August 23, 2020

Constructive Criticism: Stop Sugar Coating the Truth (It’ll Set You Free)

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I hate to break it to you, but Mary Poppins is a liar.

That umbrella flying, song singing, chimney hopping, practically perfect nanny of two. Yep, her.

She once told me that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. But she only told half the story.

She didn't warn me about the nasty aftertaste you get once you've allowed that gooey mess to slip slide it's way down your throat. 

Nor did she tell me how that taste can linger for days. 

Weeks. Sometimes longer.

Just like sugar coated feedback and constructive criticism. It's the worst. It traps you in the illusion that all is well. When it's not.

Like that time I asked a friend to give me her 'honest' opinion on the first ever website I designed (back in 2011). 

Her 'honest' response: 

"OMG it's awesome. I love the logo. I love love love it!"

Ain't gonna lie, I took my happy dance to church that day (metaphorically speaking).

A week or so later, another friend told me the words I didn't want to hear, but needed to. My little website wasn't 'OMG awesome'. It was fugly.

Perhaps my sugar coating friend was as clueless as I was when it came to knowing good design. 

Or maybe, she was trying to spare my feelings.

Not calling something out, when it looks off, is another form of sugar coating, in my mind. 

Like that time in high school, when I had a piece of lettuce stuck in my teeth. 

No one told me. 

I only discovered the offending shrub about 10 minutes AFTER smiling and fluttering my eyelashes at my crush. 

I could have died.

And no, my crush didn't tell me either. 

People feel uncomfortable speaking truth. So they do a Mary Poppins, and sugar coat it.

(So we're on the same page, I'm using this as the definition of sugar coating: "to make superficially attractive or acceptable".)

I get that people would rather swallow an opinion than upset you.

It makes you feel all kinds of spesh when people tell you your stuff is 'OMG awesome'. 

But for those of us who want to get better at what we do, this ego stroke isn't helping. 

We need the honest to goodness un-sugar coated version. 

We need the truth.

Even if it makes us want to curl up in a little ball, cry for 4 minutes straight, and vow never to create again. 

We've got to be able to handle the truth.

There's this wicked-cool community for online entrepreneurs I joined a while back. They have a manifesto for anyone wanting to kick it with this merry band of go-getters.

It includes this line:

"[you must be] emotionally ready to participate in the giving and receiving of feedback that may at times challenge your original thinking"

Nobody sugar coats anything there, and I love it. 

These are the type of people who'll help me grow as a creator, and an individual. It's also a safe space I can offer feedback without worrying about the other person:

(a) having a meltdown,

(b) getting defensive, or

(c) diminishing my input (which is a particularly annoying form of defensiveness often resulting in a "oh but so and so thinks it's good" comment. Oookkaaay!) 

That shit makes straight talkers (the kind of people we want to be getting feedback from) take a pledge never to darken your door again.

A couple of things I've learned about the giving and receiving of feedback (and constructive criticism) over the last few years. 

1) Don't listen to feedback from sugar coaters

They mean well, but they ain't helping. Not in the long run. 

Smile and nod, then get a second, third, fourth opinion.

Seek out the people who will give it to you straight. They have your back.

And thank them, even if you don't agree with what they have to say.

2) Don't be a sugar coater

It robs people of their emotional readiness to hear the unfiltered truth. 

Now this doesn't mean being a jerk-face.

It means finding the courage to speak up, and doing it respectfully. 

If the receiver gets all up in their feelings, know that that's not your issue. 

Their emotions aren't your responsibility. 

They're just not ready to receive that feedback from you. Not yet.

Oh, and one last thing. It's a biggie.

If you see someone (friend, stranger, whoever) with some nasty goop wedged between their teeth... tell them. 

PULhease tell them. OK?

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