True or False? A Critique Has to Be Brutally Honest to be Effective

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.

Be sure to read our Kindness Code before commenting.

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2 comments On True or False? A Critique Has to Be Brutally Honest to be Effective

  • Another great post … worth a 2nd read
    mean teen mentality… this is what came to mind as I considered the idea of honesty and bludgeoning. When a critique bully uses the idea of ‘just being honest’ to justify their harsh feedback, the experience of being critiqued goes rotten. To critique is to apply the process of critical thinking to analyse how well something has been expressed. And every point brought up must past the muster of explanation. Even if your comment is simply: “I don’t like it.”, you must explain what it is that you don’t like. And then, you must offer a possible solution, which has nothing to do with personal criticism. If you think the writer needs to learn more about writing, then don’t say that! Instead, offer a resource, such as a good writer’s blog, where supportive pointers could be found. And frame this suggestion as a common step: “I used to have trouble with [fill in problem] and I read several articles in these blogs and got some answers that helped me learn more. I bet they’d have some pointers on [fill in other person’s problem].”

    If a mean teen mentality is part of our communication mix, we’ll be looking for a way to score points – to set ourselves above the ‘danger’ of being critiqued – to set up defenses.

    Brutal honesty is only appropriate when lives are in imminent danger: “I’m going to give you a bit of a shove, as your butt is too big for the window!” :o)

    Establishing a goal for the critique can help keep the group on the straight and narrow. The writer should tell everyone what the material is about and what they are trying to accomplish: Cynthia, 16, has a flat tire in the woods 2 miles from her home. It’s dark, past dinnertime, and she’s late. Her parents will be gone to the movies. She’s never changed a tire. >> trying to show her struggle between fear and helplessness and being brave and finding a solution. (This is, of course, a very off the cuff scribble here) Now, the group has a focus point and any discussion can be centered on whether the scene accomplishes what is needed to keep the story rolling. Tough to reach for the honesty club when everyone is zoned in on the material and goal.

    Christine – really love your work here and am spreading the word…

    • Christine Carron, The Critique MD

      Thanks, Maria, for the comment, and spreading the word about the site. Much appreciated.

      Riffing on what you wrote, I would add that many different energies — like the one you named the “Mean Teen” part — come into play inside us when we are both giving and receiving feedback. The trick is to be the maestro of our own orchestra of parts/selves/energies/etc. As you noted, there may validly be moments or situations when someone wants a little more of the Mean Teen part or a more aggressively direct/unfiltered part in play. However, like you, I have found in most critique settings, it is usually better all around to keep the Negative Nelly parts of ourselves in check. And not just for the sake of the feedback receiver. If someone is constantly delivering feedback in an overly negative way, that behavior will repel other writers, which then limits that person’s (the negative critique giver’s) own opportunities to get feedback.

      So both the data and pure self-interest 🙂 would suggest that taking extra time to thoughtfully package the what-might-be-improved feedback (in a less harsh way) is worth it.

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