The Power of Positive Feedback

One of my many acting jobs is pretending to be a patient for medical students. I get a case, memorize it, and become that character. The medical student pretends to be a doctor and interviews me. Because of this, I have had countless hours of training on how to give feedback. And, surprisingly, people learn best from positive feedback.

Imagine the scene:
Five medical students surround me and their classmate, Justine, who just interviewed me. She’s being judged on her interviewing skills- listening, responding, saying things like, “Wow, that sounds hard.” This is the scariest thing she’s done since applying to medical school. Probably scarier. A million bad things are running through her head. She screwed up so bad. She forgot to shake hands, her voice shook the whole time. And worst, she called the patient by the wrong name.

The moderator turns to her. “What question would you like to ask your patient?”
Justine looks at me, sweating. “How did you feel when I called you by the wrong name?”
I smile as I answer. “When you called me by the wrong name, I was a little surprised. But after I corrected you, you apologized and never did it again. That showed me you were listening to me.”

The student relaxes. Next week she’s worlds better. Her listening shows through- she repeats symptoms back to me and remembers my job and spouse’s name.

Positive feedback endows confidence and helps people to shine in the areas in which they excel.

“You’re funny,” I tell a writer. And her writing gets funnier. Because she trusts her instinct.

“You have great voice,” I tell a writer. And his voice gets stronger. Because he trusts the voice he’s developed.

“This is a wonderful idea,” I tell a writer. And she comes up with more wonderful ideas because she trusts that her ideas can be wonderful.

But here’s the thing: Positive feedback only works if you NEVER LIE. You can never give false compliments. Ever. Nobody likes being patronized.

That honesty has to transcend into the rest of your critique. I have doubted sub-plots, murdered extraneous characters, corrected confusing structure, and insisted on more active verbs, darnit! But those sorts of things only shape a book. Positive feedback shapes a writer.

If you want to help your CPs be better writers, look for what they’re doing right, not only what they’re doing wrong. Our strengths are what give us individuality. Think of how you describe your favorite author: She’s heart-warming, or funny, or heart-wrenching, or makes you think, or action-packed, or knows how to say what everyone’s thinking, or really gets this generation or… the list goes on. The thing you love is the thing she’s best at. Somewhere along her writing journey, somebody encouraged that thing and now she’s your favorite author.

So when is the best time for positive feedback? During the first draft. The story is SO malleable! It’s still a baby! This is the time to encourage the things that will make this story, this writing, the best it can be. In fact, we have a rule in our writing group: If an author is still writing her first draft, you can only say good things about it. ONLY. When the draft is complete and the author gives the go-ahead, it’s open season for constructive criticism. But when the first draft is still being formed, the only doubts involved in its writing should come from the mind of its creator.

So don’t go “find something nice to say” about your critique partners. Notice! Open your eyes! What are they best at? What will make them into somebody’s favorite author?


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