Why Context Matters When Receiving Critiques

I was thinking about critiques the other day, as being the Critique MD I am wont to do, and in particular was pondering what can trip up critique receivers. One point that kept niggling at me was how often I see writers not considering context when prepping for the critique receiving experience. As if a critique is a critique is a critique. Though more precisely, what I see are writers not prepping themselves at all for critique receiving as if the only trick is to sit there and (maybe) take notes.

Nope and double nope.

Our brains respond to critical feedback as a threat, which narrows our mental activity.

So to get to the importance of context, let’s first establish that receiving a critique is neither a passive act nor a biologically neutral one. Our nervous system is hardwired for survival. Research into the feedback experience indicates that our brains respond to critical feedback as a threat and a result narrows our mental activity.[1] Among other things, that narrowing of activity includes what we can actually hear.

Physiologically, when we are stressed, our hearing changes. It zeroes in on lower frequency sounds, which our ancient biological defense system associates with predator activity. In the process, our brain filters out other sounds and frequencies, including the higher frequency range of human speech. Meaning under stress we lose our ability to actually hear the feedback notes people are giving us on our story.

Uhm, slightly problematic for us getting good data out of a critique, right?

To make this clearer, think of a scene in a movie where the protagonist is upset by what another character says, and the camera pans to the other character whose mouth keeps moving, but all the protagonist hears is white noise. And this is just one of the brain-activity narrowing effects that can happen to us in a critique.

We must expand our capacity both to maintain equilibrium and to bounce back when equilibrium is lost.

Basically, the feedback process by its nature (containing the DA-dum-DA-dum-DA-dum of that constructive feedback shark swimming closer and closer) is perfectly set up to trip us up. To trigger a flight, fight, or freeze response that makes it near impossible to stay fully present intellectually and take in potentially super helpful information.

So if we want to maximize the benefit we get from the critique process as critique receivers, we must expand our capacity to both maintain equilibrium and to bounce back when equilibrium is lost. To stay in what is called our social engagement biology.[2] The state where we are calm, actively alert, and all our brain functioning is available. We want our nervous system to be open and calm instead of firing off warning signals—which lead to flight or fight—or crumpling into the shutdown of a freeze response.

There is an abundance of strategies we can use to strengthen our ability to stay in our social engagement biology, but the first key step is simply to acknowledge that context of a critique matters. In particular, the threat level in a given context.

Meaning we have to root out this notion, consciously- or unconsciously-held, that a critique is a critique is a critique. Here are some critique context examples to bring this point home:

Context Example 1: Your Beloved Critique Group Posse

In this context, you are receiving a critique from your longstanding critique group partners. You all know each other well, respect each other, have each other’s backs, and have solid critique protocols that guide tone and structure of feedback delivery.

Threat Level: Low.

In general, your nervous system will enter these situations in an I’m cool, I’m chillin’ state, which makes it more likely that you will be able to stay in social engagement biology.

Context Example 2: Critique Group Trial Run

You are receiving a critique but also are being evaluated to see if you fit with the group. You do not know any or most of the writers well, nor are you familiar with the norms, dynamics, or protocols of the group.

Threat Level: Medium.

Now your nervous system is moving into Ding, ding, pay attention, read the room, stranger-danger mode. You will have to more actively prepare for and monitor your emotional state in a context like this.

Other contexts that have a similar threat level are critiques in day-long or weekend workshops where again you are not familiar with the players. Also critique contexts where the other writers do not receive your piece in advance and have only had the time it took for you to read your piece aloud to consider it. This means that the critiquers will have less time to prepare and be thoughtful about the content and/or framing of their feedback. And that all means the weird-and-wiggy factor can come into play more often, which your nervous system intuitively knows. So it is on heightened alert.

Context Example 3: Critique in a workshop that includes a V.I.I.P.

Here you are receiving a critique in a workshop where a Very Important Industry Professional is one of the critiquers. This could be an agent, an editor, or a published author.

Threat Level: High

Now your nervous system is firing at you from all angles. Stay calm, don’t get triggered, gee, I hope they love it, if they don’t love it, it will totally suck, plus everyone will be watching me bomb.

Deep breaths are required here, for sure. Along with much more preparation and in-the-moment nervous system management. But just recognizing the high alert context will help.

Context Example 4: The One-on-One Conference Critique with Your Dream Agent/Editor

This is where you are at a conference and sitting in front of your dream editor or agent, likely in a room with dozens if not hundreds of other writers in the same situation. It is noisy, you are hopeful, nervous, excited, possibly terrified and in the energy soup resulting from all the other writers also fritzing in heightened emotional states.

Threat Level: OFF THE CHARTS

Here your nervous system is firing at you from all angles as in the previous context example, but layered on top of that you likely have a few wild inner thoughts triggering like THIS IS MY PERSON and if they don’t like it I WILL DIE, I WILL LITERALLY DIE,  AND MY WRITING CAREER WILL BE OVER.

So, yes, irrational, inflated pressure on top of receiving a critique’s normal stress baseline. Like when contestants on The Voice say things like, “This is my last shot to make it in the industry,” right before they go out for their blind audition. Pressure, pressure, PRESSURE!

These types of critique receiving contexts can take badassery level preparation and state management to minimize the likelihood of a feedback experience backlash, especially if you have experienced trauma in your past. But again, simply acknowledging what context you are walking into is a major power move in and of itself.

So there we have it. Context matters when receiving critiques.

For the discussion below, what do you think? Do you have examples of other critique contexts that caught you by surprise? Threw you off your game? Do you think considering context and threat level will help you when receiving critiques?

Also, were you ever in a critique context that you thought would a low threat level only to be thrown off your game? That can happen for sure but is a topic for another blog . . . .

Onward in kindness,

Christine Carron, The Critique MD

[1] https://hbr.org/2019/03/the-feedback-fallacy

[2] https://ct.counseling.org/2016/06/polyvagal-theory-practice/

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4 comments On Why Context Matters When Receiving Critiques

  • Brava! Another fine post.

  • Thanks, Christine.

    I still remember my first critique. It belongs in your first example, but at the time, my body interpreted it as threat level EXTREME: pumping heart, flushed face, nausea, and other symptoms associated with major stress. I’ve learned since then to accept critiques as guidance — I have the final say on whether to accept or reject suggestions.

    • Christine Carron, The Critique MD

      That is a great listing of other physiological stress reactions, Kathy. And, yes, sometimes we can get tripped up by stress (our body’s reaction) even when intellectually we think we have it covered in a particular context. A key power move is having the kindness to bring ourselves back to center and then take action. Like reframing (which you did by really integrating that all feedback points are suggestions only, not required changes) or strengthening your base state (which you did by deeply owning your power as the Author–you decide.) WAY TO GO!!!

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