Words matter… a lot, especially, when you are giving feedback. When I was a graduate student, I had an adviser who advocated for the “compliment sandwich” — start with a compliment, proceed to give critical feedback, and, then, end with a compliment. It can be hard to hear criticism, sometimes we even try to block it out or forget about it entirely once received. However, with a cushion of kind words around the feedback to buoy our spirits, a compliment sandwich may be an easier pill to swallow.
Today, I am a graduate student once more but also a teaching assistant, which means that I regularly receive feedback as well as dole it out. What an interesting position to be in. I am writing this post to you, because I just sent off a long (near 500-word) email to a student who was feeling quite discouraged about a grade that he had received. I do not know why, but I felt some strong sympathy for this student, whom, by the way, I have never actually seen and have only ever communicated with over email.
The story went something like this (with a few identifying details changed) — the student submitted an assignment about the benefits of art classes for children. The student felt that he put in a good deal of effort and was shocked when he received a less-than-stellar grade and a comment from the professor that suggested that rather than art, the student should focus on the benefits of music classes for children (a topic that was covered in the course readings). The student felt that he had received the low grade because of his topic choice and felt upset by some of the professor’s comments and insinuations. Not knowing where else to turn, the student reached out to me, the teaching assistant, for advice.
It can be hard to be put in the middle of a conflict, but as with many things, I feel that effective communication (which, in part, means settling on the right words) can resolve many interpersonal issues. It is evident to me from past interactions with this student and from the current email that the student was earnest in his request for understanding — most people do not have the courage to reach out for advice in these types of situations. To put this into perspective, I will say that in my two courses of about 70 students total, fewer than 5 (including this particular student) have reached out to me for feedback (though a number have reached out to request extensions).
Again, I felt sympathy for this student, which compelled me to write him back an equally long response and advice for how to move forward. I’m not sure what the “right” way to handle these sorts of situations is, but there are definitely several wrong ways. In my experience receiving feedback (as a student, an employee, as an actress [more here], and in my personal life), I know the power that words can have on people. Although I know that I have rolled my eyes during those mandatory presentations from HR, where we are told not to use “you-statements” in favor of the “I-feel statements,” however, little lessons like this really can make all the difference especially when you are critiquing a student’s assignment.
We can never really know what is going on in someone’s head, in someone’s life, or how our words affect people. Yes, we can absolutely control how we speak to people, but, no, we cannot control how someone will receive our words. For this reason, in situations like the one above, it is so important to err on the side of kindness. No, I do not mean telling people “everything is fine and you did nothing wrong,” if that is not true. Rather, I mean communicating your feedback in ways that will empower someone to make changes rather than discouraging them or making them feel bad about their decisions in the first place.
Addressing someone’s concerns explicitly (such as by restating what they said and commenting on it) is important to not only to establish that you truly hear someone’s argument, but it also can make them feel heard (which, sounds like the same thing, but it’s not).
Altogether, I guess I am writing this post, because I do feel sorry for this student and want to remind myself as well as everyone else how powerful little words can be. When in doubt, if we should err, I hope that we will all do so on the side of kindness.