To move into expertise, we need a sage guide to show us where we excel and where we need to improve. All learning processes involve some negative feedback, whether it involves learning to skateboard or pay your utility bills. Psychologists provide positive and negative feedback to people and organizations in many arenas. Learning to give helpful feedback as a peer supervisor takes experience, mentorship, and trust in your knowledge and expertise.

One of my clinical supervisors described feedback as similar to the way a physical therapist views rehabilitation after an injury; while we all need (and prefer) a massage, recovery requires exercising the muscles in painful ways. It is the painful exercising that returns the tissue to strength. Positive feedback is the massage; negative feedback is the jumps, stretches, and pulls that take us to new levels of ability in our clinical training.

Providing peer supervision developed my identity as a supervisor. I accepted a position to be a teaching assistant for the most challenging course in our program. It was my third year of graduate training, and stress was high.

The assignments demanded students spend hours meticulously grading test protocols while juggling the demands of clinical rotations, research, and maintaining a social life. When grading commenced, it was my responsibility to give feedback to each student individually. Some students would inevitably fail the competency mark and need to redo the assignment.

I received a variety of reactions when giving negative feedback. Some degree of defensiveness, internalization, and acceptance were present in every conversation. Although uncomfortable, I was learning the dance between acknowledging my supervisee’s feelings, regulating my defensive reactions, and internalized cultural expectations while providing feedback to help students succeed in their skill development.

What I Learned

The relationship is key. The supervisors I credit for my professional development were resilient, open, and took time to know me personally. Graduate students (myself included) are high-performing people and oftentimes experience negative feedback as a threat to their identity.

Giving difficult feedback to supervisees allows you to hold supervisees’ frustrations and disappointments with themselves and others while maintaining the relationship. This feedback also moves them forward in their graduate school goals.

Acknowledge Your Own “Stuff”

Reflecting on your relationship with conflict is a significant first step to giving helpful feedback. My reaction to conflict is the fear of becoming a “bad object” in a colleague’s mind [1].

Most people enter the field of psychology to be the “good object” and help people in areas of struggle. The fear of being the bad object is genuine for me. The problem with this mindset is that the relationship cycle is dynamic and will experience moments of rupture and repair.

The question becomes whether the issue is worth a rupture moment, and if so, how to navigate the repair process. The most impactful supervision moments to my professional development left me deflated, confused, and irritated because they were showing me areas of weakness I did not want my supervisor to see, or to see myself.

Empathy Is Key

Carl Rogers described empathic understanding as one of three critical ingredients for a therapeutic relationship leading to change [3]. It is also a key ingredient for creating a firm relational foundation with your supervisee. For some of your students, this is the first time they have ever tried a certain task, let alone learned it with this level of detail.

Many people are fundamentally afraid of failure and will avoid it through perfectionism, pretending, and obsessive work hours. The spiritual writer Richard Rohr (2011)highlights the importance of a trusting relationship for a person to be able to fail without their ego falling apart [6].

My experience of this concept happened when one student took the news of failing an assignment and blamed the rubric for being unclear. The rubric had, in fact, been clear to many other students and modified for clarity over several semesters. A trusted supervisor encouraged me to build a relationship with the student outside the class.

I waited a few weeks and intentionally sought the student out to grab coffee and chat. I inquired about their life outside the program, and a relationship began to build. Something about getting to know my intention, abilities, and character helped soothe the sting of negative feedback for this student.

Also, getting to know the student grew my empathy for them and eased my anxiety about future feedback I would need to give. This proved helpful with future assignments where the student was still upset about negative feedback but was able to acknowledge their mistakes and move towards increasing their competence.

Many graduate students also experience imposter syndrome. Students feel their admission to the program was a fraudulent mistake, and the error or “failure” will eventually be discovered [5].  Therefore, meeting students where they are is crucial, instead of judging where they are not.

Be mindful of your power in the relationship as a supervisor, and know that even a thoughtless facial expression can ruin a supervisee’s day. This attunement facilitates a trusting relationship where the supervisee will feel enough freedom to try new things despite the fear of failure. 

Help With Reframing

Managing strong emotions and disagreements with colleagues is (a) normal, and (b) excellent clinical training. Instead of thinking of the process as failing a student, or being difficult, acknowledge that you are helping students build resilience by experiencing accurate performance-based negative feedback. You are also moving them towards experiencing accurate performance-based positive feedback in the future.

Instead of viewing supervision as adversarial, acknowledge that everyone wants this process to go well, and the supervisee may need to learn the relational or attentional skills to meet their goals. Reframing the experience of giving negative feedback from an uncomfortable or fear-based lens to an integral part of their learning process manages the supervisor’s anxiety and translates to a smoother delivery of negative feedback.

Praise Effort

Assignments can be time-intensive and require learning information or systems that are foreign to students. A “failed” assignment or intervention does not necessarily indicate a lack of effort.

Let your students know you appreciate them whenever possible. For example, one of my students failed two assignments in a row by a small margin. I began the feedback conversation by talking about their work ethic towards the task. I appreciated their openness to the learning process and their attention to the many details required to pass the assignments.

While the student needed to redo the task, they felt affirmed in the effort they put forth. John Gottman recommends a ratio of five to one positive interactions to negative interactions for relationship maintenance [2]. I agree with this ratio and intentionally praise the supervisee’s successes, as there are so many.

Conclusion

I am grateful to experience the joy of helping peers move deeper into their professional knowledge and identity. Being courageous enough to provide negative feedback alongside a supportive supervisory relationship is worth the discomfort.

Navigating our relationship with negative feedback helps us meet clients in the genuine, vulnerable, and honest parts of themselves as they grow towards their most authentic selves. I hope you join my passion for mentoring the next generation of clinicians with compassion, vulnerability, and courage.

References

[1] APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/bad-object.

[2] Benson, K. (2019, September 11). The Magic Relationship Ratio, According to Science.         Retrieved from https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-magic-relationship-ratio-according-     science/.

[3] Rogers, C. (1980). A way of being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

[4] Linehan, M. (2015). DBT skills training handouts and worksheets (2nd ed.). New York: The Guilford Press.

[5] We’re all frauds: managing imposter syndrome in grad school. (2019, March 11). Retrieved from       https://www.ascb.org/careers/frauds-managing-imposter-syndrome-grad-school/).

[6] Rohr, R. (2011). Falling upward: A spirituality for the two halves of life (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Like what you read here? You might also enjoy this article on Clarifying Supervision Goals for Psychology Students & Supervisors.

Taylor Broughton, MA