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  • Caitlin Quarrington

Leaning Into Feedback

Many years ago, like most science students, I learned about positive and negative feedback loops. Sometimes I wonder if it was this teaching that caused me to inherently accept, for many years, the idea that one might give and receive “positive” or “negative” feedback in the broader context of interpersonal communication. After all, if those words could be crammed together in a biology textbook, weren’t they a natural pairing?

Breaking free of the labels of positive and negative, and the implied good and bad that tag along with them, has challenged me when it comes to feedback. For all I know about critical thinking, especially when it comes to science and technology, it’s taken me years (and unlearning traditional education norms) to intentionally seek out powerful feedback. I’m talking about the type of feedback that can’t be labeled as positive or negative, but rather drives new avenues of questioning, propels deeper thought, and provokes curiosity about the unexplored.

This kind of feedback is absolutely critical in science and technology. It’s what strengthens ideas into solid arguments, because they’ve been examined from myriad angles. This kind of feedback demands evidence.

How do we elicit that kind of input on our work?

A few years ago, I was introduced to one framework for feedback, developed by Peter Elbow and Pat Belanoff. They present 11 ways of responding, and encourage writers (of any discipline, writing on any topic) to specifically ask their reader to review work with one or more ways of responding in mind. In this way, feedback becomes more focused and purposeful. Since I began asking for these ways of responding with my colleagues, I’ve found that my reviewers have clarity about what I’m asking of them - resulting in feedback returned twice as quickly when compared to asking a broad “what do you think?”. My arguments have also become stronger as I’m forced to iterate, integrate diverse perspectives, and consider alternate ideas - the 9th way of responding, believing and doubting, has cost me many late hours reworking proposals as others have poked holes in my work!

A second more rapid tool for feedback is the plus-delta approach. I learned of this system through Peter Taylor and Jeremy Szteiter in their book, Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research and Engagement. In plus-delta feedback, listeners or readers are asked to share one point or idea that intersects with their own or resonates with them (the “plus”), and one suggestion for extending the work or a new avenue for thinking (the “delta”). This type of feedback emphasizes change and growth while still focusing on what is working well, and I’ve used it countless times as a way to rapidly get input from multiple colleagues (for example, after a team meeting, on conference presentations or a project outline).

While it might seem like these are all linear processes - work is handed over, feedback is delivered, work is updated - this is actually about establishing a new kind of feedback loop. Truly being open to continuous improvement and integrating new perspectives means that our work is never really “done”. While we may accept an end point, I’d like to think that feedback loops, the kind that exist in our communication, keep conversations going and fuel ongoing curiosity about how to deepen our thinking. When we can lean into that kind of feedback loop, it leads to powerful learning and growth.


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