so is important. The timing also needs to be as appropriate as possible. Offering suggestions “in a manner that will enable the other person to understand that he is valued” will increase the recipient’s receptivity.

• “Make sure it fits.” In other words, tailor the advice to the particular recipient. And avoid judgmental language; “the best fit . . . is achieved by being specific and objective about what you saw or heard,” or read.

And the receiver?

• “Be receptive.” Don’t judge the contents of the gift prematurely. Set aside defensiveness so that you can give the feedback a chance to help you.

• “Check the fit.” Think about ways that you can benefit from the feedback. As Friedrich says, “ask yourself ‘How and where can I use this?’”

• “Show appreciation.” Hard as it is sometimes, try to see the thoughtfulness behind the offer of feedback. And say thank you; as Friedrich says, graciously accepting helpful feedback will help ensure that you’ll continue to get more.

It might be useful to review this advice with your students before launching your next peer-editing session. It could be good preparation, too, for a writing assignment that consists of giving feedback to an employee, coworker, or even supervisor on a piece of writing he/she did, the way he/she handled a meeting, or some other workplace task that he/she performed.

As teachers, we can also benefit from Friedrich’s reminders. Viewing paper grading as giving helpful feedback rather than simply catching errors helps keeps the “gift exchange” more positive for everyone. Some persuasive words at the start of the term about the benefits of welcoming feedback—words backed up by well-chosen examples of the power of (mis)communication—wouldn’t hurt, either.

Guided Peer Editing

One of my favorite activities in my beginning business writing class is peer editing. When I first started the activity, I noticed that several students would frequently provide unhelpful feedback such as “I like it” or “It looks good to me.” It’s not that they were being lazy or apathetic. They really did not know how to articulate what was good about a document or what needed improvement.

To help them, I developed a guided peer editing worksheet. The result has been that students give more and better feedback and are more confident peer editors. In addition, because the worksheet is based on the grading rubric, students look at their own work more critically as they revise their drafts for a final grade.

 Training them to be peer editors, of course, requires more than the worksheet. For starters, I do expect that the draft represents a good effort, even if that effort is truly misguided—that’s what a draft is for. I also tell students that a peer editor is not a “document fixer.” The peer editor’s job is to raise questions and issues the writer may have not considered. Besides, the peer editor may give bad advice. Students need to know that everything in the final document is the result of the writer’s choices, whether or not those choices are the editor’s as well.

I’ve attached my peer editing worksheet for a negative-news assignment. It is easily adaptable to routine messages, persuasive messages, reports, résumés, and cover letters—really, any document.

Enjoy! If you have peer editing activities that work for you, be sure to share them.