August 12, 2016

Interpreting is hard.

That’s the conclusion of many of my mentoring sessions, discussions with colleagues, and post-analysis self-revelations. It’s like a piece of dark chocolate (no milk chocolate allowed in here) or a pint of beer—it doesn’t do much good, but it sure makes you feel better once you’ve tasted it.

So rather than ending the day with that beer, let’s do something radical and start the day with it.

Interpreting is hard. So what do we do about it? You work at it, and one of the best ways to do that is by internalizing feedback. I bet you wish that beer a paragraph ago was real now, don’t you? Because guess what? Feedback is hard. Whether you are on the giving or receiving end, feedback is an untamable beast.

Say you are working with fresh blood—an interpreter who’s just left the nest. Your mental list of all you could say to help is so long you’ve forgotten most of it. How do you provide feedback in a manner that they can accept without crushing them? How do you build their confidence while tugging at the foundation of rickety scaffolding they’re standing on?

Say you’re working with a veteran of the field. Maybe it’s someone who, when you watch them work, you try so hard to hide the fact that you’re drooling. But you notice something. How could you possibly bring it up? What if you offend them? What if they don’t listen anyway?

Maybe you’re worried about affecting a friendship or of getting burned. Maybe you’re working with your mentor, supervisor, or someone with clout.

I haven’t even begun to talk about being on the receiving end of feedback.

Sheila Heen, who wrote a book called Thanks for the Feedback, gave a TEDTalk: How to use others’ feedback to learn and grow. I hope that you’ll take the time to watch it. Try interpreting it if you’re one of the overachieving types.

What she has to say is so valuable because it’s a fresh perspective that everyone needs. She talks about how feedback is such a challenge because it involves two basic human needs that are in conflict with each other. The first is the need to grow and improve. The second is the need to be, “accepted and respected and loved the way we are now.” How can these needs be reconciled?

She also talks about how she believes that people should think of receiving feedback as a skill. This means really dissecting the feedback that we are given rather than dismissing it and maybe even controlling the inevitable emotional reactions. It also means seeking out feedback. Rather than saying, “Do you have any feedback for me?” and putting your team in an awkward position, assume as if there is something and ask, “What can I improve on? What did you see that needs work?” You can’t control how feedback is given, and the truth is you may often receive it in the most untactful way possible, but you can control how you respond to that feedback.

I think that giving feedback is also a skill. We just can’t count on every person we engage with to have developed it. Let me digress for a second. I have a degree in creative writing. Many of the writing classes consisted of workshops. This is how it works. Everyone reads your short story, bleeds ink all over it, and spends an hour of class talking about how terrible it was. You have to sit in silence as your classmates compete to see who can make the cleverest dig or notice the biggest inconsistency. The professor acts as the cat wrangler, but doesn’t have much control other than to throw around feathers and catnip in the hopes that it will distract the more feral ones.

If you’re lucky, your fellow students are kind enough to offer you a criticism sandwich, which usually sounds like, “I liked this word, everything sucks, and your main character was okay.” The idea is to soften the blow of the negative feedback with encouraging things, but it comes out contrived and condescending. I discovered through workshopping that the people who are out for themselves will find anything they can to harp on. This was ninety percent of the class. But there is that ten percent who genuinely want to help you, even if they don’t know the best way to communicate it. Regardless, I had to learn that there was something I could gain from one hundred percent of the feedback I was given, no matter what the intentions of the giver were.

I think what is important is to be gracious with each other. Receiving feedback and giving feedback are two entirely separate skills that require practice. As a starting point, there are two simple questions that we can ask when working with others that can make everyone’s lives easier:

“Is there anything you’re working on that you would like feedback on?”

“What can I do to improve?”

What do you think? Have you learned any tricks to giving or receiving feedback? I want to know what they are.


By: Rachelle Clifford


  1. Lesley Siegel

    Great points, Rachelle. I watched Sheila Heen’s TED talk and found her perspective on receiving feedback very useful and applicable to our profession. Thanks for sharing this resource with the community. When we receive feedback positively and gratefully, it also encourages our consumers and colleagues to give us more feedback in the future, and helps us to learn and grow. I really like your idea to ask consumers and teams, “what is one thing I can improve on?”

  2. Andrea Ginn

    I love this discussion!! Feedback is such a critical part of our work when we spend great amounts of time working in isolation. We should take advantage of the opportunities to engage professionally when they arise! I would love to see continued discussion on this topic, maybe a workshop on giving and receiving feedback that is meaningful? If that happened who would come?? 🙂

  3. Amanda Cowan

    Thanks for your post! Yes, it is for sure hard receiving feedback. I consider myself a perfectionist, so sometimes I struggle hearing about what I need to work on since I tend to be so hard on myself already. I know that feedback/constructive criticism will happen no matter what line of work I am in, and after I receive enough of it then the “sting” of the criticism/feedback tends to lessen and then I can loosen up a bit and make adjustments with my work. 🙂

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