Change Ahead: A New Approach to Feedback for Sign Language Interpreters

Jackie Emmart presented Change Ahead: A New Approach to Feedback for Sign Language Interpreters at StreetLeverage – Live 2016 | Fremont. Her presentation advocates a new approach to feedback for more positive outcomes and increased accountability as we encounter the changing realities of the field.

You can find the PPT deck for her presentation here.

[Note from StreetLeverage: What follows is an English translation of Jackie’s StreetLeverage – Live 2016 presentation. We would encourage each of you to watch the video and access Jackie’s original presentation directly.]

When it comes to giving and receiving feedback, the interpreting profession, along with many other industries, has yet to standardize an approach. There are many reasons for this, but the reality is that from one assignment to the next, we interact with one another in a variety of ways. As a result, after the completion of an interpreting assignment, colleagues ask us for feedback but don’t really mean it; ask us if they can share an observation and then proceed to dance around the issue; invite our observations in a judgmental tone that implies an error in our decisions, behavior, and/or interpreting product; or without regard for the emotional impact, “let us have it” because their heart is in the right place but their soft skills leave something to be desired.

In 2014, I was fortunate to attend the Massachusetts Conference for Women, a gathering of 10,000 women seeking professional and personal development, when Sheila Heen was a guest presenter.[i] She and co-author Douglas Stone had just published “Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood)[ii],” and her presentation got at the heart of why we engage with feedback differently from one person to the next and from one day to the next. As I listened to her explain that we’ve been doing it wrong all along, reframe how we could respond to feedback, and share strategies to engage with those responses, I thought that this information could transform everything for us in the interpreting field, and so here we are.

Annually, organizations spend billions on training supervisors, managers, and leaders to give feedback more efficiently. They’re taught to persist if the feedback they give is not immediately received well. The irony in this, as Sheila revealed in her presentation[iii], is that it’s the receiver of the feedback who holds all the power, not the giver. The giver has no control over how the receiver interprets what is said or whether or not and how to use the feedback. This money and our time could be more wisely spent engaging the receivers of feedback, shifting our energy toward seeking feedback (yes, even the negative kind) and asking for what we need to learn, grow, and develop. This is not only because of the rationale Sheila shared, but because our field and the face of the Deaf community are rapidly changing[iv], and we need to adapt in order to remain responsive and relevant. This can be achieved through our professional dialogues with one another, day in and day out.

Defining “Feedback”

Before I continue, let’s take a moment to acknowledge what is meant by “feedback.” Feedback is any information that we get about ourselves, and even when life is messy and it seems impossible to do so, it can be separated into three categories: Appreciation, Coaching, and Evaluation.[v] Appreciation is about relationships and human connection. It’s “Thanks,” “I see you working hard,” and “You matter to me.” Nearly all (93%) workers feel underappreciated at work and half of all workers leave their jobs because they did not feel appreciated. Coaching is feedback that is aimed at helping someone learn, grow, or change. Examples of coaching are when we give tips to improve a skill, approach, behavior, decision, or an appearance. Evaluation tells you where you stand. It’s an assessment, ranking, and/or rating, whereby there is a standard to which you and your work are being compared. Annual performance reviews fall into this category. One of the easiest ways to get clear on the feedback you’re receiving is to ask what is intended – sometimes it seems we’re getting feedback that falls in a particular category when the giver means for something altogether different. Ensuring that the intent and the impact are aligned will support understanding throughout the feedback conversation.[vi] Let’s also be clear that it doesn’t matter what you call the information you get; I know that some individuals are uncomfortable with calling it feedback.[vii] That’s fine; my goal is not for us to change what we call it. My goal is for us to change how we do it.

We know that finding exceptional teachers and mentors with whom we will always have an open mind regardless of what critique they present is a treasured rarity. Most of our experiences will be with other people who don’t have the time to give us meaningful feedback, who don’t know how to give it, who are just plain mean, or who fall somewhere in between. In order to walk the talk when it comes to our commitment to growth, we need to develop the capacity to learn from everyone.[viii] Yes, everyone.

Why is Engaging with Feedback Tricky?

Feedback sits at the intersection of two human needs – to learn and grow, or achieve mastery and the need for acceptance and approval of me just as I am now. Also, there will always be evaluation in coaching. If I am told how to improve, I’m also inherently being told that I’m not quite good enough and it can be tricky to keep our minds and hearts open when receiving these messages. As we’ll learn later, it’s essential that in our feedback conversations, both giver and receiver compare the giver’s intent of delivering appreciation, coaching, or evaluation, with the impact it’s having on the receiver.[ix]

How we receive feedback one day could be different than how we engage with it the next. There are many influencing factors, including how well we slept the night before, our emotional connection to who or what is in the room, who’s giving the feedback and how, and how we’ve learned to give feedback versus how it’s being given. Now that we’ve looked at the person-to-person experience of feedback, let’s take a step back to consider what’s ahead for our profession and how the changing face of the Deaf community will impact us in the months and years to come.

Now is the Time

Due to current and imminent changes on the horizon, we simply cannot continue to approach feedback and other discussions about our interpreting work in the same way that we always have. In order to meet the ever-increasing demands of these changes, we must find a new way to talk about the work, colleague-to-colleague.

Jackie Emmart

Jackie Emmart

Let’s begin by naming the elephant in the room. According to Humphries et al[x], 80% of all deaf children born in developing countries will receive cochlear implants. Due to the varying policies from healthcare providers and CI manufacturer protocols, there are a significant number of those children who will have no solid first language foundation. If they miss the critical period, they may not ever be fluent in any language. Additionally, cognitive tasks that rely on a solid first language might be underdeveloped such as literacy, memory organization, and number manipulation.[xi] This has great impact on interpreters – how we work with these individuals must be different than how we work with Deaf individuals whose first language is ASL. We simply cannot go at it alone; we need to open the discussion with one another so that we are all better prepared to face the demanding tasks of interpreting for individuals with language dysfluency and possible cognitive delays.

The recent Trends Report published by the National Interpreter Education Center[xii] tells us that approximately 87% of deaf children are educated in mainstream settings. Without peers who share the same language and without access to Deaf adults who can shape appropriate language acquisition, there will be great impact on language and social fluency. We will work with Deaf people whose language is idiosyncratic and the interpreting strategies that work for one may not work for the other. Thus, we must be willing to engage with feedback and one another about effectively working with these current youth and future adults.

As of late, there has been an upswing in the numbers of social media posts, blogs, and articles from members of the Deaf community who are calling for interpreters to ‘clean up our house’.[xiii][xiv][xv] Deaf people are taking to public forums to highlight the lack of accountability we have for one another, and to demand that this be shifted so that we can show up to work in their lives prepared to collaborate and be consummate professionals. As guests in the Deaf community, we must listen to their views and find a way to appropriately respond. We can best clean our house through open conversations about our work, about our behaviors, and about what it means to serve the Deaf and DeafBlind communities. In order to work together, we must be willing to have these brave conversations and engage with feedback in a new way.

In the last 20 years, we have seen a boom in racial and ethnic diversity in the US and yet, 86% of interpreters are just like me: white women.[xvi] That means that we will not share the same linguistic styles or cultures of the individuals we serve with an increasing frequency. In addition to increasing the racial and ethnic diversity in our profession so that we can more accurately represent reality, we also need to work together to learn how to best serve those from different backgrounds. Talking openly about the work, about social and economic justice, and about other important issues that directly relate to working with individuals who are from different backgrounds will become imperative if we are to provide effective interpreting services.

Our interpreting work is being recorded and posted online in ways it hasn’t been before.[xvii] What used to be seen by only the individuals present is now publicly viewable and we are receiving “feedback” from anyone who wants to contribute, regardless of their credibility or intent. Again, in order to appropriately manage these situations, we must work together. We must be willing to engage with the feedback we receive from one another and request support as needed so that we can successfully navigate this uncharted territory.

The interpreting industry is changing, the face of the Deaf community is changing; these are just some of the reasons why we must begin immediately to engage with feedback in a new way. We are not quite there yet because giving and receiving feedback can be challenging, and there are many reasons for that.

Feedback Can be Messy

It’s probably fair to say that the majority of us are on board with believing that the face of our industry and the Deaf community are rapidly changing. So, what’s preventing us from changing how we engage with one another and feedback to get ahead of the curve? The nature of giving and receiving feedback is complicated and there are likely just as many ways to engage with feedback as there are topics to discuss.

Generally, people believe that if we wanted to know something, we’d ask. Some people think that either we must already know or that someone else will tell us. They don’t want to hurt our feelings. The danger of withholding information, though, is that when we finally meet someone brave enough to share with us, we think whatever they say must not be true because certainly if it were, someone else would have told us by now.[xviii] If, however, I readily and regularly seek feedback from my colleagues, and if I engage with it in a curious way, I will have multiple opportunities to increase my awareness and make improvements as I go.

As mentioned previously, through the course of a feedback conversation, the giver may have a different impression about their intention as compared to the impact it has on the receiver, and thus the receiver responds to what they’re taking away from the conversation, not to what the giver intends. For example, the giver may intend to coach, but the receiver interprets it as evaluation. The onus is on the receiver to check throughout the conversation that intent and impact are aligned, and when they’re not, to discuss them discretely.[xix]

When we do get feedback, it can be easy to overlook and misunderstand the giver’s point. Sometimes they’re vague and we jump to a misinterpretation based on assumed intent[xx]. It’s also incredibly easy to find what’s wrong with the feedback – about you, about the situation, about the constraints – and justify our behavior based on our intentions. Speaking of misaligned intent and impact, did you know that 93% of American motorists believe they are better than average drivers? Or that of the managers surveyed by one 2007 BusinessWeek poll, 90% believed their performance was in the top 10%?[xxi] If we’re to successfully engage with feedback, as receivers we must switch from “wrong-spotting” to “tell me more.”[xxii] In place of justifications, we ought to respond with inquiry. Through the course of this new kind of conversation, we’ll better understand the impact of our decisions, thus mitigating the social blind spots we all have.

There have been attempts to reframe our feedback discussions, such that we now tell one another to separate self from work and talk only about the raw data in a given interpretation. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as raw data. As givers of feedback, we always interpret what we see before we store it in memory. So, by the time it makes its way out of our minds and into the laps of the feedback receivers, what’s being given is an interpretation. We think it’s raw data because that’s how we’ve stored it, but the truth is, there is no such thing. We attend to what we think is important, based on our experiences, values, assumptions, and implicit rules. For the purpose of more deeply engaging with feedback, we must remember that what we see or hear in an interpretation matters just as much as what we did not see or hear.[xxiii] The feedback you give is what is important to you through your lens, so if I really want to learn and grow, I need to seek negative feedback and not wait for others to share what’s important to them.

And then there are first impressions and the myriad studies about them. Regardless of a good or bad first impression, thereafter we seek data to confirm what we originally believed.[xxiv] That means that if we continue to focus on the giver of feedback, we’ll only get the data they’ve collected through their lens. If we ask specific questions about getting feedback, though, and focus on improving how we receive it, we can benefit from data that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.

In this new approach, we will drive our own growth and learning.

Benefits

On a personal level, when we receive feedback well, our relationships become more rich. In fact, a key predictor of healthier, stable marriages is whether or not we’re willing and able to accept influence from our spouses. Additionally, our self-esteem becomes more secure because through the process of learning what we need to improve and subsequently working to improve it, we get better at things and we feel good about it. [xxv]

Feedback-seeking behavior is linked to higher job satisfaction and seeking negative feedback is associated with higher performance ratings.[xxvi] When we’re committed to learning and growth in our hearts and in our actions, it’s no wonder that we will be more satisfied with the work that we do. And when we seek negative feedback from our colleagues and the individuals we serve, our “walking the talk” is perceived favorably as a sign of true commitment to align intent with impact.

For generations, we have seen that our happiness does not spring from the events or things in our lives but rather how we choose to respond to those events. Modern research tells us that it is experiences, not material goods, that create happiness.[xxvii] We have the opportunity to create the life we want to live on a daily basis, by engaging with one another in a curious way about our work, our behaviors, and our decisions.

There are many more benefits for us as individuals and for our field as a whole that we will realize upon making these changes – to shift our focus from refining the giving of feedback to improving how receivers seek and engage with feedback of all kinds.

Are you in?

Feedback is not always easy, but it is always worth it. There are many compelling current and future reasons on individual and profession-wide levels for why we must now shift how we handle the art and science of engaging with feedback. We must collectively decide that we want to proactively shape our future; multiple paths will lead us there, some of which are listed above. For more information on how you can shift your energy and learn to receive feedback well, check out Thanks for the feedback. If you let it, it will change you – personally and professionally.

 

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References

[i] Heen, S. (2014). Understanding the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback to Negotiate What Matters Most. Presentation, Massachusetts Conference for Women.

[ii] Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood). Penguin Group USA.

[iii] Heen, S. (2014). Understanding the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback to Negotiate What Matters Most. Presentation, Massachusetts Conference for Women.

[iv] Cogen, C. & Cokely, D. (2015). Preparing Interpreters for Tomorrow: Report on a Study of Emerging Trends in Interpreting and Implications for Interpreter Education. Retrieved from http://www.interpretereducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/NIEC_Trends_Report_2_2016.pdf

[v] Heen, S. (2014). Understanding the Science and Art of Receiving Feedback to Negotiate What Matters Most. Presentation, Massachusetts Conference for Women.

[vi] Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood). Penguin Group USA.

[vii] Emmart, J. (2015). Sign Language Interpreters and the ‘F’ Word. Retrieved from https://www.streetleverage.com/2015/12/sign-language-interpreters-and-the-f-word/

[viii] Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood). Penguin Group USA.

[ix] Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood). Penguin Group USA.

[x] Humphries, T., et al. (2012). Language acquisition for deaf children: Reducing the harms of zero tolerance to the use of alternative approaches. Harm Reduction Journal, 9 (16). Retrieved from http://www.harmreductionjournal.com/content/9/1/16

[xi] Humphries, T., et al. (2012). Language acquisition for deaf children: Reducing the harms of zero tolerance to the use of alternative approaches. Harm Reduction Journal, 9 (16). Retrieved from http://www.harmreductionjournal.com/content/9/1/16

[xii] Cogen, C. & Cokely, D. (2015). Preparing Interpreters for Tomorrow: Report on a Study of Emerging Trends in Interpreting and Implications for Interpreter Education. Retrieved from http://www.interpretereducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/NIEC_Trends_Report_2_2016.pdf

[xiii] C Green. (2014, June 12). Accountability: Clean Your House. [Web log article]. Retrieved from http://deafwordsmith.blogspot.com/2014/06/accountability-clean-your-house.html

[xiv] Suggs, T. (2012). Deaf Disempowerment and Today’s Interpreter. Retrieved from https://www.streetleverage.com/2012/12/deaf-disempowerment-and-todays-interpreter/

[xv] E Stecker. (2014, April 23). Video Blog Community accountability: Interpreters [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/znK5wUUQe-U

[xvi] Cogen, C. & Cokely, D. (2015). Preparing Interpreters for Tomorrow: Report on a Study of Emerging Trends in Interpreting and Implications for Interpreter Education. Retrieved from http://www.interpretereducation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/NIEC_Trends_Report_2_2016.pdf

[xvii] Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood). (p.34) Penguin Group USA.

[xviii] Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood). (p.90) Penguin Group USA.

[xix] Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood). (pp.201-202) Penguin Group USA.

[xx] Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood). (pp.88-89) Penguin Group USA.

[xxi] Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood). (p.64) Penguin Group USA.

[xxii] Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood). (pp.46-47) Penguin Group USA.

[xxiii] Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood). (pp.54-55) Penguin Group USA.

[xxiv] Dimitrius, J. E. and Mazzarella, M. (2000) Put Your Best Foot Forward: Make a Great Impression by Taking Control of How Others See You. New York, NY: Fireside.

[xxv] Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood). (pp.8-9) Penguin Group USA.

[xxvi] Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the feedback: The science and art of receiving feedback well (even when it is off base, unfair, poorly delivered, and frankly, you’re not in the mood). (pp.8-9) Penguin Group USA.

[xxvii] Hamblin, J. (2014, October 7). Buy Experiences, Not Things. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/10/buy-experiences/381132