How to Ask for Feedback
(Without it Blowing Up in Your Face)

Bomb with lit fuseYou’ve probably had it happen to you: eager, excited, ready to share your article or painting or blog design, you show a friend and ask, “What do you think?”

The friend, being the honest and straightforward person he is, believes you really want to know what he thinks, so he launches into his opinions. Pointing out errors both gross and miniscule, he goes on and on. Or he says “It’s nice.” Either way, the feedback is far from useful; it became a bomb that blew your project to pieces.

As a coach for creatives, I’ve seen how feedback can devastate people and annihilate their creative dreams.

One man in his seventies showed up in a writing group I was leading. He had received negative feedback on his writing twenty-five years earlier from a teacher he trusted. The teacher told him he had not talent whatsoever. Decades later, he had worked up the courage to try writing again.

Feedback is a necessary part of succeeding as a writer or artist, so it’s wise to disarm the feedback bombs in advance. Here are five strategies that will help you become a master at eliciting and using constructive feedback.

1. Get Your Timing Right

We often rush to solicit feedback before the work is truly ready. Be sure that you are prepared to hear others’ opinions of your work.

Often we’re not seeking feedback but approval. We want the pat on the head that tells us how great our story is, and then we’re completely demolished when the person giving feedback shreds our writing, pointing out not our brilliance, but how much work there is still to be done. You didn’t get good feedback; you got decimated.

How do you know when you’re ready? Check the following and see how many scenarios apply to you and your project.

  • You have done as much work as you can, have stepped back and assessed your project, and know that you need pointers on where to go next.
  • You are eager to make the work as good as you can. You’re willing and able to hear opinions that may not match yours.
  • You know something is off but are not sure what.
  • You know what is missing and want feedback to confirm your intuition.
  • You want an objective opinion about your piece.

Be clear about your motives for soliciting feedback. Do you want ego stroking or a genuine critique? Give your work (and your motives) a thorough once-over before handing it off to someone else.

2. Seek Feedback from the Right Sources

This is one of the biggest bombs that can turn the creative process into a minefield. When we ask the wrong people for feedback, we limit our chances of getting constructive and kind feedback.

Who is not the right person? Spouses, parents and children may not be objective enough to give useful comments. They may not want to hurt your feelings, or at the other end, they may be insensitive to your feelings. A spouse or a friend may have no clue about what makes a good story or design and they just don’t have the skills to comment.

A seemingly benign comment like, “That’s nice, honey,” can have a negative impact. A client of mine showed her husband her essay and he, thinking he was being nice, said “That’s great. You could write a book about that.” While that may seem like an encouraging comment, it’s not reflective of what’s in the essay. It doesn’t point the writer to specific ways she can improve this piece. The possibility of turning it into something bigger may be helpful in the future, but it doesn’t give her constructive feedback for the work as it is.

Who is the right person to give feedback? Seek trusted creative peers, mentors, or teachers who have your best interests in mind. I have hired editors to give me feedback, knowing that they had a certain level of professionalism and would give me straight, constructive feedback. One friend’s husband was suspicious of hiring someone to give feedback, thinking that the editor would sugar coat the news because he was being paid. That just seems silly to me; you wouldn’t avoid hiring a competent plumber to fix your sink because you thought he would be biased because he was being paid.

No matter whom you choose, make sure to avoid the next bomb lurking in the feedback process.

3. Design the Feedback Process

Don’t do your work the disservice of handing it off to someone without specific requests. You have more power in the feedback process than you think. Never give someone your work and ask “What do you think?” That vague question will lead to vague or overly enthusiastic feedback. And if you send a stranger this request, chances are you’ll never hear from that person again.

“What do you think?” is like handing someone a loaded and lit canon and aiming it at your heart. Sometimes the giver’s ego can get a little inflated. Here’s her chance to be right, to know, and to point out all the things that are wrong with your project.

Do your part to solicit useful feedback. Ask yourself these questions before you hand over your precious piece.

  1. What is your goal or desired outcome for this piece? What impact do you want to have on the viewer/reader?

    Once you’re clear on that, tell your critic and ask her if you have achieved your aim. If not, what’s missing? What’s working that could be amplified?

  2. Next, know what kind of feedback would best serve you. (Glowing praise surely, but dig a little deeper.)

    Do you want micro-critiquing? Let her know you want line editing, checking up on the small details of your craft.

    Or is the big picture feedback enough? If you’re looking for a detailed critique that involves the micro and the macro, be sure to let your critic know.

  3. How do you want the news? Written? Verbally? If you get the feedback verbally, be sure to record it or have someone else take notes. When you’re hearing feedback, you’re processing information on many levels. If you’re not distracted with making notes, it will be much easier to absorb the feedback.

    You may want the comments in written form. A written critique will be easier to assess later, which leads us to the next strategy.

4. Acknowledge and Deal with Emotions

No matter how tough you are and how much you want to hear commentary, it can still be an emotional landmine. Give yourself time to integrate the emotions that arise when facing a critique. You may be in denial, you may want to argue, or you may be hurt or frustrated that you still have a lot of work to do.

Set the feedback aside until at least the next day. Talk a walk, exercise, talk it out with a friend, or jot some notes about how you feel.

Trust me, muscling past these emotions will only cause them to explode later. And knowing how you feel about the feedback will help to discern what’s useful and what’s not.

Then, when you feel more objective, take a look at the feedback. You’ll want a clear mind to be able to discern what is useful, which is the next critical phase.

5. Sort Through for Useful

You’ve gotten a response and now you need to discern what will improve your project or performance. How do you know what’s right for your work?

Being as objective as you can, look at the feedback and ask this simple question: “What’s true?” Keep your original objective in mind and use that as a guidepost for whether the feedback you have gotten will be used or discarded.

Another question to ask is “What can I learn here?” Notice if defensiveness arises and fend it off. That’s usually an initial reaction that masks your feelings and doesn’t allow room for improvement. If you can’t move past defensiveness, write down your arguments and be sure you’re following a good hunch and not massaging a bruised ego.

Make notes as you go through the feedback. Make a list of possible revision actions.

Constructive commentary is an essential part of creative success, and if you’re interested in improving your work, you should be seeking feedback regularly. But it doesn’t have to decimate your work and your creative dreams. Do it right and feedback can build, not destroy, your creative dreams.

How Do You Defuse the Feedback Bombs?

What tips would you add to the list?

Have you ever salvaged something positive from negative feedback? How?

Which of these points are most important for you to keep in mind when you ask for feedback?

About the Author: Certified coach Cynthia Morris provides e-books, seminars, coaching and free articles to facilitate the challenging work of creating. Juju Infusion, her web TV show about creative exuberance, can be seen on her Original Impulse Blog. Follow Cynthia on Twitter @originalimpulse.

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Responses to this Post

Comments

  1. After witnessing uneven feedback within my writers group (some people got lots of negative feedback, others got very little feedback, or vaguely positive feedback), I designed what I call the Trusted First Reader form, which answers #3 in your post – Designing the Feedback Process.

    The blog post in which I discuss what was behind the Trusted First Reader form is here: http://woowooteacup.wordpress.com/2009/12/07/trusted-first-reader-form/

    The form itself is here: http://www.woowooteacup.com/firstreaderform.pdf

    I’ve put a Creative Commons license on the form, so it may be used freely for noncommercial purposes.

    Thanks for the great post, Cynthia.

  2. These are great, useful tips. Thanks for sharing. I know I’ve definitely had feedback bombs blow up in my face before. While I always want constructive criticism, negative feedback can be hard to swallow when it comes from friends or trusted advisers. The truth hurts sometimes. I’m in the process of soliciting feedback right now for a business project. This post is perfect timing for me to do it in a way that makes sense.

  3. I’m so glad to see that your second tip was about who to ask.

    It really is all about asking someone who has strong skills that are related to what you’re doing.

    I see this all the time as a book doctor. I do freelance editing for aspiring novelists. They find me one way or another, usually after having become fed up with non-constructive, and non-actionable feedback from friends and family.

    When they get my feedback on their work, pointing out specific writing errors they’re making, highlighting problems with their underlying plot structure, character development, and so forth, it’s not uncommon to have them say “Thanks! That’s the best feedback I’ve ever received!”

    Well, yeah. That’s the point. You sought out someone who knows about the business of writing and storycraft, so you’re going to get helpful feedback.

    Whatever your field of endeavour–painting, architecture, jello sculpture, whatever–seek out somebody who has more training and experience than you in that same field. That’s who you ask.

  4. I really like this article Cynthia! Each ‘Step’ is a very VERY good point and builds on the last. My personal takeaway from this is “and if you’re interested in improving your work, you should be seeking feedback regularly.”

    I know I don’t do this enough and it’s totally because of the emotional part of it. I put a lot of myself into whatever I do. I get attached to what i’ve created. The feedback process rips me apart.

    I’ve been working on it tho. :)

  5. This is great, Cynthia! You are so good at this stuff. I remember when I redesigned my home page and you asked: “Would you like feedback on it?” I knew you had some good info for me. Not sure I was ready to hear it, but you intuited that you needed to ask first. Of course, it was valuable feedback for me.

    Sending my artists over here because this is excellent information.

    Now . . . if I could only get people to quit emailing me and asking (commanding) “Please visit my new website and tell me what you think.” They REALLY don’t want to know what I think.

  6. I just asked for feedback on a piece and thankfully, did some of this instinctually based on previous experiences. Going over your list though, I see where I could have been a little clearer in my goals.

    I really like your attention to the emotions that arise from feedback and how they MUST be dealt with in order to move forward. I’ve seen several friendships broken over critical feedback.

    Your story about the man in his 70′s just chills me to the bone. I can’t imagine having my creativity stifled for so long because of one person’s remarks.

    This is a fantastic article and exactly the kind of step-by-step breakdown which many aspiring writers need.

  7. Excellent article and process! I would suggest that “Know Who You Are” – a frank self-feeback – can be a key foundation for a successful process in addition to your wise steps!
    Thank you!

  8. @Mary,
    I love your Trusted First Reader Form. It’s succinct, easy to understand and I imagine invaluable. I’ll definitely send people to it.

    @Laura,
    I’m glad this article came at a good time for you. It isn’t easy to receive feedback, even if we’re open to it.

    Taking in feedback requires a real shift in perception. You have to think about your project in a whole new way, and that isn’t always easy.

    I’m currently getting feedback on the latest draft of my novel and it really takes time to integrate the news.

    @Jason,
    Your work is so valuable, and so needed. I believe it’s well worth paying a professional to assess your work in an objective and useful way. And if you can’t pay someone at the moment, getting help from someone ahead of you is the next best thing.

    Thanks for your comment.

    @Shawn,

    Thanks for that specific feedback. It’s especially useful to me since transitions and culminating thoughts aren’t my strongest suit. I’ve gotten feedback on it and have made use of it!

    If the feedback process rips you apart, that’s telling you something. It’s normal to care deeply about your work – you’re lucky you do – and you’ll get better at it if you can make the feedback process less painful.

    If I were you, I’d get a feedback buddy in your life. Find a peer or colleague with whom you can swap your work. Design the feedback process and practice.

    I’d like to say the emotions will dissipate over time, but in my experience, they are still part of the process. I’ve learned to take more time integrating them so I am not taken down as much as I used to be.

    It’s your commitment to excellence that will help you drive past those debilitating emotions. You can do it.

    @Gabriel,
    Thanks for your kind comments. The emotional element is important. For me and many of the clients I’ve worked with, it can take a long time – months – to digest feedback. It’s hard to face the reality that your piece needs more work, a LOT more work!

    I’ll never forget that student. It’s horrifying to me that people can wield that much negative power over us. But it happens, especially at the hands of our teachers whom we’re supposed to trust.

    I think using this process – or any other intentional process – can help minimize the risks of getting feedback.

    Thanks again for your kind comments. They make my day! :)

  9. These are wonderful tips, Cynthia! Thanks for sharing.

    My favorite tip is the #1 about picking the right timing. That’s actually really hard to do sometimes because you’re just dying to share your great idea with anyone who’ll listen.

    But, its hard for someone else to understand that cake if it’s still baking in the oven. Er, or something like that! :)

  10. Cynthia – nice detailed replies to peoples comments. I love it when Guest Bloggers make sure to be part of the discussion.

    I thought back to the last few times i’ve gotten feedback and it’s been tough to handle. I realized in each instance, it was actually unsolicited feedback. I hadn’t asked for it, and I wasn’t ready for it (it came prior to completion).

    So – ensuring I follow the steps and don’t allow the feedback until I’m ready for it will a happy Shawn make.

    A feedback buddy – interesting thought!

  11. This was very helpful to me. I’ve had professional/expert feedback on my work and it has always been far more useful than opinions from friends. Often it does hurt, yes, but in the long run it hurts because it hits home and demands change.

    Recently a friend asked me to critique a piece of her writing and I have had no idea where to start (I am not a writing expert, I paint). Looking at this piece gives me some ideas of questions I can ask her so that I can give her constructive advice. I encouraged her to start writing again and I do not want to squash that flame!

    @Shawn At a recent critique given in front of a group a friend was very down about the feedback she received. When we talked it came out that she had heard all the negative comments and missed all the positive ones! I think it also helps to have a neutral observer take notes and remind you of the positive later.

  12. Thanks, Alyson! I’m glad this article is useful for you. It’s such a big issue, and I really want to help make the feedback process constructive and less painful for all of us.

    Naomi,
    Thanks for commenting! You’re so right; we’re so full of enthusiasm for our ideas, and they just need to be shared! It’s best to have a good friend or colleague that you can share fresh new ideas with, and of course designing what kind of feedback you want at the beginning.

    Thanks, Shawn. It’s fun to be part of the conversation. It’s a real treat to see how people respond to your work. The nature of art is that you create something, put it out there, and then it lives in others’ experiences, going way beyond what you initially created. So I love hearing what people think.

    Thanks for admitting that it was tough to get feedback. It usually is for me, at least initially, until I can overcome the first shock of emotion.

    I hope that your next feedback experiences are better. Do consider a feedback buddy!

    Caroline,
    Definitely try these steps with your friend. Ask her what she wants from feedback. I always ask right away what they want from me. It’s tempting to just launch in and give your opinion, but that’s not super helpful.

  13. Hello. Well written article. Some great tips I will use.

    Most people work on how we can protect ourselves from critique.
    Yes, it is useful and important, I agree. But the perspective most people take is still that critique is something “evil”, that we will react badly and most important of all, that it is something “out there” that “attacks us”.

    This angle is sometimes useful, but I find we mostly miss one really important angle that really makes all the difference, that is:

    You yourself are the worst critic. Simply put, you only feel hurt from criticism you agree with. In some ways, there is no “out there”.

    Defending is useful. But it does also pre-suppose you NEED to defend yourself which sets up a negative start instead of an open mind. But again, I know sometimes it is all we can do. little by little… I just wanted to bring in this angle as well.

    Our “inner judge” (super-ego) is the real problem. When you don’t listen too closely to this voice in your mind, critique bothers you a lot less.

    Cheers!

  14. Samuel,
    I agree with you that often we get defensive and guarded against feedback.

    I’m reading the Inner Game of Tennis and the author Tim Gallwey talks about this. He says that when we perceive our self-worth and value to be linked to what we do and how well we do it, we’re going to be in a pretty bad position against ourselves.

    If you’re more committed to your ego and to being right or looking good, feedback is going to be a painful process. If you’re committed to excellence in your art and work, feedback – good, constructive feedback – will be welcome and even solicited.

    I’m glad you found my article useful and that you will use my suggestions.

    Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts!

    And for the kind feedback for me!

  15. danniewoodard says:

    Very helpful…again! I need to wake up to having put that notebook together from our writing class work and then start studying it again. One’s needs change as they progress through their work and in class I was still revising what I’d written. Now I’m ready for the real test. As in the past, your advice is both timely and useful.At this stage, keeping all the above article’s tips in mind. I feel ready and excited about this next stage.

  16. When receiving feedback I always try to remember that it’s MY WORK that’s being critiqued, not me. Sounds simple, but since we creatives put something of ourselves in to our work it’s easy to blur the lines and feel that the criticism is aimed at us personally.
    When giving feedback I always try to link negative comments to positive ones e.g. “This part works really well because…., but this part isn’t quite so successful because…” then I suggest ways to improve the offending part of the work.

  17. SO true, Jackie. It’s a distinction we need to keep making and reminding ourselves of. We are not our work, no matter how much it means to us or how much we’ve invested in it.

    And I am always grateful for specific pointers on how to improve the work. It takes the sting out somewhat and helps me focus on my craft. I think it also says something about the feedback giver; that he or she has actually thought about their comment thoroughly.

    Thanks for your input.

  18. Great article. I especially like #4. I usually will defend myself and feel a little anger, but if I stop to reflect about what was said, I find I tend to agree with comments that made me angry! It’s almost as if the comments that really hit home are the most irritating! (maybe because deep down I was thinking the same darn thing.) Fascinating creatures, aren’t we?

  19. There are certain things which are often neglected when asking for feedback. This articles points out where we should focus to reduce the probability of negative feedback. Thanks for the article :)

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