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ClearDot.gif (85 bytes) Negative Feedback:
Making Yourself Heard

. . . . . .
By Thomas R. Hoerr

Editor's Note: Tom Hoerr is the head of the New City School in St. Louis, MO., which has been implementing Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence theory since 1988. Dr. Hoerr has written extensively about Multiple Intelligences in scores of articles and two books, Becoming A Multiple Intelligences School (ASCD Press, 2000) and Developing Multiple Intelligences (Ladder Press International); both available from the TriumphPC/Barnes&Noble discount online bookstore.

Tom HoerrManaging people is the hardest job of all. Perhaps in a perfect world, everyone would do what was expected, strive to improve and grow, and accept feedback without getting defensive. In a perfect world, supervisors would know when and how to give feedback so that it could be heard. Unfortunately, this is far from a perfect world.

Every principal recognizes that the quality of a school. depends on the quality of its faculty. This means principals must spend much of their time and energy developing their faculty and helping teachers grow. Giving honest feedback is the most important way to accomplish this.

When positive feedback is called for, praise should be spread around freely, and it should be as specific as possible. Saying "nice job" isn't good enough. However, giving negative feedback - letting others know when their performance is lacking - is much harder. While we must reinforce positive behaviors, it is just as important to identify and attempt to correct negative behaviors.

These are 10 tips I have found helpful in preparing negative feedback. Saying hard things is hard, and these will help guard against the instinct to avoid confrontation by minimizing interactions, being too casual, or not being specific, or failing to determine if your message got through.

1. Pick the time and place carefully.  Too often, we don't give feedback the time or privacy it deserves. Feedback about a minor incident doesn't call for a private meeting time. But if the issue is important, having a private meeting gives the right message. It's also important to remember that while praise can be public, criticism should never be overheard or delivered at the spur of the moment.

2. Be timely. Wait long enough after identifying the problem so that you can place it in an appropriate context, but be sure it is still fresh in the teacher's mind. Also, if you feel yourself getting upset, wait a bit and calm down before having your conversation.

3. Be specific.  Why do you feel that the lesson was paced too slowly? What was it about the handling of a parent's complaint that disappointed you? How could you tell that the students were bored? Why do you think the lesson wasn't well-planned? Offering specifics invites rebuttal or disagreement, but if you really want people to change what they are doing, you owe it to them to give focused feedback. The more specific you are, the more likely they are to change their behavior. Remember, offer feedback that is always directed at their performance, not at them personally.

4. Communication is more than words.  We can argue whether nonverbal communication represents 50 or 66 percent of communication, but there's no doubt that our nonverbal messages play a key part in what people hear and understand. How you say something is as important as what you say. You should be sure that your eyes, face, and body are giving the same message as your words. In preparation for particularly difficult meetings, I often role-play what I am going to say and how I am going to say it with an assistant.

5. Provide a rationale. You can't simply assume that what you say will be heard because you're the person saying it. The other person needs to understand why it is important to you - the implications and context for your thinking. In some cases, this may be obvious - students who are bored aren't learning. In other situations, especially those stemming from teacher-parent or teacher-teacher interactions, the teacher needs to know your thinking.

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