Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Accepting feedback

Feedback! It's not a four-letter word, but it is a compound word made of two four-letter words. Many people find it terrifying; others are junkies for it; yet others ignore it whenever possible. However you feel about feedback, you can't avoid it forever. It's not something that happens only to artists-- if you do anything, anything at all, ever, among other people, you are at risk for feedback.
Of course, feedback about creative work is usually scarier than feedback about things like spelling or one's ironing technique. Unless you are working in a vacuum, however, you need to prepare yourself to accept what people have to say about your art, or your dance, or your writing, or your avant-garde performance pieces. Or whatever. People will tell you what they think whether or not you ask them to. They're so helpful that way!
Unfortunately, taking a tidbit of input from another human being the wrong way (i.e. taking it too seriously) can seriously derail your creative process. A glowing review can give you an unwarranted sense of self-importance, while a snide comment can make you feel despondent and worthless. If you take everything you hear to heart, and you get mixed reviews (most of us do), you will end up in crazytown, too conflicted about the merit of your own work to actually work.
As you can imagine, this doesn't work!

Here is what I have learned from years and years of getting constructive criticism about my artwork, my designs, my dancing, and my writing about accepting feedback without losing it-- 'it' being my sense of self and direction.
I hope it works for you.

Part One. In Public with the General Public.

Accepting Hyperbolic Compliments that Glow with Radioactive Brilliance
e.g. "You're a better dancer than Rachel Brice!"
Step 1: "Wow, thank you so much! I'm so flattered that you feel that way!"
Step 2: Forget the compliment. Do not, under any circumstances, let yourself buy into anything you know is totally overblown. There is a 99.insane number of 9's percent chance that you are not actually a better dancer than Rachel Brice, or Bozenka, or whoever, and you know it. (And if you are, you need to get some better PR, because I should have heard of you by now.)

Accepting Enthusiastic Praise
e.g. "I absolutely adored your dance! It made me tear up a little!"
Step 1: "Thank you so much! I'm so glad you enjoyed it!"
Step 2: Tell them a little bit about your motivation for the piece so that you can connect over something.
Step 3: Enjoy the shared connection. You made someone's life a little better. This was probably one of your goals in doing whatever it was you were doing, so you're entitled to be proud of yourself.
Step 4: Remember that you can always do better.

DO NOT at any point try to belittle anyone's praise. Don't go "oh, no, I'm not really very good" or whatever. This does not make you seem gracious, it makes you seem like you're fishing, or like you don't give that person's perspective any credence. For some people this is a knee jerk reaction-- if that's true of you, you need to catch yourself doing it, try to stop, and ask yourself why you feel like you need to apologize for doing a good job.

Accepting Mild Praise
e.g. "Good job tonight!"
Step 1: "Thank you!"
Step 2: Interpret. This could mean one of two things.
Some people give everyone in a show compliments as a matter of course-- for these people, saying "Good job!" is the same as saying "I watched your dance!" That doesn't mean you shouldn't be gracious towards them; they're trying to be polite and that's not a bad thing. Other people will really only say anything if they actually enjoyed what you did. (I fall into the latter camp because I'm actually sort of socially nervous.)
Step 3: In any case, they probably didn't hate it, so whatever.

Should you counter-compliment?
In my opinion, only if you mean it.

Accepting Things You're Not Sure Are Actually Compliments
e.g. "Wow, that was really different!"
Step 1: Treat it as a compliment. "Thanks!"
Step 2: Take this as an opportunity to discuss the background of the piece-- maybe your motivation for doing it, or the history of the style, or whatever.
Step 3: Observe. The person you're speaking with may find this fascinating, confusing, or repulsive, or they may not care. What does their reaction tell you about your audience?

DO NOT make excuses for your work. Don't dwell on your mistakes when talking to people! (I'm a total hypocrite. I do this all the time.) Half the time, your audience will not have noticed the things you're so upset about. If you bring it up to them, their impression of your work will be colored.

Accepting Condolences
e.g. "It's such a shame that your top fell off during your performance!"
Step 1: "Yeah, I know! Well, there's always next time!"
Step 2: What else are you going to say?

Accepting Unsolicited Criticism
e.g. "I liked your dance, but I didn't think that the costume was appropriate for your choice of music."
Step 1: Evaluate.
If this is a known problem, something you're working on fixing or something you can't fix for some reason, nod your head and agree.
If not, here is a stock response: "I hadn't thought about that. Thank you."
Step 2: Evaluate some more. Can you use the advice? Do you agree? Even if you respect the source, don't just take what they say to heart automatically, but don't reject it out of hand either. Think about it and form your own opinion.
Step 3: Do not yell or cry or walk away. Don't make excuses or argue with them. You don't have to be grateful for what this person said, but you should at least try to be gracious.
Step 4: If you genuinely don't understand the criticism or why it was given, you have the right to ask. "Why do you feel that way?"

Accepting Jabs, Cuts and other Meanness
e.g. "I really hate that song."
Step 1: Evaluate.
If there might be any merit to the comment whatsoever, say "Thank you for the feedback."
If the comment is baseless, or delivered in a mean-spirited manner, assert yourself without being a jerk. "Well, thanks for the feedback, but I have to disagree."
Step 2: Refer to the above steps for Unsolicited Criticism.

Accepting Silence
I haven't figured this one out yet.

Part Two. In Class and Among Peers - Accepting Formal Critiques

Sometimes you will be specifically looking for criticism-- or, in any case, you will know to expect it for some reason, even if you don't really want it. Here are some tips for that particular kind of situation.

assume that everyone has your best interests at heart until and unless they give you good evidence to the contrary.
keep a constant balance between open-mindedness and skepticism.
remember that just because someone says something doesn't make it true.
remember that just because you don't immediately agree with someone, it doesn't make them wrong.
make notes of what resonates with you and do your best to integrate it.
remember that your work is not you-- your self-worth should not be based in the worth of your work.
ask questions if you don't understand what someone has said.
ask for specific kinds of feedback you know you need.
maintain a sense of humor.

make excuses for your weaknesses (or your strengths).
explain why things had to be the way you made them.
get defensive or angry.
feel discouraged if you get a lot of change-oriented feedback.

A few final thoughts.
Serious artists want feedback-- or, at very least, they know they need it, because no one can be objective about their own work.
The good news is, with practice, it gets easier to accept both compliments and criticism.
No one's advice is impeccable, nor is anyone's advice totally worthless.
Your job as the artist is to be responsible for your reaction to criticism. Don't let your critics (or your hangers-on) steer your actions, but don't tune everyone out, either. Let the input of others inform what you do without dictating your development.
And no excuses.

No comments:

Post a Comment