Two weeks ago, my younger sister, Hannah, moved to Munich, Germany to take a job as an au pair. Essentially, you get to live with a host family in a foreign country, you’re paid to help around the house and care for the children, and you usually have to be a recent college graduate under the age of 25. She found her host family through an au pait matching website.
Anyway, Hannah left the United States two weeks ago. During her first few days abroad, my communication with her was limited. She gave us a call to let us know that she arrived, and I’d see her post pictures to her profile. One day, I received a Facebook message from her while I was at work. She needed to Skype—as soon as possible.
The day before her message to me, as my sister tried to get the three-year-old boy she was caring for ready for bed, he threw a tantrum. He started yelling and what he said really affected her. As she tried to get him into bed, he screamed at her, “You’re not my mom! You don’t belong here! You have no friends, and I hate you!”
This outburst put my sister in a tricky situation. She wanted to say that those words were hurtful. In that moment, she froze and couldn’t do anything. A part of her hesitation was simply the language barrier. Earning a German minor does a great job of preparing you to ask for directions or order from a restaurant. Raise children? Not so much. But the other complication was the fact that she’s only known this family for two weeks and didn’t yet know her boundaries when it came to disciplining the kids. Ultimately, she went to bed frustrated because a three year old had gotten inside her head and the situation was unresolved.
The next day, I shared Hannah’s dilemma with a colleague who also has a three year old at home. This colleague offered some great perspective on the situation. She said that in moments like those the important thing isn’t getting your words exactly right. The important thing is providing feedback while the moment is still fresh. Once you allow the moment to pass, you’ve silenced yourself, silenced your feelings, and lost a valuable opportunity. If you shift your perspective, feedback can be seen as a gift.
The idea that “feedback is a gift” resonated with me. Although my work differs from my sister’s job as an au pair, my everyday professional and personal life provides countless opportunities for feedback. Sometimes it can be easy to brush off these chances to offer praise or constructive criticism, instead choosing to wait for designated meetings at the end of the semester or when the moment feels like it’s right. But choosing to wait or choosing to keep these thoughts to oneself does no good.
In his book “The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom,” Don Miguel Ruiz emphasizes the importance of open communication. He writes, “Find the courage to ask questions … communicate with others as clearly as you can to avoid misunderstandings, sadness, and drama.” Similarly, the University of New Hampshire offers this advice for effective feedback in the workplace: Feedback should be…
- “Owned” by the giver
- Understood by the receiver
- Delivered in a supportive climate
- Followed-up with an action plan
- Given with no surprises
One of my goals for this year is to think about how I can foster an environment with my students that is more conducive to providing and receiving feedback. If anyone has strategies that work for you, I’d love to hear your ideas. These conversations aren’t always comfortable, but remember, you’re giving/receiving a gift. Making time for the conversation means that you care. The next time someone asks if you have a minute to talk and offers you some timely feedback, don’t feel upset. Smile and say, “Danke.”
How do you handle feedback?
Matt Van Jura
is the Program Advisor at University of Michigan–Ann Arbor.
Matt is a program advisor within the Center for Campus Involvement. He has served in his current role since 2010. His professional interests include leadership development, campus programming, and the intersection of community with education. In his free time, Matt enjoys running, cycling, and following college football.