Instructors Guide to Responding Positively to Negative Evaluations

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[edit] Criticism is valuable

Treating negative feedback as a valuable, rare commodity is a learned skill. No one likes having their hard work and effort criticized. Criticism is like pain - it hurts. But like pain, it can be very valuable. It can motivate you to change. Most importantly, feedback is vital to helping you get better as an instructor, and part of being a great instructor is recognizing and operating from this fact.

One thing that may be helpful to keep in mind is that most people who are unsatisfied with a service don't tell the service provider. Instead they tell others. The opportunity to hear criticism of your work yourself directly from the source is something you don't always get.

At its heart, criticism is the most effective feedback mechanism an instructor has for improving their craft. While it's a big stroke to get all 10's on an evaluation, what do you really learn from your positive evals?

Also, realize that it is trivially easy to deal with someone who responds well to positive feedback. Everyone responds well to positive feedback! It's how you respond to negative feedback that gives you a chance to separate yourself from those who are less secure or professional. When you respond to negative feedback, you are broadcasting to those who are involved how they should handle providing feedback to you in the future. Do you want the people who work with you to feel like they must treat you with kid gloves?

No one likes to work with someone that is characterized by always justifying their behavior. People like to work with others that they feel comfortable approaching openly and directly. Sterling Ledet, founder of Ledet training, says "When an instructor takes ownership of student issues, even if it's not exactly clear that the student's issue or expectation is reasonable, the result is an increase in my respect for that instructor. It's a real pleasure to work with professionals who treat negative evaluations effectively."

Even if a negative evaluation is totally off-base and has no connection with reality whatsoever, it still presents an opportunity for you to improve your communication skills.

[edit] Blind spots

Have you ever been pulling over on the highway when someone honked their horn because they were in your blind spot? How did you feel? Perhaps you were startled, perhaps a little resentful, but after a second you realize you would much rather the notice than an accident.

By definition, you can't see your own blind spots. Those who have the courage to point them out are actually doing you a big favor. Perhaps a technique you've used before has only been tolerated, perhaps your bubbly personality causes people to be too gentle on the evals, or perhaps what you think of as something that is not much of a big deal is really something that is a snake in the grass waiting to bite in the right circumstances. Whatever the situation, be on the lookout for blind spots and question your assumptions, particularly when it comes to yourself. Humility, in general, is really good in that it keeps you from becoming too arrogant, makes you easier to work with, and makes you more open to learning from others.

[edit] Summary of Steps To Creating a Response

  1. Check your attitude
  2. Look for specifics
  3. Dig deeper if needed
  4. Summarize what you've learned and what you plan to do about it
  5. Take responsibility and accountability if appropriate
  6. Thank the people involved

[edit] Check your attitude

Never respond to criticism when you are feeling defensive. You can usually sleep on it, but even if it is something that requires a fairly urgent response, you have time to count to 10 and think before you begin your response. The last thing you want to do is give a response you will later regret. "Defensive, "touchy" and "sensitive" are not characteristics that any instructor wants to have as part of their reputation.

There is not a right way and a wrong way to conduct a training session. Every individual is unique and the same class often has some people who are satisfied and some who aren't. That doesn't make some students right and some students wrong. Much of the training process (but certainly not all) is very subjective when it comes to quality of service.

Don't expect to always receive positive feedback. Try your best to be open to the positive aspects of negative feedback mentioned above. Try to be as dispassionate as possible.

Sometimes it may be helpful to try and view the evaluation as if it were about another instructor. What could you learn about that instructor from this eval?

If you can have the right attitude, rise above the initial defensiveness that tends to arise in these situations, and respond calmly, effectively and with professionalism you will often earn greater respect from all involved, including the student who initially provided negative feedback.

[edit] Look for specifics

The best feedback contains specific, actionable and unbiased action items. If your negative eval is clear, logical and precise, however, your student is probably another trainer who has a lot of experience giving useful feedback. Most people, however, usually have a mixture of opinion and facts intermixed in their eval.

Occasionally students are just bitter, negative, or overly critical. They may have unreasonable expectations or they may be disappointed with someone else in the organization and they are just taking it out on you. That doesn't mean their opinion can be ignored. You still might find something useful in the eval.

Your objective is to create a list of actionable items that can potentially be addressed or learned from. Categorize items and issues as objective claims of truth (i.e. the instructor arrived late for class), biased cheap shots (the instructor was the worst I've ever had in my life), or a mixture of the two (the instructor was not sufficiently prepared for class).

The most useful evaluations allow you to take some sort of action to improve the situation, address the concern, or avoid similar problems in the future.

[edit] Dig deeper if needed

If an evaluation is vague and the items in it are unactionable, it will be pretty much useless unless you dig a little deeper. You may need to legitimately ask questions in order to uncover the real core issues.

Be careful of being perceived as defensive. "I want to understand your point of view. I also want to be the best instructor I can be. Can you please tell me more details as to how I could have done a better job at ...?" can be a useful question. Make sure to communicate that you sincerely want honest and blunt feedback, but that you are hoping for something more specific that you can act on. Perhaps there is something you can take ownership of but you are unsure if the student has other issues. "I can see how when I ..., you felt ... Were there other examples you can provide me?"

Keep in mind that if you are working with a training center, it's most appropriate that responses to the student should go through the training center. That doesn't mean you can't word an email directly to the student. It just means the training center should receive it first and have an opportunity to review what is being sent to the end student. In the process, you may get some more useful feedback from the training center that will help improve your response.

If you are uncomfortable addressing your clients directly with a request for more detail, or if they are unwilling to provide it, ask a peer or someone else you respect what they think. Do they agree that this is an area you could use some improvement on? Can they help you understand how to get better in that area?

[edit] Take responsibility and accountability if appropriate

The most important part of responding effectively to criticism of your training service is taking ownership of the issue and acting on it.

Do what it takes to thoroughly address the issues uncovered. If you were insufficiently skilled in a particular area, spend extra time learning that area. If it was an issue with arriving promptly, set your alarm clock early. Try to establish procedures and standards you can use to improve these areas over the long haul. Take baby steps if necessary.

If there are consequences, either financial or otherwise, that need to be addressed, ask yourself what you feel is a fair and reasonable settlement. If you are willing to provide a financial discount say so. If you are not, say so. If you feel additional services are appropriate say so. Clarity and direct feedback is important here.

[edit] Summarize what you've learned and what you plan to do about it

A written response is the most appropriate way to deal with negative evaluations or feedback. It's often very useful for the training center to have an "instructor's response" on file. Blaise Pascal is quoted as stating "I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time." Your response should be as concise, organized and direct as possible.

Be proactive about your policy of responding to negative evaluations. Many instructors ignore negative evaluations. The best practice, however, is to proactively respond to negative evaluation. Even if the criticism is not completely valid, stepping up, apologizing for your contribution, and explaining what may have happened is investing in your long term reputation and career.

[edit] Thank the people involved

If you develop a reputation as an instructor who responds well to criticism, you'll have a distinct advantage. It will separate you from the majority of instructors. Make a point of sincerely thanking those who provide negative evaluations. Thanking even your harshest and most unfair critics can crate a lasting impression. It keeps you humble. It improves communication and leaves the door open for additional feedback in the future. You'll feel better about the experience and just like public speaking, it gets easier with practice.

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