When working with someone who already “knows what they’re doing,” however, you have to coat your advice with careful praise. The potential to bruise an ego is everywhere. The quickest constructive feedback—that’s not quite right, do this instead—is not ideal in such cases; in fact, it’s almost certain to invite pushback.
People who are competent but not masterful tend to be the most sensitive to criticism. Anyone giving feedback to someone who’s good but not great, never mind in the fourth quarter of their project timeline, had better be a master of diplomacy.
Over time, I’ve discovered that many creative people are highly self-critical. The author Jonathan Franzen once said his books were “minefields of sentences and word choices I regret.” The author John Banville described rereading his first novel many years later as “an appalling experience… I can’t bear to revisit my own work. I physically can’t bear it… I went through [the novel] with one eye shut, reading through splayed fingers.” Knowing and experiencing this phenomenon—not alongside these writers but equally talented ones—helped me speak more generously to people sweating from the effort of trying to make something new and good.
Useful feedback never piles on criticism under the misguided idea that it’s the feedback giver’s job to keep creators humble. The effort involved in creation can be humbling enough.
What was the most helpful piece of feedback you have ever received? Why was it so useful? Tell us your stories, the more detailed the better. Stories of spectacularly unhelpful or boorish feedback are also welcome. Please write to Megan Hustad at firstname.lastname@example.org with any you’d care to share.
The Useful series by Megan Hustad will explore the simplest, most efficient ways to reconsider and adjust how we behave in our professional lives.