Taking and Giving Constructive Criticism

My events team and I talk a lot about how people love to tell us how to do our jobs. It’s human nature, I suppose, given what we do for a living. After all, how hard could it be to order the chicken?

The truth is that designing, executing, and evaluating an event is so much more than that, but a great event is one where the participant never sees the heavy lifting. We take the “helpful hints” mostly in stride (with only a little muttering under our breaths or loudly in the office where participants can’t hear us) because we want that experience to be a good one for them. But it also makes us more inured and less tactful when offering constructive criticism ourselves. We forget, that in other people’s worlds, they aren’t usually given that kind of continual feedback.

I recently came face to face with the backlash of this at an event, with someone that I actually admire quite a bit, who was the unwilling recipient of some of my “feedback”. I’d seen her speak at an event last fall, and while I didn’t know her more than through an email relationship, I do know her boss and her business partners. I want to see her succeed as a speaker (and that’s where my intended feedback lay), I passed on what I’d observed to her boss and partner. I also gave feedback in the session evaluation. And thought nothing more of it. Fast forward to two weeks ago and a very pointed passive-agressive conversation at a reception later, I realized, I could probably have handled it a little bit better. And it got me thinking very seriously about how I could have given my well-intentioned advice.

Here are three things I’ll try to keep in mind next time:

1) Remember that everyone has an ego
I don’t mean this in a “you need to save that guy an extra seat, because his ego is so big” kind of way. I mean it in the “we’re all human with a certain level of pride that feeds our self-confidence” kind of way. I’ve got an ego the size of Texas that comes out when I feel challenged on something I know have expertise in. And when I screw up or miss a mark on something, I have to work on controlling the ego-driven part of myself to listen to what others around me are observing. It doesn’t always mean I have to listen to everything and sometimes there is a grain of salt you need to take with the advice, but if more than one person points it out, it’s a pattern. And you should pay attention to those.

That being said, it takes a lot of chutzpah to get up in front of people and speak. And people who have chosen to do this for a living are especially sensitive because it’s their livelihood and expertise. Be gentle and remember to praise and comment, so you validate their expertise, while sharing your thoughts.

2) Remember that everyone has a bad day
Or that the person might be trying something new. Or they might be doing something they dislike but have to do because someone told them they had to. There’s numerous reasons for less than perfect execution, and especially as an events professional with the Serenity Prayer tattooed in an unmentionable place, I know better and will couch my critique in a frame that hopefully takes that into consideration.

3) Remember that it’s okay to give feedback
I really pondered, after this encounter, if my feedback was appropriate. And I decided, you know, yes it was. It wasn’t her best presentation, she really did do too much, and the presentation and participants suffered. She’s going to continue to give presentations and if no one shares any feedback, how will she improve? It’s the saying, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

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