Our most useful critics are often the ones that around us most often. These are also often the most neglected. They might be hesitant to comment because they aren’t experts. You might hesitate to ask them because you know it won’t be what you need. These people you interact with though represent at least a section of the audience you are trying to entertain. Most performances are not just for the artistic elite. Here is how to help them help you.
Stick to the Facts & Avoid Judgement.
Giving and receiving critical feedback is crucial to the artistic process. It also can be the most inflammatory and counterproductive moment in that process. Here are some tips to help you give better feedback and how to help the people around you give feedback in return that is helpful.
For it to be productive the critic should stick to facts, observations, what it made them think, what it made them feel, and what they want more or less of after during or after the performance. The most inflammatory and least helpful responses are judgments.
We love to hear “That was amazing!” This makes us feel good and special. This may be superficially nice to hear but artistically speaking this is a useless phrase and waste of time because it doesn’t give us any information to act on. We don’t know what was amazing that we should continue. The person watching it might have liked it but if you watched it yourself you might hate it. Subjective judgments whether they are seen as positive or negative are equally inert. When we want feedback we are looking for a catalyst for change, not a pat on the back.
Judgments can be detrimental because it can shift the performer’s goal from being true and authentic to trying to please the audience. If instead, the person responds, “I saw that your face was expressive and seemed to respond to what you were saying and feeling like it does in everyday conversation. I heard so much nuance in your voice and how you lingered just a bit longer on that one word to draw my attention to it. I was distracted from what you were singing by your feet because they were doing this fidgety thing that didn’t seem to fit with the words or the rest of your body language.” This gives this fictitious performer a ton of information to work with.
This allows the artist to decide which actions they took read to the audience as they wanted and which didn’t so they can keep doing what fit and spend time adjusting and exploring what didn’t. Maybe they wanted the audience to look at their feet at that moment to highlight the underlying anxiety their character was feeling. If the commenter would have judged that moment as an error the performer would have been forced to take sides and make it an ego issue rather than just focus on making the product better by going through their process. By sticking to the facts and avoiding judgment we act as a mirror for the performer. We give them the audience’s true response and let them gauge if it was the response they wanted from the audience and identify specific items they should continue doing or change.
For it to be productive the performer must listen with the intent to understand first. The performer can ask for clarification or give the audience information that will help them understand the original intent if they are seeking help in generating new options. In general, as the performer stick answering critical feedback with “Yes, I understand.” or “I don’t understand can you please clarify.” Qualification, defensive remarks, excuses, or hedging has to go if you want to cultivate a safe place for this person to feel like they can give you honest feedback. In professional relationships, they don’t care that you made a mistake and don’t want to hear the excuse. They just want you to change what you did. In the end, thank that person for their help. The performer can always choose to not act on the feedback. Listen, smile, be encouraging then go back and make the choices you believe in. As the performer, if you are more concerned with improving the product than protecting your ego you will seek out this kind of critique.
Giving useful constructive feedback is a skill. Deliberate practice, like all the other skills we are discussing, is essential. Learning how to train and guide others through helping you is also a skill worth practicing. Walking them through the Awareness Wheel by asking specific questions and holding your observers to those questions is a useful way to keep them from wandering into unhelpful, painful, and frustrating pitfalls. It can also help you build a much more complete picture of their experience. If you walk them through each section while avoiding judgment you will find the quality of your critique session with anyone improve significantly.
The Awareness Wheel was first introduced to me in a young married couples course my wife and I took after we were first married. It provides an amazing framework for critical feedback and collaborative discussion. It is also an excellent life skill that can help you communicate more effectively!
At the start begin with sensory data and work around the wheel clockwise. Take one observation at a time. For the critic, suggesting future actions should only be pursued when the performer asks for suggestions and solicits your advice. If it isn’t your designated job or if the performer doesn’t ask for your suggestions and advice don’t share it. Unsolicited advice is a great way to make enemies and shut down collaborative relationships. In the context of performing and art-making the action list is up to the performer to work through. Once they have the feedback provided by a critic through talking around the wheel they can go back through the process we have discussed in Day 1 and Day 2 to discover what they need to change to refine their product to get the desired result.
It could sound something like this. “I saw you clench and raise your fists to the sky when you sang that last phrase. I saw your eyes look up and your phrase scrunch up and get red while you were almost snarling with your teeth. This causes me to think you that you were angry at God or the world or something up in the sky. When I thought this I felt anxious, sad, and empathetic towards your character but a bit more disconnected and distanced from your character than I wanted. It resulted in me wanting for your pain to be over. It resulted in me wanting to feel the resolution to the crisis.” If the performer then asks the critique for suggestions that would help them feel more connected with what they are watching the critic could say, “What if next time you bring your eyes back down to horizon level or below. I think that might get the result I wanted as an audience member.” They would then try that and go through the process again to see if the result they wanted was accomplished.
The following is a link to a good introductory article to the awareness wheel if you are interested in learning more.
The Awareness wheel comes from the book, Couple Communication 1: Talking Together by Sherod Miller, Phyllis Miller, Elam W. Nunnally, Daniel B. Wackman (1991).
- Confusing thoughts, feelings, and sensory data. The most common problems come from saying something like, ” I feel like you are angry.” That is not accurate. You see evidence that makes you think they are angry. That then might make you feel empathetic anger but you can not feel what is inside that other person. Mislabeling, even if not identified by the participants engaging in a critic is still subconsciously identified for the manipulation (intentional or not) that it is.
- Listening to talk rather than listening to understand. To goal of the audience member is to watch the performance trying to understand what is being communicated without thinking ahead to the critique. The goal of the performer is to listen to understand the critic and not to defend their work or to explain. When you turn for listening has come then listen to understand and not to come up with the next thing to say.
- Not using the awareness wheel and jumping all over the place. It is so much easier to just jump around and say whatever comes to mind. Especially here at the start, be deliberate about walking around the awareness wheel and avoiding judgment. The benefits will make up for how rigid and formal it feels. Once you get the process down and understand how it works you can become more fluid and flexible.
- Looking for approval or validation after asking for a critique. The goal of a critique is not a pat on the back. It is to get an outside perspective and see your work through someone else’s eyes.
- Getting down about not being perfect. You will be much happier and enjoy art-making much earlier if you learn to treat mistakes an opportunity and value the process rather than obsess over the state of the product.
- Not talking and listening to the end. Talking to the end means to talk through each part of the awareness wheel as honestly and completely as possible. Talk until you are either repeating yourself or done saying what you have to say. Listening to the end means you are not interrupting the talker except to ask for clarification or to prompt them to talk to the end. Questions like, “Is there anything else that you noticed?” or “Tell me more about that” or any other comment that encourages them to talk to the end.
- Stating suggestions as imperatives. Should you ever be asked for suggestions, advice, or be invited to engage in the creative process phrase your comments as suggestions to explore and try rather than imperatives that must be complied with. Instead of saying, “Do this…” or “You have to…” try “What if you/we tried this….”. Instead of saying “You can’t do this…” try “What if instead of doing this we did this…”. This gives the performing artist the respect to think and choose for themselves and at the same time invites them to explore possible new better options without having to commit to them.
- Not being specific enough. The more specific the critique is the more helpful it will be. Try to encourage the critic to identify specific moments in the song where you did what they observed. If you as the performer want a response to certain elements of your performer to be specific with the person critiquing so they can focus on that issue more intensely.