The Art of Constructive Feedback

sculpture

I had an opportunity to revisit my old stomping grounds this spring: I gave a keynote presentation to Alberta Parks interpreters in Kananaskis Country, where I began my career in 1982. It was a wonderful, nostalgic experience, and it really brought back to me the value of the training I got from that organization. So much of what I know about family programming, theatrical programming, interpretive walks, and campfire programs goes back to my days with Alberta Parks.

I think the best legacy of the Alberta Parks approach is the emphasis they placed on critiques—the importance of knowing how to give and take an evaluation of an interpretive program.

When I was a young interpreter, it was simply given that when you debuted your program, your supervisor would be there, note pad in hand. And it was never terrifying, because that same supervisor had been there to coach you through the rehearsal process from the start.

Craving Feedback

It was also given that if we attended our friends’ or colleagues’ programs, we would have note pad in hand, too. We valued each other’s opinions, and we had a framework or protocol for giving and taking feedback that never felt personal or awkward. It was just the way we did things. My colleagues who are veterans of that program, to this day, crave constructive feedback, and they know how to offer it.

After I left Alberta Parks and moved on to other systems, it was a bit of a shock to me to discover that other organizations didn’t have that same culture. I ended up working in systems where supervisors didn’t really supervise: they rarely saw your programs, never mentored or coached their interpreters, and if they did manage to squeeze in your program, they only offered you a quick note by email the next day to let you know what they wanted changed.

This is bad supervision, and it’s shockingly common in our profession. But I didn’t really know that at the time. I just knew I was on my own. So I would ask my colleagues to come see my show or my hike, and I would beg them for feedback.

In these feedback-free systems, I even made the mistake of offering comment to my colleagues if I had seen their work. But without a culture of mutual feedback in place, that offer was sometimes met with awkward acceptance or worse, defensiveness. I quickly learned to keep my thoughts to myself.

Feedback is hard.

Interpreters wear their feelings on their sleeves. We sometimes see that as our weakness, but I think it’s one of our strengths. We are professional sensitive people, in a way. Part of our craft is empathizing with our audiences, and with each other. So it’s natural that we feel a certain discomfort—or dread—when it comes time for feedback, especially when we’re not trained to give it and receive it.

How to give a constructive critique

(The following are guidelines I was taught to follow, and I still use them. If you can add to them, please do so in the comments.)

  1. When offering a critique of someone else’s work (and if you are not the individual’s supervisor) first determine that a critique is welcome. Don’t surprise them with an assessment of their work. Learn from my fail on this one.
  2. With that out of the way, if you’re the assessor, all you need do simply sit back and enjoy the program—with a notepad in hand. The notepad is crucial: do not assume you will remember all of the things you’d like to comment on—you won’t. And be subtle about your note-taking. Don’t sit front and centre with a giant yellow note pad.
  3. There are a whole variety of standards and rubrics for you to use as assessment criteria. I have a set of them here on my website. The US’s National Association for Interpretation has standards. Canada’s Emerit has them. Or, you can simply put on your audience goggles and watch the program from that point of view, offering comments based on your experience with that target audience.
  4. Those audience goggles? They’re really important. Never evaluate a program from your own point of view: see it through the audience’s eyes. Always.
  5. Agree on a time and place for the critique. Don’t blindside your colleague with a wall of comments when they’re not in a frame of mind to receive them. Either meet up an hour after the program, or early the next day. Set a time and stick to it. (If the interpreter is really feeling triumphant after a wonderful program, this gives them time to bask in the afterglow. If they’ve had a tough time with it, it gives them time to glue themselves together before rehashing the whole dreadful experience. I have considerable experience at both ends of the spectrum.)
  6. Set a time limit for the critique. If you can’t get it done in 30 minutes, you’ve got a bigger problem than a single feedback session can fix.
  7. The person receiving the feedback has a note pad and takes good notes.
  8. First, allow the person being evaluated to give their general impressions, weaknesses and strengths of the program: a quick overview of how they thought it went. This saves you a lot of time in the rest of the critique, and it give them a bit of a feeling of control over the emotionally risky assessment to follow.
  9. Allow the person being evaluated to identify any spots that they really need feedback on. “I’m really struggling with my transitions and would love any thoughts you have on them.”
  10. Together, work through program in a linear fashion. The assessor uses the positive-negative-positive format for critiques (known in less genteel circles as the shit sandwich.) Something good, something that needs improvement, something good again. And if you can’t find something good to say, you’re probably lacking creativity and should be selling shoes or something. It isn’t that hard, honestly. I’ve seen programs that made me want to chew off my own arm, but I could still find something positive to say.
  11. This bears emphasizing: Assessor, be gentle. Be kind. Be constructive. With each critique note, identify exactly what the issue was and why it was a problem. Suggest a solution—or take a minute to brainstorm a solution with the person being evaluated. Never say things like, “I didn’t like that.” How about, “This is what I saw. This is how it felt as an audience member. It struck me as maybe not as clear / smooth / appropriate / effective / whatever as it might have been. Have you thought of…” And so on.
  12. This is an important one: The person receiving the critique agrees to listen to and reflect on each note before defending the way they did that part of the program.  If I had a dime for every time an interpreter rushed in to defend every single aspect of their program…  If you’re getting feedback, suck it up for 30 minutes. Check your emotions, and check your defences. Listen. Take the note. Write it down.
  13. Another biggie: make sure that the person being evaluated understands whether the note is a “just a suggestion” kind of note, or a “sweet baby jesus you need to fix this before it goes before the public again” kind of note. This is particularly important in a supervisor/employee relationship, and getting this wrong can lead to brutal repercussions.
  14. Before ending the critique, double check to see if there are any questions, misunderstandings, or hard feelings. Schedule the next meeting if necessary. (Sometimes a section of a program really needs more work than a 1/2 hour critique can fix, so you need to set up a working session.)
  15. Hug each other.

Interpreters still hug, don’t they?

 

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