You know, writing and judging really have a lot in common. That probably has something to do with why I enjoy both of them so much. One of those things, one that it took me an incredibly long time to get over, is that it’s hard to know how you’re doing unless someone else tells you.
This isn’t a solo quest.
When you write something, you know what you meant to say. You know how you intended it to come across. You can clearly see the brilliance of your vision.
And that’s the problem. Your notion of what your writing is supposed to be clouds your ability to see what’s actually on the page—to listen to how you sound to the players—to understand how they feel about their interaction with you.
That’s why feedback is so vital, both to writing and to judging. Other people aren’t in your head. They don’t know what you meant–they only know what you wrote or did or said. They can tell you what they observed, and they can tell you what they felt about their observations. Your intentions don’t cloud their perception, and that different perspective is one of the most valuable things that we can offer to each other.
As a community, we’ve done a good job of talking about how important feedback is. We’ve even created places where we can talk about how to improve giving feedback. There are lots of articles floating around (see: this blog) about how important it is to be open to constructive criticism, to learn from it, and to use it as a springboard to improve yourself.
It seems like one of the pillars of that message is that you can’t take feedback personally.
Here’s the thing:
That advice is crap.
I wanted to say something stronger, but Angela, the editor of this blog, wouldn’t let me. So, I’m just going to say it again instead. You know, for emphasis:
That advice is crap.
Feedback can hurt. You devote time and energy to judging events. You have goals and aspirations. Being told that you didn’t live up to your vision, that you didn’t perform the way that you wanted to…that sucks.
It sucks a lot. The more invested you were in an event or project…the more it sucks. The higher your hopes…the more it sucks. The more pressure you felt to do well—if you’re team leading or head judging for the first time, for example—the more it sucks.
Pretending that it doesn’t suck, that the negative feedback doesn’t hurt—that isn’t going to help you. It isn’t going to help anyone.
Riki and I recently had a Slack conversation about a dichotomy that he sees around feedback. This is what he said:
Judges like feedback as coaching. They dislike feedback as evaluation.
I think that part of the reason for this distinction is that we’ve been conditioned to think that being hurt by feedback isn’t okay—we’re not supposed to take it personally. But sometimes it does hurt.
The intersection of these two things (assuming we should have super-thick skin and reacting to feedback emotionally) makes us feel even worse than the feedback itself. And then we have these negative conversations with ourselves: Why can’t I read this without feeling this way? I can’t even take criticism right!
This doubling-down of feel-bads doesn’t just affect how we receive feedback. It influences how we write reviews, too. We don’t want other judges, our friends and colleagues, to feel bad. Because it sucks.
So sometimes we overcompensate with what Riki referred to as coaching:
“I think A would have been more effective than B.”
“I think that if you prioritized C instead of D, the players would have had a better experience.”
“I think that you should try Z in the future.”
In some ways, coaching is great. Our attempts at self-improvement thrive when we can incorporate the perspective, expertise, and experience of other people into our own thoughts and processes. It’s an essential way to share information. So what’s wrong with it?
It can mask the underlying problem.
Take the first example above: I think A would have been more effective than B.
What if B, whatever it is, is actually just bad? That information gets lost. A judge who isn’t comfortable with your suggestion, maybe because it’s new or strange or different for them, might interpret that feedback to mean that A is just an alternative that you’re offering, rather than realizing that their previous approach was flawed in some way.
We tend to avoid evaluation of another judge’s performance. We try to avoid making value judgments about the work of others because we don’t want them to feel the hurt that we associate with a negative review—because we know how much that sucks.
But here’s the thing: That might not really be helping.
We’re giving them an out to internalizing what they’re saying by offering it up as an option or a choice instead of being clear about our thoughts.
What can we do instead?
Accept that criticism hurts.
Seriously. It’s okay. It can feel bad. It can feel completely and totally miserable. You have permission to curl up on the couch and eat ice cream with your cat until it doesn’t hurt anymore, but only if you return to that feedback once it stops being awful and try to learn something.
Getting there can take time. You might not be ready to deal with the feedback right away, and that’s also totally okay. You might have to start and stop a couple times before you can put aside your initial reaction completely and listen to what’s there. It might take more time than you’d like. It’s probably frustrating. I know it is for me. All of this is part of being human.
Don’t be afraid to feel hurt by constructive criticism.
Don’t feel bad that you’re taking it personally. It is personal. It’s about your work, and you’ve put time and effort and love into it. Learning that you didn’t do everything perfectly isn’t a great experience. Doing it better next time is. And it’s not just about accepting that criticism hurts when we’re receiving it.
Don’t let the fear that someone else will be hurt by your constructive criticism prevent you from telling them what you think.
Don’t let it muddle your message. Be diplomatic, but know that they can handle it. We all can. It might sting for a while, but we’ll all be better for it.