3 important things to do when receiving feedback
I mean, graciously. Not by throwing your $3000 Macbook on the ground, stomping on it and swearing you should have been a flight attendant. Like your dad said.
Because, as Robert Frost famously said, “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.”
What NOT to do
First time I ever taught a creative writing workshop, a student read out her story about a chicken. The story was told in the first-person, or first-chicken or whatever. I cannot think of any great story ever told from the first-person perspective of a chicken.
Seriously, you have to be skilled to pull that one off, so it was a bad strategic choice from the outset.
“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence. ”
And so no-one wanted to give feedback.
Because I wanted my classes to be these writhing, fluid and totally electrified spaces where students come out with goosebumps on their arms and frontal cortices on fire, I asked a student to offer his feedback.
Why did I pick this one student with his cap on backwards?
His was the only name I remembered.
I called on him for his feedback. When he rolled his eyes, I should have stopped him there. But inexperience and the desire (like I said) for the classes to be these totally electrified spaces won out.
He said, “I thought the story was a load of shit.” There was silence, and during that silence, time clicked into slow-mo. He stared at me, arms crossed, legs splayed, waiting for my response.
The other students either looked awkward or tried desperately to stifle laughter. The chicken story woman’s lip began to tremble. A little at first. Then it did this weird paroxysm thing. She hurled her papers across the room and ran out of the class. Her posse followed.
Though I felt bad she was upset, my empathy was more for the attitude guy than for the chicken writer.
Because although his feedback could have been more constructive, her response was totally off the Richter scale in terms of non-rationality and unwillingness to learn.
How to take feedback like a boss
Had chicken story woman’s lip not gone into paroxysms; had she not flung the papers; had she hung around a bit, I think she could have pressed the other student to be more specific.
I suspect she would have learnt some things about her chicken story that would have made her a better writer, from someone who was prepared to be dog-honest (and accurate) in his critique.
The difficulty is that creating a short-story (insert any creative artefact) takes effort. What we make also always contains a little of ourselves. This small blogpost, for instance, contains a memory that is meaningful to me because it shaped my practice as a teacher, as a writer and as a person. So when someone gives a critique, it’s difficult not to feel as though they’re also critiquing that part of you from where your work derives.
But if you can separate criticism of the work and criticism of you your mental state will be geared right to make discernments about the appropriateness of the feedback and make good calls about using it – or not. Because, the final point to remember is: you don’t always have to use it.
So here are some approaches to feedback that allow you to protect your soul, and also be open to improvement:
Wrap yourself in silk
One of my mentors told me once to wrap myself in silk when I get feedback – of any kind, positive or negative – and to imagine the feedback sliding off me onto the ground.
Once it’s on the ground, and away from you, you can mentally arrange it and put it where it’s meant to be: the useful, the useless and perhaps the “save for later when I’m not seething, nor near my Macbook”. This visualisation has been as useful to me in taking positive feedback as it has in taking the negative.
Positive feedback can be harmful if we don’t put it in its right place because it plays on the ego, and once the artist’s ego gets swollen and inflamed, there’s a danger it will burst pus all over the place.
If you are really crap at getting feedback, teach yourself to take it – lots – by seeking it.
Start slowly: get feedback on something other than your work, and something that doesn’t mean a heck of a lot to you. How you wash the dishes, for instance. Once you’ve mastered this, you can take it to the next level and get feedback on the things that matter.
You can apply the stance you took with the dishes example to your creative work skills.
Ask someone for feedback on how you collaborate, how you communicate or some aspect of your creative practice. Then take it like a goddam gracious pro!
“ The humble person, who accepts that they are imperfect, but works on their imperfections, ultimately earns respect and trust. ”
Humility is such a rare gem of a character trait, especially where people are competing with each other.
The person who says “I’m in process” may seem weak to others. And then there’s that fear of being ousted from the group if you’re vulnerable.
But actually it’s the opposite. The humble person, who accepts that they are imperfect, but works on their imperfections, ultimately earns respect and trust.
It’s easy to see how this is the case when you reverse your position and imagine you’re the person giving feedback.
As a teacher, I know there’s nothing more fruitless-feeling than giving feedback to a student who argues with it and tries to defend their position. Then doesn’t adapt their work at all. I prefer working with people who refrain from defending their work and just listen. And perhaps question further for specifics.
Final note: Disagreeing with feedback
Not all feedback has to be accepted, you know.
A creative person who has truly developed and honed their craft will be able to discern where to make changes and where the changes recommended are off-key.
Knowing what to do with feedback is one of the most pivotal creative life skills. Once you are able to analyse and apply your feedback with discernment and intelligence, you can then access the wealth of knowledge contained within the creative cultures you’re engaged with.