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3 Ways To Improve Your Critique Using Conflict Communication
I still vividly remember the first time my co-author Meg Spooner gave me feedback on a short story. She was a recent graduate of the prestigious Odyssey Writing Workshop, where they sit around and critique each others’ work all day long. They’re tough there, they welcome the pain! Well, mostly, anyway. Always get feedback from somebody better than you, right? So I handed over my story, chewed my nails (sound familiar?) and it came back to me all pinned out like a frog on a dissection board, flaws and innards on display. I cried. My story sucked! End of world! Here’s a breakdown of what happened:
What I heard
When my story came back to me with all that detailed feedback on its flaws, the message I received was: There are sixteen things wrong with this, it’s no good, you should give up now, this is a bad piece of writing.
What she said
When Meg took the time to put together all that feedback for me, she was saying: I think this is a good piece of writing, and you can tell I think that because I’m devoting a lot of effort to helping improve it. This means I think it has great potential!
What I hadn’t said
What I should have told her first was: This is the first time I’ve shown anything to anybody, really. I’m scared I can’t write at all and I’m making a fool of myself. Can you say some nice things about this if it’s any good?
So what happened? We failed to communicate. That’s what I’m going to talk about today. I’m not a writing expert, and I consider myself very much at the start of my journey. I am, however, a communication and conflict resolution expert. I have an awesome job that involves leading a team of mediators who handle high value and factually and emotionally complex disputes. I have a Masters in Conflict Resolution, I teach mediation, communication and conflict resolution skills. In other words, I get nerdily excited about this stuff.
Receiving feedback can activate your fight or flight instincts, and that’s where communication and conflict resolution skills come in. When somebody tells you what can be improved about your baby, the part of your brain that’s associated with being under attack can be activated.
Communicating with your critique partners and beta readers about how you’re going to critique each other and what you need from the process can make a huge difference.
My co-author Meg is one of my favourite people on the planet. She gets right to the heart of what I’m doing, she understands my writing (which can be very different to hers), and doesn’t try to turn it into hers. She always has thoughtful feedback on my weak spots. My favourite thing about her is that she laughs out loud when she reads my stuff, so my palpitations over whether my jokes are funny don’t have to last long. And we communicate really well about what we need from each other.
So, from a communication and conflict resolution viewpoint, here are my top tips for communicating about the way you’re going to critique. Even if you already do this well, being aware of why it works so well might be handy for you!
1. Know Your Type
Think about how you like to receive feedback. What’s worked for you in the past? What didn’t? Why was that? Do you prefer to get feedback in an email, in tracked changes on your manuscript, over a Skype call? Do you like your feedback sandwiched (positive, constructive, positive), do you prefer straight shooting? I have a friend who’s a straight shooter. She’d prefer me to say “You’re showing up late and it’s inconveniencing everybody, you need to try and be more punctual” than start out with “So, how was your morning? Anything unusual happen?” and work around from there. Everybody’s different. Start by thinking about what works for you.
You might like to try something like a simplified version of the Myers Briggs test, or something similar. For instance, I’m an ENFP. This means I’m extroverted, jump in head first, love new opportunities and hate the small stuff (I mean you, endless line edits). That doesn’t mean I can’t do the small stuff, just that it doesn’t excite me like my next big idea.
Most writers are introverts and work very differently to the way I do. Knowing a little more about yourself can make a huge difference. There’s a free, simplified version of the test here. Results should always be taken with a pinch of salt.
2. Communicate Clearly
Once you know about the way you like to receive your feedback, tell your CP! Make sure you’re completely clear about what you want. It’s not just about the positive/constructive ratio either, or the method of communication. What type of critique are you after?
Do you want line edits? A general overview of your CP’s thoughts? Do you want them to check it makes sense after considerable editing, or do you want their thoughts on pacing? If you don’t ask, you don’t get, and it would be a great pity for your CP to put in all that effort and not hit on what you actually need. We critique for each other because we want to help, so telling each other what we need means that effort produces the best results. Do you have a time frame in mind? Are there any outside factors affecting what’s going on? Provide really clear expectations that take into account what you know about yourself.
3. Frame It
Framing is the most valuable communication tool you’ll ever use. Big statement, I know.
When you’re framing, you’re doing this: I’m telling you what I’m about to tell you.
When you frame something, you give your listener context for what you’re about to say. So, instead of launching in with ‘I need you to critique for pacing, check chapter three still makes sense, think about information release and tell me if Bob got any more likeable yet’, you might start with ‘Can I give you some info on what would be most helpful to me in terms of comments?’ This allows your listener to marshal his or her attention and focus on what you’re saying. Asking permission or framing also means you're less likely to come across as issuing demands.
You’ll find that over time this isn’t necessary any more, but that’s because the framing is happening silently. After you’ve worked together for some time, your CP will know that when they get your work, they’ll get a list, and will be ready for that. You’ll have framed with your actions.
Yes: I’d like to give you some info on what I’ve found best for me when my work’s critiqued, would that be okay?
No: Okay, so you have to give me my feedback like this…
Yes: There are some things I’d love you to look at for this particular piece, can I tell you about them?
No: Just focus on X and Y. (This may be totally fine with an experienced CP. Still, even then, asking respectfully never hurts!)
What other advice do you have? How do you handle CP communication? If you took the test, want to share your type?