Context Means Everything: Weighing Feedback

The other morning my Dear Daughter was in desperate need of an outfit.  She’s tired of wearing the same old-same old for speech and wanted a pair of slacks instead of a skirt.  I dug through my closet and found a pair of (shrunken) dress pants.  She slid them on.

“Mom!” said she as she held the waistband out inches on each side.  “I can’t believe your hips are this big.”

Now, I could have been insulted–especially since I knew those pants fit a little more snugly after their heated run-in with the dryer and my hips’ happy reunion with the salsa jar.  I could have taken personal affront at her comment and chastised her for speaking rudely.

However, she wasn’t trying to be rude.  She was actually giving me a compliment.  Regardless, her cheeks flushed and she continued, “It’s just that they don’t look that big.”

In defense of her, they don’t–generally.  Because I also have broad shoulders.  So, when taken in as part of the “big picture”, my hips are proportionate to the rest of me.  It’s only when studied alone, via a tape measure or a skinny girl in too-big-of-pants, that my hips can be classified as…uhm, wide.  Solid child-bearing hips, they be.

FAST FACT: Anything can hurt when taken out of context.  Over-sensitive types can blow things out of proportion, while narrowly focused folks tend to hone in on one aspect of the big picture.  Both of these traits can make us fail to see the positive side of something that otherwise feels negative.

Seriously, if we really wanted to, we could turn even the most caring and helpful statement into a tragedy.

What am I talking about?

Critiques, feedback from professionals and rejection letters.

Over the years, I’ve watched a fair number of writers (myself included) react to critiques from writing groups, partners, betas or rejection letters.  More recently, I see the same thing in the speech kids I coach when they get their critiques back from judges after a round.

FAST FACT: People have a tendency to focus on the perceived negative.  The one point that makes them really consider themselves, their writing or their performance in a way they absolutely do not want to.

Then, they twist this feedback into something ugly and hurtful and demeaning.  They toss it out as worthless and hateful.  They stick it in the shredder and refuse to acknowledge its existence.  In essence, they let their emotions get the best of them and they lose the opportunity to really consider the merit behind the words.

FAST FACT: If we would calm down and let our initial reactions take a walk around the block, we would see the big picture instead of an isolated statement or two.  We would put comments into context, giving us a better understanding of what the beta reader, judge, agent, editor, parent, speech coach or Dear Daughter really meant.

We would pause for a moment when confronted with loose waistbands and realize that wide might not be a synonym for fat like we first thought.  And while I get that we don’t always have the benefit of flushed cheeks and further commentary to clarify a critiquer’s meaning, we still need to consider each individual statement within the context of our work, the rest of the critique and the critiquers themselves.

Are you like me, occasionally guilty of taking feedback out of context?  Of totally dismissing an idea out of hand because the critiquer just didn’t get it?  How does this affect your writing and editing?  How do you give space to critique-induced emotions, and how do you know when you’re ready to evaluate the big picture of a critique rather one or two seemingly negative comments?  Have you ever come back to a critique or feedback of any kind and realized–despite your initial reaction–the judgment was correct? 

Curious minds want to know.

PS. Is “critiquer” really not a word?  WordPress Spell Check doesn’t think so.

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3 responses to “Context Means Everything: Weighing Feedback

  1. That’s a cute anecdote with your daughter. My 3-year-old, who has never seen me pregnant before (of course), pointed to my tummy and said, “Mommy, you’re a big, fat hippo.” I laughed so hard. It wasn’t an insult. In his limited experience, the growing pregnant belly was a novelty. And he could only frame his observation in a context he was familiar with: animals and their differing shapes and sizes. (He was the little penguin. Hee!)

    It’s all too easy to dismiss critique/feedback and say that the reader didn’t “get it”. When our egos get hurt, we do two things naturally: deny our imperfections, or retaliate. Beta reading and critiquing other people’s work is always a tricky business because personal opinions can interfere with perceptions. This is why it’s hard to find the perfect crit partner. You need someone who can help you see the errors, but at the same time, be your champion.

    My philosophy is always this: If the reader is confused, then I didn’t do my job very well. And I’d rather have someone honest (and brave) enough to tell me the truth, than to have someone pamper me with empty praises.

    Great post, Cate!

    • “My philosophy is always this: If the reader is confused, then I didn’t do my job very well. And I’d rather have someone honest (and brave) enough to tell me the truth, than to have someone pamper me with empty praises.”

      Exactly!

      They should love you enough to help, but not enough to lie to spare your ego. Because, really, it’s the ego that gets in the way. That feeling of being judged personally. We are not our stories. We are merely the messengers.

  2. Pingback: Blog Treasures 3~17 | Gene Lempp's Blog

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