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Tl;dr/epistemic status: quick post mostly comprised of bullet points. 

I have a pretty public-facing role, so I get a fair amount of feedback (both negative and positive) on my work from different people. A while back, I wrote a doc for myself on how I want to respond to this kind of negative feedback (and related stuff). Then I shared the doc with some folks I know and work with to get input on it,[1] then never shared it further. There’s been more related discussion recently, so I thought I’d share it now.[2] I haven’t really updated it except to add the introductory notes (before the first actual section), some links, and a picture. 

Sections:

  1. Notes on criticism
  2. How I want to handle criticism
  3. What I want to do to shift towards handling criticism better
  4. Bonus: notes on how to share criticism in ways that make this process easier for the one being criticized

I use the word “criticism” here for a pretty vague/broad class of things that includes things like “negative feedback” and “people sharing that they think I’m wrong in some important way.” (Other things are also arguably “criticism,” like people pointing out specific minor errors, but those are easier for me to handle, so I wasn’t really focusing on them when I wrote this.)

Please don't interpret this as a request to stop sharing feedback! Feedback has often helped me improve my work and grow. (I do think there are better and worse ways of sharing feedback, though — see more below.)

Notes on criticism

These were kind of used like lemmas for the original doc — claims to help arrive at my ~conclusions

  • What’s the point of (engaging with) criticism?
    • To improve what I’m working on now
    • To learn something I might be able to use in the future
    • [Something about supporting communal norms around engaging with good-faith criticism.]
  • Sometimes criticism isn’t really criticism and shouldn’t be (it could be reframed as a suggestion)
  • Criticism can be wrong
  • (Fear of) criticism can discourage action in bad ways

How I want to handle criticism

  1. Steelman it before updating on it, or try to understand the other person’s point of view if I first want to respond to it.
  2. Consider it rationally, and avoid over-updating on it. (Criticism can be wrong!)
  3. Actually listen to it, and stare into the abyss if the criticism is potentially scary.
  4. Welcome it and be grateful for it, and avoid pre-emptively guarding against it by being vague.
  5. Acknowledge explicitly (to myself and ideally to the person criticizing me) where I was wrong, if I was.
  6. Avoid feeling like I need to justify everything to everyone, especially when this is taking time or energy.
  7. Avoid letting fear of criticism stop me from doing things I endorse doing.
  8. Interpret it in a productive way — what should I learn, how should I change my behavior (if at all) — and avoid immediately judging myself, worrying that it means that I’m terrible in some deep important way. (Related: "Flinching away from truth” is often about *protecting* the epistemology.)
  9. Relatedly, avoid over-interpreting: avoid thinking that whoever is passing this on must think that I’m terrible in many other ways.
  10. If it’s very aggressive, get some help dealing with it.[3]
  11. Allow myself to engage with it in healthy ways, e.g. don’t go head-first into the criticism out of a misguided impulse towards ~epistemic bravado. 
    1. Sometimes I’m emotionally overwhelmed. It’s ok to listen to and process the criticism later. If someone is giving me feedback, I can ask them to write it down and send it a little later. If I have an email, I can snooze it until next week. A method that a friend proposed but that I’ve never tried is asking a friend to read the criticism and to contextualize it for me.[4] (I assume the process is something like “this is pretty chill, don’t worry about it,” or “hey, this is a criticism of your work on X. It’s pretty harsh. It sounds pretty reasonable, but even if it’s all true, it doesn’t mean you’re bad or anything like that.”)

Things I want to avoid: 

  1. Strawmanning it, or responding to it in its weak (butterfly) form and crushing it
  2. Getting grumpy or defensive
  3. Over-deferring to people whose opinions I particularly respect (or, potentially worse, to those whose assessment of me matters to me)
    1. Or allowing for information cascades. It seems important to try to understand if the criticism is independent or not.
  4. Lumping it in with other kinds of criticism that I’ve heard in the past, which weren’t compelling, and dismiss it all together
  5. Judging myself quite harshly
  6. Letting it become an ugh field because I feel bad or guilty about it

See also (might add to this as I come across more content): 

  1. A ladder of responses to criticism

What I want to do to shift towards handling criticism better

  • List how I want to handle criticism, get input on the list, adapt it, and read it carefully again + iterate [this!]
  • Practice
    • Do stuff
    • Put my opinions and work out in public
    • Get criticism/feedback
    • Respond to it and update on it
    • Reflect on how I responded to it
    • Repeat
  • Tell myself that I want to be the kind of person who handles criticism well
    • I think that this is a hack that might actually work
  • Remind myself of what actually matters

Bonus: notes on how to share criticism in ways that make this process easier for the one being criticized

  1. When possible, reframe things as suggestions or ideas rather than criticism.
  2. Avoid judgemental language.
  3. Criticize a product or a way of doing something, not the person.
  4. Just be kind.
  5. Explicitly flag the boundaries of the criticism — say, “I think this part of the project is performing poorly, but these other parts seem useful.” Express agreement or appreciation for something alongside the criticism. 
  6. Flag your uncertainty or how polished the criticism is, and whether you’re deferring to anyone or whether you might be biased in some way.
  7. If you think the person might be getting lots of criticism, consider offering to share the criticism and offering to share it later (if it’s not immediately action-relevant).
  8. Share it privately, unless you think it’s important for there to be common knowledge for some reason.
  9. Remember that even if it doesn’t seem like the person has taken your criticism into account, they might be mulling on it and might e.g. update next time they notice something you pointed out (which they’re now on the lookout for). 

More here (and in other places!): Supportive scepticism in practice. I'd be grateful for comments (or messages) that share other resources on this topic that people appreciate. (I might write more on this in the near future.)

Credit: Midjourney
  1. ^

    Really grateful for the comments people shared! 

  2. ^

    I wasn't sure about whether I should share it as a Community post or as a shortform (or at all), and I'd welcome thoughts on this.

  3. ^
  4. ^

    When I wrote first this and shared it, someone offered to do this for me. <3

Comments3
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:05 PM

One aspect of this I've been thinking about for a long time (partially for intensely personal and complicated reasons!) is honing my criticism/complaint razor. I think I set up the idea pretty well in the last half of this comment

The difficult thing about separating a critic (someone who helps you find a path through action space that deletes their complaint) from a complainer (someone who's the opposite of that) is that, while you have to protect your attention from complainers to a nontrivial degree, you may accidentally block a high quality adversary because what seems like a complaint is actually a criticism that's just really really hard to address, and you don't know the difference.

So on the one hand the existence of serial complainers (people who are hostile to solving problems) implies that problem solvers should be wary of crab buckets (and may be drawn to them out of humility or interest in soliciting criticism or desire to be actually right), on the other why should you expect to hone a heuristic for sorting them out quickly? It's deeply tricky. 

Thanks for sharing, I like how concrete all of this is and think it's generally a really important practice.

One "hack" that came to mind that I think helped me feeling more relaxed about the prospect of even pretty harsh criticism: Think of some worst cases already in advance. Like when you do a project/plan your life, consider the hypotheses that e.g.

  • you should not do this in theory good project because you are the wrong person for it, e.g. due to you not being [insert relevant features/skills] enough (yet!)
  • the project you plan working on will actually make things worse for various potential reasons
  • the career you invested your energy into is far from the best you could be pursuing
  • and a catch-all "there are possibly some unknown crucial considerations I'm neglecting"

Internally I expect even harsh criticism to then kinda feel like "Yeah good point, but also haha, I already kinda considered that and you merely cause me to update!" xD

I like the word "leverage point", or just "opportunity". I wish to elicit suggestions about what kind of leverage points I could exploit to improve at what I care about. Or, the inverse framing, what are some bottlenecks wrt what I care about that I'm failing to notice? Am I wasting time overoptimising some non-critical path (this is tbh one of my biggest bottlenecks)?

That said, if somebody's got a suggestion on their heart, I'd happier if they sent me a howler compared to no feedback at all. I regularly (while trying to keep it from getting too annoying) elicit feedback from people who might have it, in case it's hard for them to bring it up.

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