Four valuable types of feedback

Feedback in a household system

A mentioned in previous posts, I spent this summer living at a very interesting household—one dedicated to communication. One topic that came up at several points was that of the ideal position for the toilet seat. I’m male-bodied and grew up in a house where nobody cared, so my default was naturally to not move the seat after using it. However, one of my housemates found this extremely frustrating.

I was unable to quite grasp the nature of her feelings therein until another friend who was visiting described a raised seat as “triggering”. Oh. I had been modelling it as a preference or inconvenience, not as something that was acting on that level. There were a few possibilities here, feedback-wise. Initially I had no feedback. The first bit of feedback I got was my housemate asking if I was aware that I left the seat up. I replied something to the effect of “No, I’m well-aware” and the conversation became quite tense. I felt very defensive. What I was not aware of was the impact of leaving the seat up. This is the real channel for powerful feedback.

The most valuable feedback, naturally, is that which we cannot know on our own. I knew I was leaving the seat up. I know that my vocal chords tend to produce higher amplitude vibrations in the air than most people’s. What I can’t know, without feedback, is how it affects you. I could guess, and I do guess when necessary. But that’s not nearly as powerful. Besides, I want to know how you feel.

Feedback in a relationship
(an interpersonal system!)

Feedback in relationships is essentially the opposite of bottled feelings. Bottled feelings, for the person they’re bottled inside, foments resent and frustration. But it’s not only the person who’s bottled that gets frustrated: to be interacting regularly with someone who’s not expressing themselves to you is confusing and unpleasant.

I was reading the first few chapters of Nonviolent Communication (NVC) earlier today, and was quite naturally struck by the profound transformations people undergo when they feel that they’ve spoken and been heard. This is the power of feedback.

One of my friends, Sandy, has written about how he used a form taken from software development to improve communication within his relationship.

The advantages he points out of using agile in any context:

  • Potential problems are mentioned before they turn into actual problems, and the entire team can brainstorm on ways of fixing them.
  • The entire team gets a better understanding of the project scope, not just those domains they’re directly involved with.
  • Furthermore, everyone gets an idea of what their coworkers’ day-to-day job is like.
  • Feedback becomes frequent, reliable and near-instant.

The point about feedback becoming frequent is key, as without a clear picture of when you’ll get to be heard by your partner it can be easy to become anxious trying to decide if, when, and how to speak your mind.

Sandy recommends Crocker’s Rules as a way to facilitate frankness. While that’s certainly an option, I’d encourage people to be gentle, both with themselves and their partners. There’s nothing “wrong” with you if you get offended when someone calls you an idiot. Furthermore, that particular word is unlikely to be the actual most efficient way of communicating what you’re trying to communicate (which is what Crocker’s rules are about).

On the contrary, it is mostly a judgement and is not very addressable. How does one simply reduce one’s idiocy? My understanding of communication (from LRC and NVC) is that it would be much more effective to talk about what you’re experiencing, how that’s making you feel, and what you need in order to deal with that.

It’s of paramount importance, regardless of how you say it, that people don’t feel like things have been left unsaid. This is easiest when both people are giving each other the benefit of the doubt on what they’re saying. If you need to institute Crocker’s Rules for that to happen, then do it. (EDIT: I’ve since written an article on trust and Crocker’s Rules)

Feedback in an education system

I have a tendency to avoid classes whose professors or styles of teaching I dislike, and it looked at first like my 3A Math course would be the opposite of this. Turns out that there was a substitute prof for the first week. He was entertaining, engaging, and pedagogically sound. The instructor for the rest of the term was basically reading out of the textbook and getting confused whenever we’d get confused.

The worst part, however, was that our homework assignments (which were not for marks!) had no solutions given. Following the thread on feedback, this is clearly ridiculous as the best way to learn is to to try and fail—provided that you immediately realize that you have in fact not performed in the desired manner, and you proceed to practice something slightly simpler until you’re ready for the exercise you messed up on.

The reason he avoided giving us solutions is that he wanted to assign us the exact same questions on the tests and didn’t want us to have solutions for them. I don’t really have any words to describe how I feel about that. None fit to publish, anyway.

What I would like to do is lay out a spectrum of feedback loops and show that tighter loops are better.

Option 1: Homework with no solutions given (as above).
This is not even a feedback loop. It’s not a loop at all. You’ll quite probably never find out how you did on any of the practice problems.

Option 2: Teachers assigning homework and then solutions/answers show up within a week or two.
Slightly better but not really. A two-week feedback loop is still way too long. By that time, you’ve either already done it right and didn’t need the feedback

Option 3: Do a question, check your answer.
This is great. If you can do this, you’ll probably be just fine. It’s better to have solutions than just answers, but at least answers will tell you if you (probably) got it or if you messed something up.

Option 4: The first time(s) working through a problem, check your progress at each step.
This is optimal. See if your textbook has worked examples, and try guessing at each stage what the next step will be before you read it. You might need to read through at least one of the examples first.

The shift here is essentially from wild stabbing in the dark to deliberate practice.

If you find yourself as a student with a teacher assigning question with no answers, try finding similar (often adjacent) questions in your textbook, to ensure that you’re practising the relevant skills. EDIT: or check out Wolfram Problem Generator. I purchased it and tried it out, and while I think the technology is great, unfortunately they don’t cover any of the material I’m actually learning at this point. Would be great for highschool or early university though.

Feedback in a motivational system

The day after I decided to write this post, a friend sent me a copy of some fanfiction she’d written about her favourite band. I really have nothing to do with them, so I thought I’d read the first few chapters to indulge her, because she was my friend, and also because I was curious what the story would be like, as it’s not something I normally read.

She went offline shortly after I started, and when she signed on the next day she was greeted with a deluge of feedback on various lines I’d found hilarious or bits that confused me or felt “off”. When introducing the story, she’d remarked “yeah I haven’t written in months…I need to do itttt I want to but I’ve been working so much” …after reading my feedback, she exclaimed: “Okay now I am 100freaking% writing the next chapter so you can read it haha I like your feedback… it’s going to be amazing.”

This is the power of feedback.


Have a project you’re working on? Something creative? A startup / app? I love giving feedback. Get in touch! malcolm@malcolmocean.com

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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