On Receiving Feedback

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Everybody in the creative and/or performing worlds (and I suppose many other areas too) needs feedback. We have our own sense of how well we are managing with our tasks, and to what extent we are achieving what we were aiming for, but we need the reality check of other people to calibrate our self-awareness. Does it come over to others as we perceive it ourselves? Do they notice things that we don't? Are the things that are important to us as we work also important to others?

Without feedback, we can't grow.

But receiving feedback can be an emotionally wearing experience. People who may have only a brief or casual relationship with our work can make throw-away remarks that make us question everything we've done. Conversely, people who already love what we do can validate things that really should be questioned. Confidence and self-knowledge are both at risk when we hear commentary on what we do.

There are two mistakes that are easy to make in response to feedback. One is to defend against it. We feel the need to justify what we've done, explain to our critics that in making their criticism, they've missed the point. When we do this, we are simply protecting our own egos. The critic doesn't need to hear this stuff, and the energy we put into it prevents us from understanding what they might mean. Even if we think they are talking complete nonsense, all we need to say is, 'Thank you, I'll have a think about that'. This buys us time to cope with the emotional work of absorbing and reflecting on their comments without being rude to someone who made the effort to respond to our work.

The other mistake is to try and follow the advice. It is all too easy to get blown every which way by other people's opinions. By necessity, they are reflecting on your work from their own position in and perception of the world, and the direction they will want to push you is what they would want to do with it. So if you act on every suggestion you get, you lose your own sense of direction.

One thing I noticed during the comedy course I took last year, which featured regular feedback on each other's work, was that the fact of feedback was sometimes more useful than the content. If lots of people responded to a particular joke with ideas of how it could be developed, or toppers (i.e. additional punchlines), this was a more reliable indicator of the bits that got the best response than source for additional material. The appropriate lesson to learn was not necessarily, 'here's an extra joke for you'; it may simply be, 'this is the bit that people are most engaged with'.

Likewise, when people suggest 'fixes' to your work (I'm thinking here as a writer and arranger as much as a comedian), it's often more useful to ask what the problem is they are trying to solve than to jump straight to their proposed solution. The feedback that there is something that isn't working for them is exactly what we need, but that's not necessarily the same as making the change they suggest.

The classic example of this is when someone says ,'Never sing louder than lovely - you're too loud,' the problem may be that your singing is insufficiently lovely.

The reason we rush to make these two mistakes is because we don't like the dissonance between someone's response and our work. We want to resolve away the friction by either accepting or rejecting the criticism as soon as possible.

But actually, it is more useful, often, to live with the tension, let the comments filter through our consciousness, log them but be in no hurry to act upon them. This way, our intuition has a chance to get in on the act. The holistic bits of our brains that our so vital to creative work, but are not susceptible to force or method, will sift through the comments, given time, and resolve out what needs changing now, what needs to be borne in mind for future work, and what needs ignoring.

All these things are rarely clear at first sight, but will generally make themselves known after the usual processes the creative brain undertakes for background processing. Have a nap, go for a walk, do some non-verbal practical problem-solving (DIY, lego, cooking, whatever). If bothersome feedback needs more active processing, then talk it through with a friend, or write in your journal about it, and then go for the walk.

But on these occasions, avoid the friends who just tell you that the critic is an idiot who doesn't appreciate your genius. The people who are best for our egos are not always best for our work.

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