Feedback, Criticism, and the Age of “Me”

A long time ago (not, however, in a galaxy far, far away), I submitted a roleplaying game to a publisher. A few weeks later, I received an email that began, “I’m not going to tell you what you are doing right. You already know that. I’m going to tell you everything you are doing wrong.”

He then proceeded to go into a three page list of problems with the setting that needed to be addressed.

To this day, I thank the gods that things like Facebook and Twitter were not a thing, because I would have made a colossal idiot of myself by bitching about the “unsolicited feedback” I received. Because after three days of sulking, whining, and being pissed off, I realized…he was right.

I find myself thinking of this while reading an article in Risk & Business that discusses how to give feedback. The accepted and widely heralded method of positive feedback-criticism-positive feedback doesn’t work. Part of the issue is how the brain processes data. We tend to remember the opening and closing of a discussion, and the middle becomes a blur Any lawyer will tell you this, which is why opening and closing statements are so important. But any editor will tell you this as well, because a strong opening and closing for a story can save an otherwise mundane narrative, while a poor opening or closing can kill an otherwise great story.

But it is also because people know the positive-negative-positive tactic and thus will sometimes consider the positive comments disingenuous and something only being said to soften the blow.

The article goes into how to give feedback that will actually be used. The one point that struck me as the most important, was they “why” of the feedback. Why are you giving the feedback?”

In some situations, the reason is obvious. Your company mandates annual employee reviews, and as a supervisor you are obligated to provide those reviews. As an editor, writers request feedback when we decline to publish a story, so my reason for the feedback is that they requested it. But in the social media era, there is a tendency for a lot of unsolicited feedback to get thrown around. And we may not always stop and think about why we feel the compulsion to offer it.

People who know me know that I am not a “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything” person. I think honest and transparency are important, and sometimes there is no nicething to say. I have had stories come across my desk that were barely literate. I’ve had art submissions sent to me that looked like something my dog would have done accidentally his tail. We all have that one friend in our Facebook feed who makes a habit of posting things that probably should not be discussed publicly, asking for advice because he or she wants you to reinforce their beliefs when the truth is the opposite. In those cases, the positive-negative-positive feedback method simply is disingenuous.

That doesn’t mean you avoid giving feedback. But that also doesn’t mean you have a blank check to be cruel. Think through the why of the feedback. Especially when it is unsolicited. Before you write that post, write that review, or send that email, ask yourself why you are doing it. What is your goal with the feedback? And once you determine what that goal is, include it in your feedback.

This is something that is so obvious once it is pointed out. In that three-page rejection I got long ago, the editor had made a point of saying that he wasn’t pointing out the problems to be discouraging, but because they were all problems that could be fixed and make the setting awesome. He took the time to give all of that feedback because he thought the setting had value and just needed polishing. When that realization hit me, it inspired me to do better. Explaining the why of your feedback makes that feedback more valuable.

But explaining the why also does something else. It focuses you on what matters. If you don’t know why you feel a need to offer feedback; if you can’t verbalize why you feel a compulsion to criticize something, then perhaps you shouldn’t be criticizing it. Because there is a lot of unsolicited feedback thrown around that has nothing to do with helping the recipient improve and everything to do with much more selfish, even narcissistic, reasons. If the criticism is really about making you feel better; either by “bringing them down” or by “letting them know they aren’t that special” or “showing them how stupid they are” or “they deserve it”; maybe just keep your thoughts to yourself. If the criticism isn’t being offered to help someone improve, but rather to drag someone down, it isn’t criticism. It’s an attack.

Honest criticism is altruistic in nature. Honest criticism is selfless. It may be harsh, blunt, and direct, but it is fair. And if your reason for providing the criticism is centered on you and not the recipient, you may find it impossible to give that criticism honestly and selflessly. Honest criticism may still sting, but that isn’t the same thing as being hurtful.