Make Friends with Feedback

Does this sound familiar? A nervous, yet wildly confident singer prepares to wow competition judges. Meanwhile, a clip of them telling the camera some heart-wrenching story wraps up. The frame ends on some mention of this being their last chance at happiness, and this is their Hail Mary plan to finally follow their destiny.

The music starts. The singer wails.

And you sit in your living room, cringing with every false note, wondering how this person can possibly think they’re ready to be on this cream-of-the-crop talent competition. The torture ends. Family and friends beam with pride. The judges make some non-committal comment about exuding passion and invite them to try again.

So how did this person end up there, on that stage, not only convinced that they are at their peak, but also certain that they can win the entire competition? Easy. Lack of honest feedback.

I get it, though. Feedback is hard. Who wants to say “You’re not ready yet. You still need years of practice?” Who wants to be that person who bursts someone else’s bubble? Who wants to be the dream crusher? The lone reality-check voice in a sea of praise?

On the flip side, who wants to hear that, after pouring your heart and soul into your work, it still wasn’t enough?

Giving feedback often feels like tiptoeing through an emotionally-charged minefield. And receiving feedback often feels like the reviewer is attacking the essence of our being.

But without honest, constructive feedback no one can ever progress. Without some form of evaluative judgment of our output — whether it be writing, singing or coding —, we can never truly know what we’re doing well and what we need to improve on.

Hearing the Truth

When I went through UCLA’s Professional Program in Screenwriting, my group started off with a really tough instructor.

I had already completed the UCLA Extension Certificate in Film Writing, had a background in acting, an Honors B.A. with Specialization in Translation, and I thought I knew my way around storytelling and the written word. Well, with all that, I still failed to impress the instructor. In fact, I was shocked when I received my first set of notes. Clearly, he wasn’t understanding my genius!

Looking for vindication, I asked my husband to read my set of pages. I just knew that at least he would “get” my story. Or maybe not. If I recall correctly, spoken in the kindest tone possible, his words were: “It’s a good draft.”

A good “draft?!?” I had already started writing my Oscar acceptance speech for that exceptional piece!

How dared they!

Still, after licking my wounds and calming down, I went back to class. Only this time, I was more ready to listen. And thanks to that level of honesty on both their parts — and more to come —, I learned and grew exponentially.

Looking back, I see that because I was so emotionally invested in my work, so close to it, I took any criticism as a direct reflection on who I was as a person. Which is completely ridiculous. But that’s how it felt.

In time, and trying various approaches, I’ve become accustomed to feedback and often look forward to it. Now and then, it does still sting a little, but, for the most part, I appreciate the opportunity to learn.

Since feedback is such a crucial part of anyone’s journey, what can we do to better give and receive feedback?

Giving Feedback

  • Bring empathy into your thoughts.
    In her course Daring Leadership | Leaders Rising, Brené Brown talks about cultivating “a deeper sense of compassion for yourself and others.” One of the ways she suggests we do that is by considering, with an open heart and mind, that people are doing the best that they can. It might be shocking to think that whatever is in front of us is the best they could do. If it is the case, though, try to view it through the lens of “This is where they are in their development. How can I help them move forward?”

  • Personalize your comments. Depersonalize the work.
    Think about phrasing your comments in such a way that they don’t blame anyone. Avoid associating the work with the person. For example, instead of saying “You should have provided more details in this section,” try something like “I feel there’s important information missing in this section. It could be fleshed out a bit.”

  • Use kind words.
    Avoid jokes or snarky comments. No “This sucks.” “OMG!” “Seriously!” or “WTF?” They may be funny in a cartoon, but not when addressing another human being. Especially when they’re in a vulnerable position. Be as real as possible without becoming overly friendly, which could come across as patronizing or condescending.

  • Ensure you’re being as objective as possible.
    Feedback is inherently subjective. After all, we’re giving our opinion on something. But keep an eye out for personal preferences. If something works or is valid, ask yourself if it really needs to change. Challenge yourself to justify your feedback. Keep in mind that sometimes what we think “needs to change” is actually a suggestion or a personal preference.

  • Be honest with your level of knowledge.
    If you’re an expert, great. Go to town. But if you know enough to give feedback, but aren’t an expert, let that be known. Representing yourself accurately gives you more credibility.

  • Point out the good.
    When you come across any strengths in the work, mention that. If you see something that you really like, or thought was done well, say something. I’m not talking about blind praise or making stuff up. But, surely, this person has done something right.

  • Give the opportunity for questions or clarification.
    As awesome as your feedback may be, sometimes the listener may not fully grasp what you mean. Or they may want to explain why something was done the way it was (there may be a valid reason why one aspect cannot change). Make sure you allow time for an exchange.

Receiving Feedback

  • Listen.
    This may sound basic, but it’s actually really hard. There is this constant yearning to defend every word, every syntax. “But!” “I did this because…” No. Don’t. Focus on the feedback and try to really listen to and understand what is being said. If there’s a critical reason to say something, wait until the end. Better yet, create space between the time you receive the feedback and when you address it.

  • Keep your cool.
    Fact is, not everyone knows how to give feedback. They may be abrupt. Downright rude. Take deep breaths — not audible sighs of frustration —, and don’t internalize these comments. If at all possible, ask for the comments in writing. Then, you can sift through the rude parts to see if any valid points are being made.

  • Evaluate the points made.
    Not all comments have merit. Sometimes, they are just someone’s opinion. That being said, if you receive the same comment from more than one source, there may be something to it. Consider digging further.

  • Examine the solutions.
    Just like comments can be subjective, so can solutions. If someone provides you with a solution, and you don’t agree with it, don’t discount it completely. The person may not be capable of coming up with a proper fix, but likely has detected some kind of issue. Think about what could be that underlying issue.

  • Detach yourself from your work.
    In a recent Legacy Code Rocks podcast, Michael Feathers briefly touched on the idea that sometimes people get so emotionally involved in the software they’re developing that if someone criticizes a piece of code they’ve written, they take it very personally. He goes on to add that creating an “emotional ownership” can, at times, get in the way of some critical conversations. This comes back to what I said earlier about taking feedback to heart, and equating criticism with one’s own value. Remember that the person giving you feedback is only speaking about the work itself. Not you.

  • Do the best you can, then let it go.
    In her latest blog post, Catalina talked about being “enough.” To not try to be the best. Because “trying to be the best is emotionally exhausting and trying to write the perfect code is paralyzing.” It’s true. Give it your all, be momentarily proud of what you accomplished, and move on to something else. Then, allow your community to help you make it better by providing feedback. In not striving to be “the best” and instead just trying to improve, it takes off some of the pressure and will make you more open to receiving feedback.

  • View feedback as being on the right team.
    A while back, Don explained why he sought out teams that were stronger than he was. He shared that he felt “you need two things to be coerced into improving your skills: 1) Other programmers that challenge you. 2) A collaborative workspace that enables the sharing of skills.” Instead of viewing feedback as criticism of your work, view it as having the chance to obtain a more experienced — or varying — point of view. Squeeze every bit of knowledge that you can out of that. Ask questions, dig deeper, get what you need to improve.

  • Be gracious.
    Unless they’re a total jerk — it happens —, the person giving the feedback is truly trying to help. They want to make the work better and share their knowledge so that, next time, you’ll know and avoid the same mistakes.

Friendship Takes Time

Distancing ourselves from our work, product or output takes time and a conscious effort. With practice, it comes more and more easily. And as we learn to embrace feedback, the rewards get better and better. Ultimately, don’t you want to find out how far you can go? How good you can be? That’s only possible by making friends with feedback and facing the truth. It’s only possible when you’re willing to hear your own “false notes.”

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