What I Really Think About You: How to Give and Receive Feedback

My heart was pounding, but at least I kept it together in the lobby, through the street, and until I got into my car to start sobbing. I knew I had fifteen minutes of my drive home to let it all out and put on a happy face when I saw my kids. So I called one of my best friends and fellow performer, Aden Kirschner, and started to vent.

“I’ve never done so badly in a voiceover. I mean, the writing was bad, but it’s almost always bad. And I’m tired, but I’m always tired. I got in the recording booth and I knew what they wanted–a happy conversational tone while describing the details of a high tech sales model. I started out a little unsure, stumbled a few times. But then as the director started coaching me, I just got worse and worse. The more he told me what he wanted and started giving me line readings, the more flustered and strained I sounded. It was awful. Eventually I had to ask to take a break. Something I’ve never done. And when I looked at him when I got out of the booth, we both understood I was not going to be able to give him a usable performance today. And he sent me home. Total fail.”

My breathing slowed as Aden reassured me. And I could walk in the house and read bedtime stories–without any feedback!
Getting feedback is tough. And if it’s not given the right way, it can do more harm than good. It’s no wonder most people skip it altogether.  The thing is, if we can’t give and receive feedback, our work, art, or family can never improve. Feedback is vital for our development as individuals and organizations. In Improv 101 I get people in a very vulnerable situation–being on the spot in front of strangers doing something new–and try to give them the gentle feedback they need to get better and have more fun.

So here are my tips for receiving feedback, in improv and life:

  • Ask for feedback. If you are interested in feedback, let people know. Otherwise, they might skip it. I find it is usually the most talented players that ask me for feedback. Is that because it’s a lifelong habit of theirs and that’s why they are so good? Is it because they feel confident enough to ask? I don’t know, but there’s something there. The best performers ask for feedback.
  • Write it down.  This is my number one tip. If you just do this, you’ll be way ahead of most people. This gives you something to do besides talk back. It gives you time to digest the information you are receiving. It lets the giver of the feedback know that you take it seriously and are listening. It gives you something to come back to when you are in a calmer space, ready to receive the feedback. You can also look back and see if you’ve gotten a note more than once–this might be something to take to heart. One of my favorite improvisers to work with, Kevin Miller, has an awesome improv journal he carries around with all sorts of wisdom in it–feedback, notes, tips, games, and more–and he’s always evolving in to a better improviser.
  • Shift from defensiveness to curiosity.  If you have to talk, instead of explaining or excusing yourself, (which no one really cares about that besides you,) focus on really understanding the information you are given. Ask open ended questions like: “What would that look like?” or “How could I have done things differently?”
  • Take what you can and leave the rest. Privately. The feedback you are getting might be bullshit. It’s probably not, but it might be. If you decide that it’s not useful feedback, keep that information to yourself and say, “Thank You.” Then throw it in the trash pile of your mind, along with old telephone numbers and where you left your keys.
  • Say thank you. Its polite and it’s the right thing to do.  For most of us, giving people feedback is scary and sticky and we’d rather not do it. So when someone takes the time to think about you, articulate their thoughts, and be brave enough to share, possibly risking your relationship, say “Thank you!”

(By the way, this stuff applies for positive feedback and compliments just as much as negative.)

Here are my tips for giving feedback:

  • Ask permission. In some situations, it’s perfectly clear who should give feedback: managers in a review, teachers in a classroom, coaches on the field, directors in the theater. But there are a lot of situations, like an improv troupe, where the hierarchy isn’t clear and feedback isn’t always welcome. So if you have feedback to give, ask permission before giving it. 
  • Timing is everything. In general, it’s great to give feedback in a private, in person, and when they are expecting it. That’s not always possible. In improv, I like to paraphrase one of my heroes, Rafe Chase of 3 For All. “Giving feedback right after an improv show is like giving feedback right after sex.” You’ve just had an exciting and intimate experience with your fellow players, who had their own individual take on the show. Let them have that. The time for notes is ideally at rehearsal, when everybody is ready to work. The show is playtime, the reward. Many people have gotten dolled up, dressed up, paid for parking (or babysitting), and are not being paid for their time. Let them enjoy it. And hopefully only the really burning and important notes will be remembered at that week’s rehearsal. In Girls Girls GIrls Improvised Musicals we have the nice tradition of appointing someone to run notes at rehearsal, asking a specific set of questions. Then at our annual retreat we have individual feedback where you can ask the group for the level and style of feedback you want.
  • Be kind. Be direct. Be Honest. This is hard. Be nice. Focus on the behavior, not the person. Try not to use extremes like “you always…” Don’t over-qualify or over-word it so your meaning gets lost. Be brave enough to be clear and specific. And  y’know… tell the truth, or as much of it as you think they can take.
  • Pick your battles. You can’t start by telling someone everything that’s wrong with them. Start by picking one or two things either that are the most important or the most actionable.
  • Use the Magic Ratio. People receive feedback best when they have heard 5-6 positive comments first. So sprinkle those in throughout your interactions. Otherwise your good info might be dismissed.
  • Be positive and future focused. Don’t give feedback about things that are over and nothing can be done about. Give feedback to move forward with. Instead of focusing on what they did wrong last time, what can they do better next time?
  • Give it in the way they need it. Different people have different feedback needs. Ask people how they like to receive feedback. In person? Written in an email so they can digest it? Anonymously? Me, I love to get permission to do something. Like permission to play crazy characters or let go of the story or just worry about myself and not everyone else.
  • Be like Elsa. Let it go! Once you’ve given your feedback and offered support for follow up, its in the recipients hands.

As for my voiceover session, although I’ve had a lot of success in my voice work, the client was not able to use the performance I gave them. And I probably won’t be asked to work with that director any time soon. But I did get paid for my time, which I was happy about.

Do you have other advice for giving and receiving feedback? A model you like to use? Merlin Works is developing a course on it to be delivered this summer and we are thinking all about this stuff. Let us know!

Shana Merlin
Founder, Merlin Works


About Karina

Karina Dominguez is the registrar and assistant to the Dean of Merlin Works Institute of Improvisation. She graduated from the Merlin Works program in December 2011 with three performances of "The Amazing Improvised Race." She is a full-time actor with commercial credits such as Burger King, Ford, Totino's, H-E-B and various departments for the State of Texas. She was last seen in the opening episode of the second season of "American Crime", and as the welcome video ranger in the second season of HBO's "The Leftovers", and as Helah in the first season of "The Chosen". She also performs on-stage in various Austin, TX plays including for Capital T Theatre, The Vortex, Vestige Group, Pollyanna Theater among others.

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