You’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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.