Earlier this year in a class which depended a lot on discussion, I asked a bunch of students for some advice on making discussions work. Here’s what they said:
What kinds of comments do people find useful?
- Comments which relate what you want to do to previously published work.
- Preferably with an added “OH there’s lots of work to do in that!” — and ideas for what.
- Preferably with a specific paper in mind, not generally suggesting that there must have been something done.
- “That’s a great/interesting idea!” — if it was.
- There will always be good and bad aspects to what people suggest: point these out and don’t lie.
- Good questions can be better than advice.
- General conversational skills stuff, like nodding, showing you’re interested, rephrasing what has been said to show that you’ve been listening, “go on… interesting idea…”
Typical unconstructive critical comments
- This has been done before — it’s all known.
- Nobody will be interested.
- Too specific or too complicated questions too early!
- Destroying a general idea by picking on one very specific problem
Coping with negative comments
- To someone who criticises: “How would you do it?”
- Shifting the burden of authority to elsewhere, e.g., to a published paper.
- If a group discussion, then try to engage the other (positive) group members.
- Be blunt! (In cases of emergency.) Sometimes diplomacy doesn’t work.
- Ask the critical person to come up with a counterargument to his or her own criticism (I like this idea — I wonder does it work!)
- “I appreciate your feedback…” “Hmmm there might be some truth in what you’re saying…” Try to compromise.
Unsuccessful strategies for coping
- Personal attacks
- Ignoring the person
- Giving up
- Getting into a shouting match
- “I don’t care what you have to say”