It depends . . . on what you want to be effective at.
It’s a persistent misconception in some quarters of the corporate world and the creative world that brutal honesty is the most effective way to motivate someone to improve. That we are all unaware of our weaknesses and require a harshly honest person to enlighten us.
Side Note: I’ve never been clear why bland or even un-modified honesty wouldn’t be sufficient to set us all straight, but evidently, we are so lacking in awareness that honesty must come at us in punches for our shortcomings to fully register.
Research has not validated this position. In the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of the Harvard Business Review for example, Paul Green, a doctoral student at Harvard Business School who has studied the impact of negative feedback, had this to say about its effect:
[N]egative feedback manifests itself as a psychological threat. And over the last two to three decades, a body of research has shown that that kind of threat has not only behavioral consequences but physical ones as well: Lethargy. Anxiety. Depression.
Not exactly “I’ve got this” states of mind. Nor ones that support creative problem-solving. We writers need both a generative mindset and the ability to envision solutions in order to successfully revise our work.
So, am I suggesting that we never tell writers what is wrong with their work? Absolutely not. I am proposing, however, that delivering feedback unnecessarily harshly (often defended as “I’m just being honest.”) is counter-productive to the purpose of giving feedback, i.e., to help writers improve their stories as well as their craft skills.
To slip sideways on this point, in my corporate work, I’m often called in by my clients to serve as a rescue project manager. This means there’s an in-flight project (usually software development) that has gone off the rails—budget overruns, schedule overruns, etc. One of my first goals in these types of situations is to reset the mental state of the delivery team, i.e., the team under the gun to get this thing done. A team who is often getting daily negative feedback: You are late; You said xyz would only take two days and it has taken two months; You have to get this done now.
Translation: This is all your fault, and obviously you are not competent.
When I take over the project, I don’t care whose fault it is, and I take the position that the team is competent because . . . they are the team. If they aren’t going to deliver the work, who is? What good does it do for me to doubt them as well?
Perhaps my position seems somewhat obvious, but it often fascinates me how often I have to direct conversations away from whose fault it was to the more relevant and productive conversation of how the problems can be addressed/fixed. In addition, early on a project, a key part of my work is to help team members regain their equilibrium so that their natural expertise and confidence can flow once again.
To slip sideways even further, I was recently at a Susan Garrett dog-training workshop where Dutch positive-reinforcement dog trainer, Simon Prins, was a guest speaker. He was talking about giving feedback to dog trainers. He, too, reiterated what Paul Green wrote above and what I have experienced in my work. Negative feedback is not the most efficient way to help individuals improve. Simon doesn’t even like to call it feedback, as that implies looking at the past, rather than looking to the future and focusing on how to help someone improve. He prefers to call the whole process feedforward. Which I thought was quite brilliant.
Perhaps some of you may be thinking this is all semantics. Honesty is honesty. Plus, some folks are not going to be able to handle feedback on what might be improved no matter how well-packaged.
I agree. Honesty is honesty. However, we are writers. We know about shaping and slanting. We can put a thunderstorm on the page and fill it with foreboding and doom. Or we can take that same thunderstorm and write it as an exultant metaphor of our protagonist’s triumph. Two very different effects. That is the power we have as authors. That is the power we have as critique givers.
I also agree that even if we think through our feedback and take care in how we deliver it, the receiver still may be offended, overwhelmed, or somehow upset. That is a possible outcome. One that we will look at in discussions about receiving feedback.
However, as feedback givers, being attentive to how we shape feedback (and not taking the position that constructive feedback must be harsh to be legitimate) is still a worthy and worthwhile effort. Even if not perfect, it is a more effective approach . . . if you agree that the purpose of critiques is to help our fellow writers improve their craft and to write more awesome versions of the stories they want to tell.
Rest assured, we will delve into more tips and strategies for how to effectively shape feedback, but I decided challenging the notion that only brutal feedback is effective feedback was a perfect starting point to the conversation.
Onward in kindness,
Christine Carron, The Critique MD
P.S. Look for news coming soon about The Critique MD’s first live webinar course: A Whole-Brain Approach to Giving and Receiving Critiques.