Skills Breakdown, Part 3: Critique Groups

The final aspect of the critique process we teach at The Critique MD is how to manage critique groups effectively. From a skills perspective, the most effective critique group leaders not only are deliver and receive critiques effectively, they also demonstrate an intuitive (or learned) ability of the following skills:

  • Group Dynamics: Someone once said to me that critiques would be much easier if people weren’t involved. Maybe, but all the fun would be gone, too. No matter our foibles and failings, humans working together can be massively awesome. I confidently make the preceding statement after having worked with teams in the corporate world for years. Critique groups are self-forming teams. They are subject to normal group dynamics like any other team. So, overheated emotions and mucked-up communication are as much in the possibility mix as awesome collaboration and shared growth. A great critique group leader can facilitate through the good, the bad, and the ugly of group dynamics with calm and even a little panache.
  • Process Management: I usually avoid telling people when I first meet them that I am a process improvement consultant. Eyes often glaze over, and my hallucination is that they are expecting me to drop rules, regulations, and multi-level lists of requirements on them; that there is a general perception that an endeavor such as process improvement is inherently restrictive. The exact opposite is true. Structure (which is all process is) frees up creativity. The moment you decide to write something you are making structural/process decisions. The output of a decision to write a middle grade novel is going to be very different than the output of a decision to write an adult fantasy epic. The same holds for critiquing. The process a group follows to give feedback will impact the effectiveness of the output. For example, a group who allows feedback free-for-alls will likely generate less effective feedback (as that type of feedback is generally harder for a recipient to parse) than a group who takes a more structured approach where feedback is grouped into a positive round of comments, followed by a round of what might be improved.
  • Logistics Management: Logistics, if not attended to, can tank a critique group. I was once in a critique group that would not set a regular meeting time. Which meant each meeting at least fifteen minutes was added on to the session while everyone pulled out their calendars, noted the dates/times they were available, and the new date was sorted and set. And then, more often than not, someone’s calendar hadn’t been up to date which meant there was a round of emails where we once again worked to sort out a meeting time. I dropped out of that group. I heard later that the group disbanded and some of the members joined another group which had a regular set meeting date and time. Hallelujah! Other logistics include: 
    • where to meet?
    • what is the schedule of critiquing, i.e., everyone each meeting or is it a rotating schedule?
    • do folks send the submissions out in advance or do you read the piece and critique in the moment? (Note: If you do the latter, you likely will get more surface level feedback.)

Beware of critique groups that think these things don’t matter or can be sorted cavalierly. I have seen groups implode and relationships sundered from conflicts that could be traced back to poor logistics management. Personally, logistics are one of my least favorite things to sort out when I am managing a team. But I do them. Not doing so just leads to more headaches later on.

  • Conflict Management: Even if a critique group has solid processes in place, are all over group dynamics, and are taking care of logistics, conflicts will still bubble up. Such is life. Critique group leaders need conflict management chops.  Maybe someone can’t handle constructive feedback and is consistently overly defensive. Or maybe someone is always late in sending out their pages when the group has agreed to a certain lead time and that is generating frustration. Or maybe someone broke the confidence or trust of another member, and members are taking sides, and the meetings are cauldrons of resentment about to bubble over. Here’s the thing: if conflict is handled elegantly, it can lead to a whole new level of engagement and connection within the group. However, letting conflict simmer, and simmer, and simmer rarely leads to the outcomes most folks who are conflict-avoidant are hoping for: that it just goes away. More likely, the conflict boils over into full-on crisis. Or, equally unfortunate, group members start not showing up and the group falls apart because whatever usefulness folks had been getting out of the group is now outweighed by the tension and frustration.  So the more effectively you facilitate conflict, the greater potential you are creating for a critique group to survive and thrive.

And there you have it: some of the key skills utilized in running awesome critique groups. The great thing about all these skills is that they are super transferable to life in general. Which means whenever you upgrade your critique group management skills, you will find yourself moving through groups and teams in all areas of your life with greater awareness and aplomb. Groovy!

Onward in kindness,

Christine Carron, The Critique MD

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