…or, “The Ugly Baby”

The saying goes “no one likes hearing that their baby is ugly,” meaning that personal criticism is never easy to hear. Within the broad community Pagans find themselves in, criticism has the added burden from the “Positive Thinking” camp which mistakenly believes that any form of criticism is “bad” or “negative”. Add that “up with people” attitude to Paganism’s penchant for encouraging the cult of the amateur, and you end up with an oppressive atmosphere where no one is special because everyone is. All those participation trophies, ultimately so little substance.

Criticism, done well and received well, helps people improve. After a rite, I like to hear from participants what their impressions were. Was a section too long? Did it make sense to everyone? Did I explain roles adequately? Was it boring? Sadly, that’s not every leader’s attitude. I’ve participated in a few rituals where the leader, seeking feedback afterward, explained “the rules” about feedback. He asked that if you brought up a criticism, you have to supply a solution. I was astounded at this blatant attempt at squelching real feedback. As an attendee I might be able to spot a problem, but have no idea how to fix it. Does that mean my criticism isn’t valid? Absolutely not. Afterward a few of us figured out that the leader wasn’t really interested in feedback at all – he was looking for a praisefest.

That’s not to say that there aren’t people who aspire to be pins to every balloon they meet. There are, and they often confuse criticism with conversation – they don’t know how to relate to others except to critique them constantly. I understand the need to mitigate these killjoys, but there are other ways to separate the kvetching from the feedback.

Filtering Good Feedback from Bad

Rather than instituting a rule like the “critique-must-be-followed-by-solution” model, there are a few things you can do to encourage good feedback and participation. To keep the feedback flowing (and to prevent the kvetchers from taking over), ask that everyone keep their verbal feedback to a single issue. Good or bad, everyone gets one shot to say something. Ask that any further comments be submitted via email, and be prepared with handouts with your email address on them.

It’s also important to stick to your guns with the “one and done” method. Don’t let people stray into a second topic, whether it be bad or good. Even when the feedback is overwhelmingly positive, say “thanks!” and move on to the next person. You’re seeking feedback, not a love feast. Be humble.

If pressed for time after a ritual or workshop, set up a designated date/time/location for feedback. Sometimes distance from the event allows people to think through what you’ve said, and give better feedback in context. If you’re at a festival, give yourself and your attendees 24 hours to think about it, and then meet up to discuss. Make sure that you “timebox” it, though – give people a definite time to be there, and do what you can to end on time. Time is a precious commodity — both yours and your attendees’.

Four Keys to Giving Good Feedback

I have found four key points to giving good criticism that work well for me:

  1. focus on the work, not the person
  2. give concrete examples
  3. focus on being helpful rather than being critical and
  4. offer helpful resources whenever possible

Focusing on the work rather than its messenger de-personalizes the exchange, and helps prevent anyone getting defensive. If you start off your critique with how the presenter dressed, sounded or repeatedly said “um”, s/he will probably ignore much of what you say after that. By focusing on the work (“I found the assertion you made about Roman state religion to be…” versus “Your assertion about the Roman state religion is…”), the presenter’s defenses are less likely to go up, and s/he’ll be better able to hear what you have to say.

To help give a good critique, concrete examples are key. In a recent workshop, the presenter asked for feedback afterward. While her presentation overall was quite good, it suffered from a lack of organization at times, causing the audience to drift. One of the audience mentioned that she was ‘bored’ during parts of the presentation – not particularly helpful. Another audience member remarked that he got lost sometimes because the presenter changed directions and topics pretty randomly. He suggested that she re-organize her material into a timeline, and stick to the flow of her timeline. Much, much more helpful.

The above situation also speaks to the third principle, being helpful rather than just critical. It turns out that the presenter was an expert in her field, but she was brand new to being a presenter. The first commenter was being critical, while the second was being helpful. The presenter was able to use the timeline suggestion to improve her skills as a presenter.

Finally, offer resources — books, articles, websites, people — when you criticize. If you know the subject pretty well, your input can be immensely helpful for the person’s next rite or presentation. Write them down, or offer to exchange email addresses with the person so s/he doesn’t have to remember them in the middle of receiving feedback from others.

And never, ever forget to be kind where possible. Remember the courage it takes to put yourself out there in front of an audience, and respect it.