Know Your Creative Feedback Types!

Giving useful feedback can feel daunting or natural, depending on how well your feedback is received. Let’s imagine that you’re working with a team, and you’re being asked to give feedback on their work.

One member of your team is easy to give feedback to: they listen well, are appreciative, and respond exactly to what you’ve suggested; meanwhile, another team member gets defensive, flippant, ignores what you say, argues against you, and never quite integrates your feedback.

You find it natural, and even look forward to giving feedback to the first, but are hesitant to give feedback to the second; it might even be a source of stress. You think to yourself: “If one team member takes my feedback well, there mustn’t be any problem with me or my feedback — so the problem must be with them. Why can’t they be like their teammate?”

Putting aside a very small number of “more complex” cases (ie, there’s jealousy or resentment, there is fear or personal attachment to the project or their work), I’ve found that in most cases, it’s nothing more than a clash in the type of feedback you give, and the type that they find most useful.

Several years ago, I wrote about what I called the Open Faced Feedback Sandwich — a method of giving feedback which I had learned from one of my University Multimedia Design Lecturers.

As my Lecturer had originally told us, each of us defaults to a particular way of giving feedback, and responds best to a particular type of feedback (and they are not always aligned). I’ve tweaked the names since then, but those feedback types are:

  1. What’s Working
    While it’s easy to refer to this type as “praise,” I don’t like calling it that as it sounds too hollow. I also don’t like calling it “what’s right,” because in a lot of fields, what is “right” is highly subjective. Instead, to paraphrase a member of my writing team, I like to think of it as “that’s really working for me.”
  2. What’s Not Working
    It might seem rude, cruel, or critical to tell someone that what they’ve done is wrong, it’s also something that knocks out options and allows the person who likes this type of feedback to know where to focus. Another way to think of it is identifying what is heading in the wrong direction, or is off track.
  3. What to Try
    The goal of this is to identify existing ideas that have potential, then workshop them so that the result is greater than what an individual could achieve alone. The work getting feedback is treated as a source of inspiration for the feedback, which is then itself treated as a source of more inspiration.

Maybe you can already recognise the way you tend to or like giving or receiving feedback. If so, great! Now you can request that others start with your preferred type of feedback, and you can try giving feedback in one of the other ways.

So now, let’s go back to this hypothetical teammate who hasn’t been responding well to the way you’ve been giving them feedback. How might they be feeling when they get different types of feedback?

What’s Working

  • If this type of feedback is helpful for someone… 
    …it will reassure them that they’re doing well and are on the right track. They’ll continue in this direction, leaning in to what is working, and letting the alternatives fall away. Once they get this feedback, they’re then likely to ask for feedback on parts which they know aren’t working (again, they are looking for confirmation that these parts aren’t right, and are willing to workshop them). To quote someone who likes this type of feedback: “I know which parts I think are really working. I like to start with this type, so that I know that I’m on the right track, and my senses were right.” 
  • If this type of feedback is unhelpful for someone… 
    …they will feel as though you’re either sucking up to them, being flippant or insincere, afraid of upsetting them, that you’re about to give them a “sh!t sandwich”, or worse: that you don’t know how to help them improve their work.

What’s Not Working 

  • If this type of feedback is helpful for someone…
    …it will help them focus on problem solving through limitations. This type of person will usually come to you with “options,” and say that they’ve just been trying some different things beyond the brief (note that this isn’t a direct indicator, however), and they will respond either with a positive and efficient “okay,” and move onto the next item, or ask for clarification of why (this is just to get a better idea of why it didn’t work, rather than an attempt to defend or rescue it). To quote someone who likes this type of feedback: “There are always so many ways of doing things, and knowing what you don’t want makes it easier to find what you do want. That way I don’t waste my time on something that will never work.”
  • If this type of feedback is unhelpful for someone… 
    …it risks making them feel like you’re overly critical of them, that you’re hard to please, or that you don’t know what you want (and only what you don’t want!). They’ll feel like they don’t know what to try next.

What to Try

  • If this type of feedback is helpful for someone… 
    …they’ll feel seen for what they’re trying to do, and that you’re invested in taking their work from good to great. You’ll inspire them to workshop an idea with you and build on it. They may counter-propose, say, “Yes, and/or…” or tell you that they have an idea they’re going to try out and come back to you. If they realise that you don’t understand what they were trying to do, they’ll explain, but leave it open to further workshopping. To quote someone who likes this type of feedback, “If you haven’t commented on something, I’ll trust that it’s working, and I’ll ask if I’m not sure. But anything that needs a bit more work, I like that we can try to find a solution together.” 
  • If this type of feedback is unhelpful for someone… 
    …it can feel like you think you’re better than them, you’re telling them how to do their work, that you’re not giving them enough autonomy or want to put your stamp on everything.

You might notice a pattern here: each description for when the feedback type is unhelpful also describes a trap that can also be fallen into when you’re trying to give that type of feedback to someone who does find it helpful.

Generally, I’d recommend that you still work your way through all three types of feedback, but adjust based on which type is the most useful to that person. For the first two types, start with their preferred type, and then follow in sequential order (What’s Working, What’s Not Working, What to Try; What’s Not Working, What’s Working, What to Try), but for the third type, you can start in any order, depending on whether they like to workshop with you —  in which case, start with that, and then go to What’s Not Working so that they have a chance to workshop that, and end with What’s Working to confirm that everything else is fine —  or whether they like to take their work away to brainstorm on their own (which you’ll recognise by them getting a sparkle in their eye and nodding and backing away) —  in which case you can start with either What is Working or What’s Not Working according to what stands out to you first/comes more naturally to you.

Stumped on what type of feedback your teammate wants? There’s no harm in asking them. And don’t assume that the way someone gives feedback is the way they want to receive it, either: I have certainly seen all combinations of giving/receiving preferences and habits.

You can also tell them which type you favour giving and which you tend to be light on, and ask them if they want less of the former, and more of the latter — without judgement! Personally, I’ve found it powerful to share this information with the whole team. Over time, you’ll all be able to shift to make sure that everyone is getting what they need to move forward in their work, while others can also understand why those decisions were made. And then, once you’ve practised giving different feedback types to the people who find them useful, even your least used feedback type will begin to feel natural and everyone will begin to look forward to productive, useful, and helpful feedback.

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