Thoughts on Giving Helpful Feedback
And why it's so hard to give helpful feedback.
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Recently, I got this feedback from a friend on a piece I wrote about my car accident:
"Car accidents are triggering and they make people think you want other people’s attention. And when you start writing so much about what you are thinking and what is going on, it becomes a double whammy. You have to understand that not everyone wants to even read what you wrote."
Another friend told me my writing was incomplete, unreasonably long, and in need of sharpening.
There's truth in both feedbacks. As a creator, there's definitely a part of me that wants attention, which is why I’ve shared my music, photos, and writing in public and not kept it in a drawer all these years. My work is usually very personal, and not everyone wants to read my writing. And when I started seriously writing, which is when my friends started reading it, it was unreasonably long and meandering.
It would be easier for me to dismiss what they said as ill-intentioned, but these came from people I’ve known for years. Both of them are good people with good intentions so I took what they said to heart and tried to learn from it, but after a while I just felt bad. They didn’t say anything I haven't already said to myself or believed about me or my work.
But as I’ve been working through that, it got me thinking about what helpful or unhelpful feedback looks like in general, and how we could do it better. Because unhelpful feedback comes in many forms, and we’ve all experienced it somehow.
Say you're out shopping with a friend and you ask their opinion on whether you should buy the shirt you just tried on. Most people give their opinion based on whether they would wear the shirt, not the person asking, and give feedback based on their preferences.
Because what you wear and why you wear it is so personal and nuanced, it's rare to find a friend who understands your style and can look at a piece of clothing objectively enough to give helpful feedback. If they are good at it and enjoy giving feedback, they can make a career out of it by being a stylist.
My work as a coach also has to do with the promise that I can give you helpful feedback, hence why this topic is so important to me.
The first and most important thing I've learned is helpful feedback is tactical empathy.
Empathy is hard but it’s a skill, and if we learn to do it well, helpful feedback can be enlightening for the person receiving it. Being able to understand and share in someone’s struggle makes us seem like a mind-reader and offer insights they never thought of before—insights that can be a game changer for them or their work.
So, if helpful feedback starts with empathy, then empathy starts with being aware of when our ego is getting in the way. This quote from Kevin Kelly is good advice on how to become more aware: "A great way to understand yourself is to seriously reflect on everything you find irritating in others."
If we don’t take his advice and don’t reflect on why someone is irritating, we can end up lacing our irritation in our feedback. We run the risk of projecting our ego and our feedback is more revealing about ourselves than about the other person or their work. There is no empathy and nothing helpful about our feedback.
The irony is the people we find the most irritating are the ones closest to us, and we rarely hesitate to let them know what we’re thinking. This is why helpful feedback is hard to come by from family or close friends. And it’s oftentimes why the voice that stops us from doing something meaningful or tells us we aren't good enough is reciting the feedback we've received from a parent, spouse, or close friend.
The hard truth I had to embrace is that the people closest to us aren't there to love what we do, but who we are. They aren't meant to be our clients or customers. They are meant to be the late night call when everything goes wrong. If we create in order to get reassurance from them, we trap ourselves into doing safe and average work.
I’d go as far to say if those around us don't get what we're doing, we should take that as a signal that we are onto something unique and different. We need to keep creating and making friends with people who get it. Our closest friends will be there to meet up when work is over and we want to relax.
The second thing I’ve learned about helpful feedback is to position it as a suggestion, not a command.
We're offering them ideas of what to do next, and how they might go about doing something. But whether or not they follow the feedback is not our concern. A phrase I learned from my coach that I've since prefaced with any feedback I give is "Here’s something I’d like to submit to you.”
A request for feedback is a vulnerable thing to do, and I want to honor their vulnerability by offering my feedback as a submission, and giving them the power to take it or leave it. I want to assure them there is no expectation or responsibility for them to follow what I’m about to say.
The last thing I can say about helpful feedback is that it should be rare.
It took me a long time to realize when someone is sharing something vulnerable, they rarely want me to jump in with helpful feedback. My clients usually know what they need to do or why something went wrong. Their questions to me are, “Am I the only client of yours that goes through this?” or “Wow, I must be the most dramatic client you have, right?”
What they want is to know they aren’t the only ones going through it and that they aren’t as stupid as they feel. It isn’t feedback that would make them feel seen and heard, it’s empathy.
In the end maybe this isn’t about feedback, but about solidarity. If the goal is to show up and do the hard but meaningful work, then whatever we can do for each other to keep going is the most helpful.
Follow Along Upstream
And feel a little less alone on your quest to your most courageous work.