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Self-With-Others is based in unconditional positive feedback.
Unconditional. Positive. Feedback.
I don’t mean constructive criticism – where you praise someone, and follow it with: ‘…but….’.
Unconditional positive feedback means commenting only on things you think the person you are guiding has done well. You offer unconditional acceptance. Doing this, you help them build a foundation of confidence from which to grow.
Why is this important?
Isn’t it just a way of avoiding difficult feedback?
Isn’t it not addressing flaws and errors?
Isn’t it lazy?
Isn’t it flattery?
When we ask someone to try something new, we ask them to take a risk. When they attempt something they’ve never tried before, probably, at some level, they’re going to fail.
We ask them to give up the security of what they know, and enter unknown territory.
If you want somebody to do that, make them feel secure! Remind them that even if, as probably they will, they fail, you will not judge it as ‘failure’, but as ‘learning’.
Not to succeed at a task is not the same as ‘failing’. In falling short, or going wrong, they have attempted what they can’t do yet. That’s what learning is.
‘Failing’ (to achieve) is actually ‘succeeding’ (in learning).
Positive feedback asks us to value and draw lessons from these successes.
The first role of positive feedback is to create a secure foundation people can grow from – a ‘home’ they can leave to encounter new things, and return to when those new things are overwhelming.
This secure foundation is built on unconditional acceptance from their teacher/audience/colleagues. It gives permissison to take risks.
Whatever our intentions, when we criticise somebody they feel attacked. If you feel attacked, you will, at some level, defend yourself. Defensiveness and creativity – defensiveness and risk-taking – are not good bedfellows.
When we offer positive feedback, we reflect back to a student what they have done, without generating in them a need to defend, or justify themselves.
We encourage them to observe their strengths and potential as objectively as possible.
What happens when a student has done something ‘not good enough’?
Let’s separate developmental feedback from technical feedback. If a student has not achieved certain objectives, it’s perfectly possible to give technical correction, without making feedback a personal criticism. Not: ‘You didn’t achieve this’, but: ‘This needs more work’, or ‘This could be different’, or, ‘What would happen if we did this another way?’
Though you are saying nearly the same thing, respectful, evolutionary, positive feedback has a different tone – a developmental tone.
You can offer unconditional acceptance to someone, even while pointing out technical shortcomings.
The role of positive feedback is to encourage people to take risks – to take the risk of learning. If technical feedback is needed, use positive feedback to point out what someone did well, and how she might build a bridge from where she is, to where she needs to be.
This is feedback that does not point out ‘wrong steps’ but ‘next steps’. We use ‘demonstrated achievements’ as a springboard for deciding next steps.
Positive feedback asks the teacher/facilitator to engage in detail with each individual’s work. You observe carefully, searching for exactly what and how someone is doing well. Then you feed back what you saw – reflecting the details of the work she actually did.
Positive feedback is not flattery. Positive feedback is precise, detailed feedback, focusing on achievement. It challenges the idea that criticism is about failings. Criticism can equally be about successes.
Positive feedback demands humility. Rather than telling someone how she ‘should’ be, how things ‘should be done’ (in your opinion), it asks you to enter into conversation, helping someone develop her own voice, her own language, her own ways of doing things. If I tell someone what they should have done, I am telling them how to do things my way. When I tell them what I like and respect, I am daring to collaborate in their learning.
Positive feedback challenges the assumptions of authority.
Though there are often technical things that need to be learned, ultimately we are trying to empower those we guide. That means helping people find their own path, rather than insisting they walk your path.
One more thing about positive feedback: if colleagues give positive feedback to each other. It can establish a safe, joyful and creative environment to work in.
It’s more than that though.
If someone responds to a piece of work saying: ‘I liked this’, ‘I was really engaged in that moment’ or ‘I’d never thought of it like that before….’, each sentence begins with the word ‘I’. The giver of feedback is pointing out her own perspectives and interests. Feedback, though given to someone else, reveals more about the giver than the receiver.
In commenting on the work of others, we educate ourselves.
Feedback to another, is feedback to the self. It is a key learning process.
The process of giving positive feedback – reflecting on and analysing what you admire, respect and perhaps even envy in the work of others, is part of developing self-knowledge.
Try unconditional positive feedback. Not because you don’t wish to grow or facilitate growth in others, but because you wish to grow joyfully, creatively and healthily from where you are, to where you aspire to be.
(I acknowledge a deep debt of gratitude to performance teacher Al Wunder for helping me understand the power of positive feedback).