Relishing Feedback: Tips from the Theatre

Everyone knows that feedback enhances performance. Most management training programs include some module on how to give it. And at some point in those pieces of training, almost invariably, someone says, “Yeah, but you know what we need…. We need to teach THEM how to RECEIVE feedback. They are so defensive, or dismissive, or ….”

A couple things about this comment:

  1. All we can control is ourselves. Blaming others for unsuccessful interactions is a dangerous and unproductive path to walk. If we are working on how to give feedback effectively, that does not mean “giving feedback effectively if the person I am giving it to is perfectly open, willing and self-aware.” The techniques we practice assume that the person receiving the feedback might be resistant or confused.
  2. Good point.

Receiving feedback well is as much of a skill as giving feedback well. In fact, selfishly, it may be the more important skill, because it is when we are on the receiving end of feedback that we have the opportunity to learn and grow.

I realized that actors (like athletes) have special receiving-feedback skills when my first O.D. mentor, Cal Sutliff, pointed the fact out to a group of my colleagues and me at the New York Association for New Americans. We were mostly starving actors, who had been teaching English as a Second Language to Russian refugees, and now, promoted to supervisors, we needed foundational management skills.

Cal delivered a half-day training for us, sharing best-practices and procedures and giving us some specific coaching and feedback. Then he went away. When he returned six weeks later to watch us in action, he was floored. “Uh, what happened?” he said. “ You are doing everything we talked about. Your behavior is completely different now.”

We were as surprised at his feedback as he was at our behavior. “Well, we did what you told us to do,” we said. As any good actor would, we had taken his notes, shifted our performances based on them, and continued to practice over time.

This, we learned from Cal, rated as wildly aberrant behavior. What we took for granted as actors – that a core part of our job was to glean and apply feedback – Cal revealed as a unique and special set of skills and mindsets that we should treasure.

So, some thoughts from the actor on how to hone your Receiving Feedback skills:

Value Feedback – Often actors complain not that they are getting bad feedback, or too much, but not enough. If a director ignores an actor in her notes (which are given before, during and after every rehearsal) that actor is likely to feel lost and anxious. There is a covenant between director and actor that is based on this exchange of feedback. Both parties know that you can see things from the outside that you cannot from the inside. The giving of feedback does not imply that the director does not trust or respect the actor. Rather, it allows the artists to collaborate and create in ways that are larger and deeper than either could without the other.  By definition, someone outside of you has a view of you that you do not have. When they share that view, and you can receive their insights, your opportunities for growth uh, grow!

Value Any Feedback – Not every director is great. And not every great director is good at giving feedback. But actors know that it is their job to serve the production, lead by whoever the director happens to be. Part of that job entails receiving feedback and implementing it even when you don’t like it. An apocryphal story has Coppola directing Brando in a scene, “Marlon," says Coppola, "Say your line, walk over here, and then say the next part.”  Brando replies, “What’s my motivation?”  To which Coppola says, “Your motivation is we’re losing the light. Do it now.” Part of the actor’s job is to justify the direction – to make the feedback work. Period. 

Value Any Feedback, Part 2 - When you demand that the person giving you feedback does it "the right way" you are missing opportunities. Learning to learn from anyone at any time affords you a huge opportunity. Become a lesson gathering machine. Why give someone else's clumsy communication the power to deprive you of development?

First Implement, Then Evaluate – We all have defenses...and habits and assumptions and comfort zones. There are many stories of highly successful people ignoring feedback and common wisdom along their journey and shocking everyone with their achievements. But, we remember those stories of exceptional people because they are exceptions. Often it is the best feedback that we are the most resistant to. Why? Because it is the feedback that addresses weaknesses head on that makes us the most vulnerable. In addition, we don’t know what we don’t know. Coaching can be understood only through implementation. DO it. To the best of your ability, the way you are being asked to do it. THEN figure out whether the change deserves to stick. You can always go back to your old ways. That’s easy. 

Make Friends with Discomfort - Perhaps the most important tip for getting better at receiving feedback is to remember that it will likely feel bad. We improvisers talk about "celebrating failure". What we mean is, celebrate the result of risk-taking, whatever it is. Celebrate trying something new. Celebrate that you have stretched yourself. The phrase reminds us that in order to grow we MUST fail. That we must measure success as much by the process as by results because it is the process that will lead to ongoing success over time. But the part we tend to gloss over is that failing often feels BAD. We can experience embarrassment, shame, anger, disappointment and fear when we fail - even when the failure is innocuous or highly subjective; even when there are no real-life consequences. Good directors learn to be gentle with their actors; managers and coaches get trained on how to give feedback in the most constructive way, but still there is no getting around it: negative feedback can hurt. So make friends with the hurt, rather than avoiding it. The goal is to be okay being uncomfortable - to learn to move into the discomfort, in fact. 

That is where the growth is. When we workout physically, we don’t get so freaked out by pain. We understand that some physical pain is an indicator of progress, and we are able to distinguish between soreness and injury. It is that level of comfort that we seek in other arenas.

Seek Feedback You Trust - Of course, not all feedback is created equal. Actively seek out feedback from people whose insight and input you trust. These may be people who are skilled professional coaches or people who are naturally gifted at seeing behaviors and articulating challenges and suggestions, or people who are terrible at giving feedback but who know a lot about things you want to learn. If you have been honing your receptors, you can learn even from this last group.

Let It Go - You are not obligated to fulfill someone else's vision when it conflicts with your own. Some feedback is unsolicited and unhelpful, period. As you exercise your receiving feedback muscles we suggest you take a moment to reflect on even that feedback which you initially want to reject. (See the points above.) Ask: "What value is there here?" Say: "Okay, that's stupid, but if I don't take it literally, what inspiration could I find?"  But ultimately, after you have openly received, reflected upon, and implemented feedback, THEN, if it doesn't work for you: let it go.  If a tip doesn't help you - even if it's a good tip in theory - release it and seek out other strategies. When unsolicited advice seems to serve an agenda that conflicts with yours, disengage. 
Finally, for many of us, the more experienced and expert we are, the harder it becomes to receive feedback. We expect things to continue indefinitely to work as they have in the past. We expect ourselves to succeed. We expect to know more than others. We demand of ourselves that we perform better than the rest.

The story goes that Laurence Olivier developed increasingly bad stage fright as he got older. One day a young actor said to him, "You get stage fright? But you're Laurence Olivier!"

"Exactly," Olivier replied. "When you go out there, you just have to be good. I have to be Olivier."
So, along with your receiving-feedback journey, remember this: be gentle with yourself; know that the courage to receive feedback ultimately makes you look, as well as be, stronger.  And remember to celebrate your feelings of discomfort and failure. They are surely signs of success.

We’d love your feedback: whether we like it or not.