Thursday, May 1, 2008

Preparing for feedback

Today's e-mail had the question: "I would really benefit from having some ideas on how to prepare myself for feedback (good & bad)."

It's a good question, and there's more than a little to be said. But preparation is only part. The picture is incomplete without receiving and processing the feedback well.

But preparation obviously comes first.

The first step is to want feedback--no matter what.
Feedback can be painful, but often painful feedback is necessary for our long-term good. An ugly parallel might be to suggest that feedback is akin to going to the doctor: you need to know if you're sick, even though you don't want to be sick. Fortunately, the consequences are far less severe.

What's a worst-case scenario with a dissertation? That a professor says that they will request your dismissal from the program? That would be pretty bad. So you need to be ready for the worst. But, it's also worth thinking about how likely that would be. It must have happened, but I have not ever met anyone to whom it happened. One would imagine it's even more unlikely to come out of the blue; one would expect such behavior to follow at least some warning.

I think it's pretty important to start by thinking about the worst-case scenario at least for a moment, partly to acknowledge the danger, and partly to recognize how unlikely that outcome would be. I would imagine that if you are really in danger of getting asked to leave your program, you're probably in equal danger for not producing any work at all, so eventually you have to risk turning something in.

But there are a whole gamut of possibilities for feedback. You can use what you know about the person you're working with to try to predict their response. Is your professor going to be harsh, insulting? Or supportive? Will the feedback be detailed? Or general? Copious or sparse? Which parts will they like and which parts will they dislike? Don't engage in doomsaying, but try to make a real assessment based on what you know of the person, of your interactions with them, their theoretical preferences, and so forth. It is an exercise in understanding your audience.

It's also useful to emotionally distance yourself from your work: you are not your work. The response you get--even if it is a personal attack--may not be due to what you actually believe, or the quality of your ideas, it may simply be that you did not succeed in communicating the ideas in your writing. Feedback based on what you've written is not about you; it's about what you submitted. Criticism does not indicate anything about your abilities or worth as a person.

You want your work to be accepted. You want it to be accepted by your committee, and ideally by a wider audience. Getting positive feedback is awful nice. In order for that to happen, you have to risk the negative feedback.

Negative feedback can be very instrumental in improving your work, so you want to be able to receive it. Any response teaches you about how your writing reaches your audience. If you can evaluate those responses as data to guide future efforts, then all feedback, even negative feedback, is an opportunity to learn about how your work is seen by others.

Be realistic in preparing for feedback. Try to understand the source of the feedback. Try to recognize the individuality of the response. Try to recognize that critical remarks can be used to indicate what needs to be improved.

I mostly talked about receiving negative feedback, because I don't think most of us sit around losing time and energy due to the prospect of getting good feedback. Getting good feedback doesn't require much preparation. But if you're waiting on feedback, it can be very useful to rehearse the reasons that feedback--even negative feedback--helps you learn and grow. If you fear the feedback, it's important to keep working on the ideas of valuing and being able to accept even negative feedback and use it productively. Attitude is crucial; if we remind ourselves of the positive value of even negative feedback (and make no mistake, negative feedback is always valuable in what it teaches about the person who gave us the feedback), then when the time comes that we get the feedback, we're already able to slip into the process of breaking down the feedback and using it to guide your efforts.

Some of this sounds simplistic. I think one reason it may sound simplistic is because it is basically simple. I like the ideas of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, which suggests that the stories we tell ourselves have a profound emotional impact, and that we can improve our mental health by telling stories that are accurate in their balancing of positive and negative possibilities (as many have a tendency to rely on exaggerated stories that emotionally distressful). CBT relies, among other things, on repeating and retelling accurate internal stories, so that those new stories replace the old. In the case of preparing for feedback, if we have negative stories about what feedback means, we need to start telling balanced stories that acknowledge the possibilities presented by feedback.

To awkwardly wrap this up: keep working on wanting the feedback no matter what.

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