Feedback

(the above is feedback from a recent performance of my friend Darcy James Argue’s amazing Secret Society ensemble in New York City, found on a trombonist’s car. Many heartfelt congratulations to Darcy and the band, who yesterday received their first ever Grammy Nomination!)

When I was in high school, dead set on being the next great jazz saxophonist, I found out that that involved doing a lot of auditions.  Auditions for festivals, for scholarships, for colleges, for groups in college… etcetera.  They were always my least favorite part of the work, preparing hours on end for at best ten minutes, with one or a handful of judges poring over every note.  Being young and insecure, I felt like every audition was a judgement on me, and my worthiness as a musician and as a person.  (I now know a lot of the people who were judging me, some are even friends, and now I know better.  But then…) I won some auditions, I lost some, I hated almost all of them.  I can still tell you which notes I missed in my college auditions- 15+ years later.  These days my heart goes out to every one of my friends who has to fly somewhere trying to get into an orchestra, and every student of mine who does an audition for school.

Now, being a yoga teacher, I don’t have to wait for auditions, I get… FEEDBACK!  Notes from students, e-mails from peers and bosses at different places I teach, little things about what folks think does and doesn’t work about what I’m teaching or how I’m teaching it.  It’s par for the course- at the coarsest level, I’m in a customer service business, which means listening to the customer.  At it’s best, I’ve gotten insights into what I do- how I talk, and how people react- that I never would have discovered otherwise.

But, it’s not always fun to get, or clear how to take feedback.  (I don’t think this is unique to yoga teachers).  For instance, over the past three years or so, adjectives describing me and my classes have included, in no special order:

insightful, trite, callous, warm, creative, exciting, boorish, funny, sensitive, insensitive, cold, exciting…  you see where I’m going with this? I’m reminded of the Thoreau quote “Do I contradict myself?  Very well, I contradict myself.”  When I practiced and managed at various studios before I was a teacher, the well regarded, moe popular teachers tended to elicit the same kind of yin/yang responses.

If I took all of this at face value, I think I’d be perpetually confused.  I feel like I’m rarely as good as my warmest feedback, and rarely as bad as the angriest feedback.  And I usually know immediately from inside when something really worked, and when it really didn’t.  So here are some strategies I’ve adopted for taking, and giving feedback.  I’ll talk from the perspective of a yoga teacher, but hopefully this is applicable well beyond that realm.

On getting feedback

Don’t ignore it, but don’t believe it either.  When I first started teaching, I tended to really internalize all feedback- I wanted to be good, I wanted people to like my classes, so I took everything so seriously.  Feedback is always refracted through the prism of someone else’s experiences and story.  If someone writes you an angry note after they had a crappy day, wouldn’t they be more likely to be tougher on you, since they’re probably pretty down on themselves?

Don’t react immediately. One of my teachers said that if someone would tell him after class that his class needed more of this, or less of that, he would pause and say “You could be right.  Let me think on that for next time.”  When I am able to take a similar reaction, I get something out of the interaction, and often I do change things.  When I immediately speak up, too often I dig myself into a hole…  (I think of an old political cartoon where a politician has one foot in his mouth, and is saying “I’ve been miffquoted!”)

Take nothing personally. The person giving feedback is seeing one small piece of who you are and what you do at one unique point in time.  If you see your bad habits in what they’re telling you, then it’s a great starting point for growth and change.  But it’s one snapshot, that’s all- put more into it than that at your own peril.

On giving feedback (all examples are completely hypothetical…)

Make it tangible. If you write me a note telling me how big a boor I am, I’m probably not going to take it to heart.  But if you tell me “I was in class and when I fell out of half moon, you snickered at me and I felt really ashamed”, it’s hard to me to argue that I was anything but a boor. If I’m giving a teacher or a teacher trainee feedback, I try to make it small and concrete- the way they inflected words, if they used “like” or “umm” a lot, if their walk was natural or affected, tangible things.  If it’s one of my teachers, I often phrase it as a question- “why that particular thing there?”, etc.

Remember that it’s a human being receiving this feedback.  (And believe me, even if you say something offhandedly, it has a funny way of getting back to its subject.) I’ve been very lucky to see many of my teachers when they are completely put together and on it, but also when they’ve pretty much fallen apart.  And I love them dearly, and they’re still my teachers.  We’re human, we screw up, often.  If we put you at risk, or are doing something that seems even remotely unethical, then yes, pipe up and be unsparing in your criticism.  But if it’s not what you expected, try to be mindful in the way you’re asking the teacher to be mindful.

Other thoughts/advice?  What’s the best feedback you’ve ever gotten?

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One Response to Feedback

  1. Sandy says:

    Feedback is not my favorite thing. Unless, of course, it’s good feedback, then I love it… 😛

    Seriously though, make it constructive. As the giver of feedback, make sure you’re actually offering ways to improve. As a receiver of feedback, try to apply it towards getting better, rather than seeing good feedback as an affirmation of how awesomely perfect you are or bad feedback as an indication that you totally suck.

    Whether it’s nasty or kind, feedback tends to promote a sort of over-critical self reflection that may not be helpful. Try not to let it, whatever it is, to go to your head.

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