How to Give and Receive Constructive Feedback

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June Thomas: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate Plus membership. More. Hello and welcome to another episode of Working Overtime, Working bi weekly advice focused NCIS to Workings JAG. I’m your host June Thomas.

Karen Han: And I’m your other host Karen, on How.

June Thomas: Are you, Karen?

Karen Han: I’m doing pretty good and I’m really excited to talk about, well, what we’re going to get to for this episode. I won’t spoil it, to be honest, because for the past few weeks, like I’ve been well, I don’t know how much I can’t spoil it, but I’ve been in a pretty big feedback loop.

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June Thomas: So now I’m even more excited to have this conversation with you.

Karen Han: And I guess I will reverse spoil it now by asking you what are we talking about for this episode?

June Thomas: Indeed. So today I want to chew over something that is an essential element of the creative process, but which is really difficult to do well, and that is giving, receiving and processing feedback. First, I’m curious, are you one of those people who is constantly seeking feedback and do you like to offer your own views to colleagues or friends who are struggling with something? How do you rate your feedback quotient?

Karen Han: This is such a fun topic and I have to admit I’m definitely not someone who constantly seeks out feedback, but I think at least partially, that’s because I was in an environment where where I got it pretty much automatically for such a long time where I have a staff job. And there was an editor that I worked with who was responsible for overseeing my work. That said, I do feel like feedback generally makes me really nervous. Like I hated parent teacher conferences when I was a kid, not because I was naughty in school or anything. I was just like, Oh, a lot of these say something bad about me that said, I love giving advice and I feel like my advice is generally like, okay, or else would I be a part of this advice based podcast? I don’t know about you.

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June Thomas: But I think somewhat similarly, I’m not one of those people who says, Hey, tell me how I’m doing. Like, which, you know, I suppose I can’t really say no, no shared because the way that I said that suggests that the shared is already thrown. But I do have quite a few opinions and I am pretty happy to share them with people. And if they ask me, well, I am ready.

June Thomas: I want to begin this topic though, with what might be a controversial opinion. I don’t think people should share unsolicited negative feedback. Just to calibrate a little bit, For example, in the world of podcasts, if you’re listening to a podcast, I really, really, really appreciate it. When listeners send in an email or a tweet alerting me or us to an actionable issue. Like I’ve been working in the podcast world for the last few years, so most of my examples will come from podcasting, but let’s just say human errors occasionally creep in and let’s just say there’s a technical problem with the audio. That’s something we can fix and we want to fix and we want to fix as soon as possible.

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June Thomas: So I am really grateful when listeners report things like that or in a print context, you know, telling a publication or a writer about a misspelled name or a factual error, people will appreciate hearing about things like that so they can correct them. But there is no need to write into a podcast and say that you don’t like a host voice, which let’s face it means a woman’s voice, or that you don’t care for the person who’s been hired to take over the writing of a column. Those things are not changeable. Decisions have been made. There’s nothing that can be done, and it’s just kind of mean and intrusive to share your opinion on those topics.

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June Thomas: However, if a podcast or a magazine or a friend asks for your advice, they want to know what you think of something. By all means, go off. It can be really helpful to hear what listeners think of concepts or segments or experiments that we’re trying on working and working over time. We really want to hear suggestions for guests. We want to hear about challenges you’re experiencing or questions that you have. We want to hear your success stories so that we can share them with our listeners. But and I say this with love, there is really no need to tell me that I talk funny. What do you think, Karen?

Karen Han: I think you’re really right on the money. And I think it ultimately comes down to what’s a basically objective versus subjective, like the stuff that you’re talking about, like audio errors, that’s subjective. Like something was wrong with the thing. Like it is a fact that something was off. But then there’s the subjective stuff, which I feel like is what people tend to want to write about more often and why the media landscape kind of, as you were saying, has so many think pieces about vocal fry and vocal tics, specifically with regards to women’s voices and why people seem to hate listening to women. That’s subjective stuff. To quote the dude. That’s just your opinion, man. And it’s not really helpful. It’s also always kind of upsetting because you don’t have to read very far between the lines to sense that someone is giving you this kind of feedback because they’re sexist or otherwise inherently look down on you in some way, even if they may not recognize it or not intend it in that way.

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Karen Han: Yeah, I think it’s also very different to offer feedback to a stranger than to a friend on multiple levels. Yeah. Again, the kinds of bad messages that we get I think tend to come from people who have some kind of parasocial relationship going on in that they assume something about you even though they don’t actually know you at all. And sort of on that same token, it’s the anonymity of the Internet. I think that also tends to make people feel more emboldened to send things like that. Basically, the harassment that a lot of my female colleagues get or my non-white colleagues. Yet I feel like if those people ran into you on the street, they would never say that in a million years a man.

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June Thomas: But I will say that good actionable feedback, it’s super helpful. In the world of journalism. We call that editing. I’ve watched in of TV shows that I know programs like the Iowa Writers Workshop or I guess all MFA programs have a pretty robust critique process. What is worked for you? Are there styles of feedback or kinds of feedback that you’ve found particularly useful?

Karen Han: Well, I remember like when I was like in math class, in elementary school of middle school, high school, one of the big things that teachers say is show your work. And I think that applies to feedback. A really good editor I think should inherently be able to sense if something isn’t working. But on top of that, they should be able to articulate that in a way that allows the writer to work on that issue rather than the editor sort of commandeering whatever the pieces and doing it for them. Yeah, I think a big thing also is that an editor should be helping you to tell your story, like whoever is giving you feedback should be helping your vision rather than shaping your story into the one that they personally want to tell. And hopefully you should have hashed that distinction out when you started working together with whoever it is that you asked to help you with something.

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June Thomas: The writer, I mean. Yes, yes, yes, yes. All so true. I want to respond to that and share more thoughts about feedback after this break.

June Thomas: Hey, listeners. Is there a particular creative struggle you’d like to hear his tackle? Let us know by emailing us at working at Slate.com. Or even better. You can call us and leave a message at 3049339675. That’s 304933w0rk. You can also record a voice memo on your phone or by whatever means, and send it to us at working at Slate.com. All right, we’re back. So as we’ve established, there’s an art to giving feedback, but I think it is just as important to do a good job of asking for feedback, giving a useful critique and offering constructive suggestions, their acts of kindness. You know, you’re sharing your thoughts, your your insights. And people can only do that when you are clear about what you need from them.

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June Thomas: Let me give you some examples of the kinds of things I’m talking about. I think you should tell the people you’re asking for input, why you’re calling on them. What are you going to do with their advice? What kinds of decisions is it going to inform? Is there anything in particular that you’re focused on or an aspect of the project that you particularly think you need help with? You know where your insecurities are or what you’re uncertain about? So focus their attention on those things.

Karen Han: I think you’re totally right that if you can give that kind of honed in structure to some of that, you’re asking for feedback. It’s definitely for the best.

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June Thomas: That said.

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Karen Han: I have definitely given my work to my friends to look at by just saying, Hey, just tell me what you think about this as guidelines. But maybe that’s the advantage of showing your work to someone that you know really well. Yeah, you trust them to assess your work on a level that’s as basic as just vibes. But that aside, this is usually happened in relatively final stages as opposed to an earlier stage where I might really be trying to hash something specific out. But again, generally, yes, the more specific you can be in any given situation, the better.

June Thomas: You make a really good point. It does matter who you’re asking, in part because when you are asking from close friends or people that you really trust, you don’t ever question what the person’s motivations might be. And that sense may be a little bit arch or weird, but I’m just aware that sometimes there are agendas in, in, you know, at workplaces or whatever. And so all feedback requests are not equal.

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Karen Han: Yeah.

June Thomas: Before we leave this topic, though, I want to add that I think it’s fine to tell people if there are things you don’t want to hear about, you know, that could be because it’s too early to be judged. Like in the case of audio. If you still need to clean up the interview to kind of get rid of background noise or a loud air conditioner or something like that, you can just let the people who are giving feedback know that you don’t need to hear about the quality issues with the actualities. Just let know that you know that’s not quite right yet. Or if you don’t have the music cues and just let them know they’re coming. So people don’t waste their time kind of offering suggestions on something that you’re just not ready for. But you know, maybe it’s a good idea to flag that you might be asking them about stuff like that down the line. Is this something you’ve done with a writing project?

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Karen Han: I have, but pretty rarely I would say. I’ve sort of talked about this on the show before, but I have a really bad habit of being pretty precious about my work in terms of how done it has to be or how good I think it has to be for me to be comfortable to show it to anybody else, which is not always a good practice. But I’ve shown very nascent stages of, for example, a feature screenplay to some friends, just to sort of like let them get a sense of what I’m working on. Although in one instance it was specifically for them to get a sense of like my writing in a like genre space as opposed to me trying to get feedback from them.

June Thomas: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I guess my overarching point here is that the more you can share with the people whose time and thoughts you’re soliciting, the better. When I’d written one chapter of my book, I asked my editor for a quick take on certain specific questions where I was feeling really unsure because I was making a switch, you know, from writing articles to writing a book, things, you know, like, was I spelling out the citations too much? Because I’m used to writing online where you can just link to something, or should I rely on footnotes for that? Was I digressing too much? Did my authorial voice seem right? By which I guess I meant what she was expecting. And you know, that was work for her. I wasn’t giving her the whole boot, but, you know, asking somebody who’s incredibly busy to read something to, you know, come up with some thoughts to share them with you. You know, you’re asking for their time.

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June Thomas: And as it happens, she had really useful insights that helped me a lot and offered me reassurance in some key areas and also changed the way I thought. About some other things. Did you do anything like that during the writing of your book? Which I just want to note for our listeners will be out on November 22nd of 2022.

Karen Han: Thank you so much. It is available for pre-order now. I actually didn’t, but I think that goes back to what I was saying earlier. Again, maybe it’s part of this terrible independent streak that I have that I tend not to turn anything in unless I think it’s at least pretty good. And in this case, I always started with a fairly clear idea of where I wanted each chapter, or at least each subsection to go. And I think it was made a lot easier, again, by the overall structure that was expected of the book, where it’s like each chapter is a critical analysis of X movie, which I think is less nebulous or requires less kind of massaging than maybe the book that you’re working on or something kind of more broadly, nonfiction like even Isaac’s work as well. Yeah, I think falls into that category. But that said, I now sort of worrying as we’ve been recording this, where I’m like, do I not ask for feedback enough?

June Thomas: No. You know what, Karen? You’re an only child. I’m an only child. We don’t answer a lot of feedback. It’s true. Yeah. Sometimes you know what that means. When we do, we really mean it. That’s true.

June Thomas: I have another question for you. Are you one of those people who prefers negative feedback over positive? Obviously, that’s a very subjective question, but I have definitely come across people. Even I’ve been told explicitly by people, I don’t really feel like my work has been evaluated properly if I haven’t been dragged. And of course, I had to look up what dragged me at that point. The fact that I sort of started that question with Are you one of those people suggests that I’m not and I’m really not. I’m very happy if people just want to praise me.

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June Thomas: But at the same time, I admit that, like when I file a story to somebody and they make, you know, to changes, one of which was adding a link, I’m always a little bit worried that maybe they haven’t really engaged with the piece. You know, you’re asking for feedback because you want external input, and if they don’t have a ton to add, they haven’t really expanded your perspective. So where do you come down on the negative vibes only question.

Karen Han: I love positive feedback. I do not like being dragged, but that’s it. I don’t think too much of either is really the hallmark of good work and that makes sense. Like, I really think it depends on the piece and on the editor. I said earlier that I think a good editor should have a sixth sense about writing, but on the flip side of that, I think a good writer will have a sixth sense of how genuinely an editor is engaging with their piece. I’ve definitely had pieces go up with very little editing before, and depending on the editor, my impression of whether or not that happened for convenience sake or because the piece didn’t actually need that much tweaking was very, very different.

Karen Han: Yeah, yeah. Basically, apart from liking praise or being kind of masochistic about it, you want to have a good working relationship with whomever you’re asking for feedback or advice you should be able to trust however much or however little they end up doing to your piece before publication. And I also think it’s partially like a confidence question, not in terms of like I’m a good writer, but like be able to look at what you’ve done and saying, I think this is really good. I think or like sort of what you were saying in terms of adding for asking for a specific feedback where you’re like, you have a sense of like maybe this I think is weak. This is what I think the editor will come back to me with, as opposed to like, if you think a piece again is really good, you’re like, I don’t really know, like where feedback will come back and I would feel okay if this published as is.

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June Thomas: Exactly. There’s a feeling that’s almost like a premonition where, you know, or you kind of and you do hope because it means more work, but you have to kind of know that a section or a whole area needs needs to be developed. And you don’t necessarily want to do that work. But when an editor, you know, kind of points and says this really needs to be developed, you’re like, yeah, no, that’s kind of a good feeling. We’ll talk more about good feelings and bad feelings when we come back after this.

June Thomas: Listeners. I just want to remind you that if you’re enjoying working over time, please subscribe to working so that you never miss an episode. And if you listen on Apple Podcasts, we’d love you to rate and review the show. It really does help new listeners to find us. And if Overcast is your app of choice, please hit the star to recommend the episode to others.

June Thomas: All right. There’s one more aspect to this process, I think, which is managing the flow of feedback to the person who needs to assimilate it or just generally organizing the feedback process. I’m going to use another example from podcasting. Some narrative shows, I think most famously This American Life have a critique method where they gather a whole bunch of people in lots of different roles and very different levels of seniority. Everybody sits in a room. Sometimes it needs to be a pretty big room. They play the latest version of the piece and then they ask everyone to share what they think.

June Thomas: And potentially the most junior intern gets the same platform for criticism as the most executive of producers. And I don’t know, that just seems like a lot of input for a writer or producer or whoever has to take action on it to deal with. I know that you’ve been in writers rooms, so I’m guessing you’ve taken part in some version of that process. What did you make of it?

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Karen Han: It’s really, really wonderful when everyone is on the same page about the work itself, if not necessarily the topic or specific details. And I think the important thing to remember is that just because you’re being asked for feedback doesn’t mean that you have to give it. If there really isn’t anything to say, which is potentially a mean bit of feedback about feedback. For instance, I’ve heard nightmare stories from friends who’ve been through the development process where executives will give notes that make no sense purely because they feel like they have to contribute in some way or feel like it’s their job to have to say something. You don’t have to say anything like it’s the same principle as sort of as what we were talking about with editing, where if a piece is really good, there’s not necessarily going to be that many tweaks that you have to make to it.

Karen Han: With regards to that structure, specifically of having anyone at any level in the company being able to weigh in on something, again, I think it’s very valuable for all those people to note. You don’t have to say anything if you don’t have anything to say. But I think it is a really valuable kind of platform because I remember like when I was at Polygon, one of the projects that came up was like the best hundred games of like the last six years or so. And a lot of the younger writers were saying, like, why aren’t we talking about like Kim Kardashian, Hollywood, like the mobile game, for example. And a lot of the older writers were like, why would we include that? But it’s like, no, that game is very widely downloaded, hugely impacted a lot of mobile games that came after it. It has a very big footprint in the world of games, and you wouldn’t have gotten that if you hadn’t had the more junior writers around to weigh in on it.

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June Thomas: Yeah, that’s a great point. I can really relate to the thing you said about producers feeling they had to say something. You know, I’ve never had an absolutely nightmare editing experience, but when I would write occasionally for magazines with a lot of levels of editors, you know, I’m thinking, for example, of outlets in the extended Bloomberg universe, you had the sense that everything had to go up the editorial chain and every step on the ladder and editor had to change something. And there were times when that was just a little bit silly, you know? But on the plus side, those are also the kinds of places that tend to have high rates. So, you know, at least you have that comfort. You’re like.

Karen Han: At least I’m getting paid for it.

June Thomas: So that.

Karen Han: I’ll deal with it.

June Thomas: Exactly. You know, it’s interesting what you said about, you know, getting a variety of points of view, a variety of experiences. It makes a lot of sense. But I’m still a bit conflicted about the. Everyone listens and give feedback or everyone reads and give feedback kind of model. I think it’s a really great way of learning how to give feedback and what you shouldn’t do because you can see how people respond and especially you get to hear the kind of feedback that other people, perhaps with more experience or from different areas of expertise give.

June Thomas: So when I have done that, I’ve really learned a lot about what’s actually useful. On the other hand, I know when I’ve done it, it hasn’t always brought out the best in me. You know, there’s a kind of performative aspect. You have to prove that you’ve got deep thoughts and also like this will sound maybe a little too I know Snowflake, but just like on a personal level, when you’ve made a criticism in front of people, you know for sure that they’ve heard it. So if then they don’t take it on board and make the change, you’re suggesting, you know for sure that they desu, which is to say that they rejected your idea.

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June Thomas: And I realize that that says more about me and my, you know, super delicate ego than anything else. But I have to say that is something that has stuck with me when I even though I’ve really done it very few times, like, I made a really good point. And you didn’t make a change. What’s the matter with you is something that I felt afterwards, I. Want to offer one where that I think is a pretty good method of organizing feedback, which is doing things by email, which sounds so like, you know, 2010.

June Thomas: But one of the models that I think works pretty effectively is to have somebody with some authority on a project, filter the feedback and decide what to share either with the larger team or with the person who is going to have to act on it. Whether that’s a writer, a host, a producer, or combination of those roles. If that gatekeeper decides that the feedback isn’t relevant or that it isn’t practical to make a change, or even that it’s a kind of project transforming insight, like that’s the end of it. It isn’t a public process.

June Thomas: I think this is particularly effective when the gatekeeper has a really strong understanding of the mission and the tone and the scope of the project. And when they’re a good evaluator of input, it’s better than to have the most skilled judge of feedback decide what needs to be incorporated.

Karen Han: I totally agree, and this actually reminds me a lot of my experiences that I’ve had in like movie Q&A. Weirdly, I won’t really describe this. So for the large part of when you go to a screening and there’s a Q&A afterwards with some of the talent involved, it’s kind of a free for all. Like anyone can ask a question.

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June Thomas: Or make an observation, Oh.

Karen Han: God, which is the worst. And it has obviously very, very variable results to the point that it is kind of a stereotype now to be like, Oh, if don’t stay for the Q&A, it’s always going to be a disaster. But that said, there are other Q&A is where they have audience members pre submit questions like you submit your questions beforehand and someone will go through them and pick the ones that are actually like relevant or good. And I think what you’re saying is it’s good if you have a moderator like that’s the entire job of a moderator or editor to sort of filter out the noise from what’s actually important and what’s actually useful.

June Thomas: Yes, that’s exactly right. I agree completely. That’s all the time we have for this episode. Thank you so much for listening. And if you like the show, don’t forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

June Thomas: And if you have questions you’d like us to address, we really would love to hear from you. You can send us an email at working at Slate.com or give us a ring at 304933w0rk.

Karen Han: And if you’d like to support what we do, sign up for Slate plus at Slate.com slash working. Plus you’ll get bonus content, including exclusive episodes of Slow Burn and Big Mood Little Mood and you’ll be supporting what we do right here on working. It’s only a dollar for the first month.

June Thomas: Big thanks to Kevin Bendis and to our series. Producer Cameron Drews will be back on Sunday with a brand new episode of Working and in two weeks we’ll have another working overtime. Until then, get back to work.

June Thomas: So.