I’ve never been comfortable asking for feedback. On one hand I worry that folks think I’m asking for praise – and for a good Scots lass this goes completely against the grain. ‘Aye, it’s OK’ is high praise where I come from. So the thought of asking for more detailed feedback smacks of being ‘showy-offy’ or big headed. As a participant on a course, I cringe when the trainer goes around the room at the end of the session asking for us each to give an example of something we’ve learned that day. It takes a brave soul to stand up and say that they didn’t enjoy the session or that they hadn’t learned anything (the arrogance of it!) So I feel obliged to say something good, even if I don’t feel it. I don’t want to hurt the trainer’s feelings, but nor do I want to stroke their ego. If I’ve enjoyed the training and come away feeling inspired and positive, or if I’ve had a disappointing experience, I’d much rather email them afterwards or fill in a feedback form. Likewise, I find it easier to read that somebody enjoyed their workshop with me than ask them in person.
On the other hand, I fear feedback that says my advice didn’t work. Not because I think I have all the answers. But because I worry that I don’t have all the answers. When I did behaviour work and one to one training I always dreaded the follow-up call. I hated picking up the phone to find out how people were getting on since I last saw them. What if the method I’d recommended hadn’t worked? And what if I couldn’t come up with a successful alternative? I’ll admit, I sometimes skipped those calls such was the level of anxiety the thought of them provoked.
And here’s the irony. It was very rare that a client ever said that things were going badly. Of course, there were bumps in the behavioural road, but never an outright failure. There was the occasional personality clash where me and the client weren’t a good fit. But overall, feedback was positive. So my fear of feedback wasn’t based on having had a bad experience or a hostile review. It was much more about my lack of confidence, my lack of self-belief. I clung to the theory that no news was good news.
Don’t get me wrong, I did follow up most of the time. Most calls went along the lines of the dog continuing to respond to the work we’d started during the visit. (I’d never leave a client with a to-do list without having started the modification or new skill with them.) So my question was more about how the client was managing to continue with the process on their own. Then they might describe how they’d made a slight change to my advice or asked for clarification on next steps as their dog’s behaviour changed. We would discuss how to proof the behaviour, or when and how to move onto the next step in the programme. Often the client would seek reassurance that they were ‘doing the right things’ and I would be able to confirm that they were indeed doing a grand job.
Occasionally a client would surprise me by saying the problem had been solved in that one visit. To which I would give a cautious verbal ‘high five’ while waiting for the other shoe to drop. One that particularly sticks in my mind was an adult labrador who had zero recall. We went for one walk and from that point on, she always came back when called. To this day I still find it hard to believe, but it was true. But even then I was afraid to continue to follow up. Even when the results had been spectacularly good, I was still hesitant to call to see how things were going, just in case it had all gone wrong.
As I’ve matured, I have become better at asking for feedback and taking on criticism. But the fear remains. When I worked as a drug detector dog handler in Customs, I had a particularly brave colleague. He was an experienced handler and gave great advice. But without fail, every time he offered feedback, I flew off the handle. This would be followed by a cool down on my own during which time I would think about what he’d said. And, usually, discover that he was right. The oft repeated sequence would culminate in me apologising to him, thanking him for his advice and then putting it into practice. How he had the patience to go through this time and again I will never know. But I am so grateful that he did. I learned a lot about dog handling and about myself.
These days I know that feedback is simply information. If I have asked for it, maybe through a survey or follow up email, I find it super useful. Often it will throw up aspects of the learning the I hadn’t considered. Or it highlights a practical issue that is easy for me to fix and will make a positive difference to my students. It helps reinforce what is working well and what I need to adjust. And I welcome this. It helps me make my teaching better. Which leads to better outcomes for my students/clients.
I have also become adept at discarding feedback which is personal or is about aspects over which I have no control. I don’t often receive unhelpful comments. But when I do I simply park them rather than mulling them over again and again as I used to do in my younger, feistier days. Don’t get me wrong, if I see something that is downright wrong I will respond. But most times, I simply forget about it because feedback and criticism are not the same thing. The first is about evaluating and improving, while the second is about finding fault and apportioning blame.
Feedback is vital
Feedback when teaching is vital. I’m not an advocate of saying that the student is always right. I believe that people come to be taught by me because they want my help, not just a pat on the back. But how to give feedback is key. Most often students are repeating mistakes that I have made myself. By sharing this I hope to reassure people that they are not being ‘silly’ or ‘stupid’. What they are doing is normal and usual. Nothing hurts more than the feeling of being ridiculed. Learning something new is, by it’s very nature, to make yourself vulnerable. Therefore, emotions can run high. Just like mine used to when I was a baby dog handler!
Personally, if I’m not feeling good about myself, feedback is doubly hard to take. And so I try to put myself in the place of my students. I think about how I’d feel if I heard or read the feedback I was about to deliver. I try to be thoughtful and kind in my delivery. And I use humour and warmth to build connection and rapport. That way, when it comes time to give less positive feedback, it can be better received. It’s important to lift people up, to support them and point out what they are doing well. Suggest improvements. Demonstrate why one technique might be a better option than another. Give tangible examples of how the dog reacted when the handler did A rather than B. Pay attention to the details so that the learner’s experienced is always enhanced by the feedback. And always look for the good more than the bad.
And so I return to the emails that tell me that I’ve received more completed surveys. I still delay opening them. I still dread what they might say. And I’m still surprised and delighted when they contain useful and positive takeaways. Whether it’s a testimonial or a tweak, if it helps me be a better teacher. I will continue to work on my unfounded anxiety around receiving feedback. It is getting better.