Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

A Critique on Critique: How to Use it, How to Lose it.

Are you ready to get torn to shreds?” I was asked.

“Um…I think so,” I said.

“Good. Then maybe you have a shot of being something.”

A marketing expert was offering his editorial ‘guidance,’ aka critique.

I’ve been dealing with critique my entire life. From writing workshops to company design reviews to my old cello teacher’s dismay at my Vivaldi renditions, I was always told I could do much better.

Can critique make us better? Or does it destroy us? I think the answer lies in both how it is given and how it is received.

Over the years I’ve noticed that some people offering critique aren’t trying to improve the performance of others. They’ll use your work as a podium for their own voice, desperate to be heard, critique their personal teeter totter. Putting you down raises them up, right? Only if you let yourself become unbalanced. It takes a strong sense of self know what critique is a carving tool to wield, and what is just a distraction, a muddy pond to jump over as you run ahead.

Of course, sometimes our “strong sense of self” is a little too strong and we are unable to listen and take critique in a constructive light. As a writer, I often cling to some metaphor that I alone find profoundly beautiful. When my commune of editors once told me that “a boisterous belly of bile” just didn’t work, my chest puffed out like a penguin’s. How dare they, I thought. They think they’re better writers than I am? However, once I could get outside of myself and hush my own ego I noticed they were right. I had been vomiting up alliteration again.

In design, writing, music, or any creative art, almost nothing should be so precious that it can’t be altered. I say ‘almost’, because every once in awhile there is an element that you feel so strongly about, you’d die for it. After you’ve listened to the voices, listen to your gut. Is their recommendation right, or do you need to stick with your work, despite the naysayers? Trust yourself as a creator. This is how technology disruption happens and great works of art get produced.

Critique is intimate. Someone is dissecting the soul of someone else whether it’s a work performance, an ability as a romantic partner, or a new painting. Critique can build bonds to make us greater or it can hurt us and even hurl us off stage. To ensure we treat our relationships with care, there are 4 important critique elements to consider.

1. Grant permission

When giving: Provide feedback when requested. If someone is not willing to listen to other voices, than your pleas for change will fall as silent as that lone tree in the forest.

When receiving: If you want feedback, let people know that they have a safe space to be candid. Ask them to give it to you raw, because you can handle it. If you can’t, that is another problem. (see #3).

2. Have intention

When giving: Understand your objective. Do you really want to help the other person or are you just just venting on a lizard brain reaction, using another person as a podium to broadcast your own shit?

When receiving: Understand your objective as well as THEIRS. Are they just reacting or are they trying to understand you? It will help you know if you should swallow their advice or spit it out.

3. Get over yourself

When giving: You are not better than they are. Provide feedback as their ally. Build on their ideas. Don’t shoot them down.

When receiving: Quiet your ego. Don’t reject their ideas just because they are different than yours. Consider them a tool for you to use.

4. Deal with the consequences

When giving: Understand that critique is a gift that may or may not be used. Once you give it, it’s no longer yours. Be equally graceful in its acceptance and denial.

When receiving: Does their critique further the message that you are trying to push out to the world? Or is your own style the best for impact? Decide how to act by trusting yourself. This is YOUR work, after all.

In conclusion, critique is powerful. It can help us or destroy us as well as the relationships we have. It’s crucial that we treat critique as a revered tool and use it carefully with both openness and integrity.

It’s an honor to be asked to provide it and it’s an honor to have someone spend time to give it. Of course, like other powerful elements, it’s not always the size of the critique that matters, but what we choose to do with it.

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