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How to give feedback, and confidence

One of the many constant struggles in academia, and probably any field, is how to provide feedback in a good, constructive and kind way. How do you return comments on a manuscript draft without damaging a student’s confidence or frustrating a coworker? How best to have a constructive discussion about a research project while maintaining high scientific standards that require a critical mind? How to discuss a mentee’s progress in a way that destroys, and not feeds, their imposter syndrome? And how to receive feedback of any kind?

This was a discussion topic during one of the meetings at our wonderful UCLA lab, and something I think about frequently. That’s because it’s important, and not easy. I am sure there are many books on this topic but I haven’t invested time in researching this properly. Nevertheless I thought I’d write down some of the interesting bits we discussed.

Feedback on a draft text is influenced by a combination of the feedbacker’s personal taste, experience, intellectual and emotional distance from the product, a higher degree of objectivity than the writer, and the feedbacker’s current situation/mood. It is much easier and much less time consuming to just be critical and see the parts you don’t like or that don’t work as well as they could. Comments like ‘remove that part’, ‘what does this mean’, ‘that paragraph is not very clear’, ‘this should be more concise’ are way easier and demand less effort than analyzing and sharing what is both good and bad about a text and why.

So how to be positive and constructive in a way that motivates the writer? The first two solutions would be to take a bit more time to point out positive as well as negative aspects, and to phrase critical comments as kindly and constructively as possible. While this is probably pretty obvious, it is not easily done, and even thoughtfully constructed critical comments can be received in a negative way that impacts the writer’s confidence (more about this confidence part below).

A less obvious way to approach this could be by phrasing comments as questions, rather than statements. This conveys respect for the opinion of the writer (who is usually leading the project and has a sense of ownership) and opens up the comment for criticism. When there is a hierarchical relationship between the commenter and writer (e.g. student & supervisor), the question approach may reduce the impact of the statements given by the senior commenter. For “same-level” relationships this conveys respect for the opinion of the writer.

This approach could also transfer into other types of feedback, like during meetings, brainstorming sessions, or even casual conversations. (I am sure I am re-inventing the wheel here, but that’s ok, and I’d love to be pointed towards good sources about this topic.)

The larger context here is important: confidence. This is a very tricky one in academia, where imposter syndrome is probably the rule rather than the exception. And it’s something that should be acknowledged and respected, because it can be debilitating and keep us from tapping into our full potential. One thing that may help here is regular feedback moments between mentor and mentee, in a constructive way. It’s very easy, and standard, to focus strongly on negative criticisms and failures. Everyone needs to learn to deal with this, but it can be made a bit easier by hearing positivity and feeling trust. Trust that the mentor believes in the mentee. It’s important that this is not only done in vague terms (‘your work is great!’, ‘nice job!’) but in a specific way that conveys an honest respect and the willingness to really see the other person and what they have done.

When feedback is specific, it is much more tangible, and much easier to incorporate as one’s self-knowledge. There could for example be 4-monthly deeper feedback moments, where the mentor shares a list of positive things that are real and tangible (‘you are good at designing experiments’, ‘you did those analyses particularly well’, ‘that work there showed real creativity’, ‘you are good at inspiring your coworkers’). This can be linked to some things that the mentor believes could help the mentee, point they can work on, aspects they are less good at, all in a constructive way (‘I think if you would learn these stats, your career and insights could really get a boost I believe you would like’, ‘you are a good presenter, but with some specific extra practice I think you could really reach a high level that will benefit you personally, as well as your career’).

A last aspect of all this is on receiving criticism/feedback. That’s not an easy part of research, or life in general, and I am sure that the way in which feedback is processed differs strongly between people. Regardless, it is necessary to learn to deal with negative feedback. Take it in stride. Distinguish work from self, from identity, from ego. Extract what you can use and discard the rest, let it make you better. All easier said than done of course..

I don’t know whether this is the same for everyone, but I know that at least for me it is much easier to take criticism now than it was 10 years ago as a starting PhD student. It has become easier to twist it around and make it into something useful. Having said that though, I assure you that I can still feel like a nobody when I get harsh reviewer comments, or when someone ‘suggests to overhaul’ the outline of the draft manuscript that I thought would work really well. But that’s ok, and completely normal.

Any other ideas on how to provide feedback, or ways to counter that wonderful old friend called imposter syndrome?

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