Feedback Is a Gift

A couple of weeks ago, I sent an email to all of last year’s Women At Woodstock attendees. In the email, I filled them in on what I’d learned from the survey I’d asked them to complete at the end of October; the workshops they liked most; things that maybe fell a bit short of expectations; what could be improved; and requests and suggestions for this year. I told them what was being added, improved, or changed around a little to make this year’s coming retreat even better than ever, thanks to what I learned from them. Yoga will be at the end of the day instead of early in the morning, for example. By popular request, we will have a memoir-writing course. There will be more gooey desserts! And, in an interesting twist, my suggestion of a workshop called “Entertainment Hour; Worst Ex Stories” got high votes! So we’re doing it; I expect it will be a cleansing experience for some of us and high entertainment for all. Maybe we’ll even record the stories (with permission, of course!).

After the email went out, a surprising number of women wrote to me to say thank you. They said they felt gratified to have been asked for input and then to have been told what I learned from them. They said they felt heard. Most of all, they told me they were looking forward more than ever to this October’s gatherings. Laura Kelly, one of last year’s presenters, even wrote to tell me that what I’d done with this feedback / acceptance / improvement cycle was textbook “beautiful question” behavior, right out of the playbook of her husband Warren Berger’s most recent book, The Book of Beautiful Questions: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead. She pasted into her email an intriguing and eye-opening excerpt from the book. It’s enlightening stuff, so I asked her if I could print the excerpt her in my blog. She graciously agreed, so here it is:

 Do I want to be done or do I want to improve?

 Just as important as being willing to accept failure is the willingness to accept feedback. The authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen, who work with the Harvard Negotiation Project and are co-authors of the book Thanks for the Feedback, point out that most of us have a built-in resistance to feedback. We have a strong need “to feel accepted, respected and safe—just the way we are now,” according to the authors. 

So of course, we can handle positive feedback, telling us our work is fine, as is—but critical feedback is another matter.

However, as Adam Grant points out, “The only way to improve is to get negative feedback—so if you decide not to seek out criticism you’re resigning yourself to stay at your current level of skill. Which to me is depressing.”

Grant points out that people working on a creative project often are overly-focused on finishing it—and they may worry that critical feedback will force them to have to go back to the drawing board. But this means they’re focused on the wrong question, Grant says: “The key question is not, How can I get this project done?, but rather, How do I make it better?” And in terms of the latter, feedback is essential.

In trying to convince his students to be more open to feedback, Grant sometimes asks them: Is your goal to stay at your current level of skill, or to improve? When the question is framed that way, he says, almost everyone opts for improvement—and feedback.

One way to condition yourself to become better at accepting feedback is to think of it as a gift—which, in fact, it is, Tom Kelley points out. The feedback giver has invested her time and effort to help you to produce the best result. If the feedback is given honestly, from someone you trust, then ask yourself: Why am I resistant to simply accepting this gift? (As Kelley points out, you’re not obliged to agree with or comply with feedback suggestions—merely to accept them with gratitude and an open mind.)

In finding the right people to provide feedback on your work, seek out those whose opinions you respect and who are entirely on your side. Ask yourself, Who are my trusted advisors? When you’ve come up with a handful of candidates, “create your own advisory board,” Kelley says. The earlier you can get work to your “advisory board,” the better; their early input may help you avoid wasting time polishing and tweaking something that actually needs reworking.

Be honest when asking for feedback. “If you know that feedback will meet resistance or dismissal from you, then ask only for positive thoughts,” says the writer Kwame Dawes. It may be that all you want “is encouragement to continue—if so, then say that.”

On the other hand, if you truly are interested in critical feedback—which is the most valuable kind—then ask for it explicitly. Mike Birbiglia, a veteran improv comedian and director of the film Don’t Think Twice, writes that when he sought out feedback on his own film, “I’d get my friends all drunk on pizza and then ask them hard questions like, What do you like least about the script?”
 
Birbiglia adds: “I’ve learned that harsh feedback, constructive feedback, even weird random feedback, is all helpful, if you know the essence of what you’re trying to convey.”

How do you figure out when to listen to other people—and when to listen to yourself? The children’s book writer Laurel Snyder says she was once asked this by a young girl and Snyder “was utterly stumped” by the question. There’s no easy answer, but when the feedback giver is suggesting that you make significant changes to your work, ask yourself the following: Is the feedback suggesting that I alter my vision, or merely improve upon the execution? Be wary of the former and more receptive to the latter.

To this point, Birbiglia shares a feedback tip he learned from the director Ron Howard: When Howard tests rough cuts of his movies with audiences, “he doesn’t do it to be told what the movie’s vision should be, but to understand whether his vision is coming across. If not, he makes changes.” In other words, Howard knows what he wants to say but he’s open to feedback on whether he’s conveying it clearly enough. One of the most important feedback questions to ask is not, Is my idea good? (trust your own instincts on that), but simply, Am I coming across?
 
Feedback often is not prescriptive. According to Pixar executive Ed Catmull, “A good note says what’s wrong, what’s missing, what doesn’t make sense. It’s focused on the problems, not the solution.” But if you are open to suggestion on specifically how to fix problems or make changes, ask for it: I was wondering about how to improve X or Y—what would you suggest I try? To return to Kelley’s earlier point, you don’t have to follow feedback suggestions so there’s little downside in getting as much input as possible from trusted sources.

Feedback experts Stone and Heen believe it’s important to approach feedback on your work with “confidence and curiosity.” They also suggest that immediately after you receive feedback, you should evaluate and even grade your response to it—you can do this by asking yourself, How well did I take that feedback?
 
How do I stay ‘en route’?

After you’ve found a problem worth pursuing, retreated to your shell, managed to begin anywhere, survived the middle ‘suck stages’ of creativity, responded to feedback and, finally, “shipped” your completed work out into the world, what ultimately happens next to that work may be out of your hands. But whatever comes of it, no matter—a new problem is out there waiting to be found, as the creative cycle begins all over again.

There’s so much more in this book about asking “beautiful questions” and learning from them. Click below to order your own copy of The Book of Beautiful Questions: The Powerful Questions That Will Help You Decide, Create, Connect, and Lead.

The Book of Beautiful Questions Cover

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