How to give and receive critique

In my day job, I am part of a small team of designers at a software company.  When I first started at the company, the developers weren’t helpful when asked for their thoughts on pending designs, providing useless critique like “I don’t like it,” or “that just looks ick.”  (Actual quote.)

I wanted to work with them, but they didn’t understand how to give feedback that was meaningful or actionable.  To solve this problem, we held a session on giving and receiving design critique.  The session went over well, and now the teams are collaborating better than ever. (Go read this version of the story; it’s better than I could explain.)

In dance as in life: I’ve been thinking about how we give and receive feedback to each other in dance performance.  I’ve noticed that critique tends to fall into one of three camps:

  1. Entirely positive, and very general.  I call this the “puppies and unicorns” critique.  “You’re such great dancers!  You’re so much fun to watch!!”
  2. Entirely negative, usually given behind someone’s back.  “This is awful,” someone will say.  “Those guys shouldn’t be on stage.”  Or my favorite, “this isn’t bellydance.”
  3. Silence.

None of these critique methods, of course, are helpful.  None of them help the dancers become better dancers. And while developing a critical eye towards your own performances is important, sometimes it’s good to get other people’s advice.

So here are some guidelines, pulled from design critique methodology, to help us all provide excellent feedback for each other.

If you are asking for critique:

  1. Ask for what you want. If you’re genuinely asking for feedback, say so! If you’re just sharing something because you want support, a phrase like “Check out this video – we had such a fun time!” will give your audience a clue.
  2. Be specific. It’s okay to ask for general critique, but you’ll get better advice if you ask for thoughts on something specific you’re concerned about: “Do you think that particular combination worked well?”

If you are offering critique:

  1. Make sure your opinion was asked for. Just because someone puts something on YouTube doesn’t mean they’re asking for your thoughts. If you’re not sure if critique is welcome, you can check in: “Thanks for sharing this! Are you looking for any feedback?”
  2. Ask what kind of advice they’re looking for. Maybe you’re focused on their costuming choice, but they are wondering if their formations played well on stage. “Are you looking for any specific ideas?” is a great question to ask.
  3. Be specific. If someone is genuinely asking for your advice, telling them “that was great!” isn’t helpful. If all you have is praise, you can be specific with your praise: “I particularly enjoyed the way you responded to the music when it changed tempo, it was very dramatic.”
  4. Assume good intentions. If there is something you didn’t enjoy, be kind. Some ideas:
    • “It seemed like your shimmies weren’t as bouncy as they normally are. Were you having an off day?”
    • “I’m not sure that costume worked well – it didn’t feel like it matched the music to me.”
    • “I think you need to work a bit on your posture. Your dancing was lovely, but your arms didn’t match the rest of your troupe, and I found it a little distracting.”

If you are receiving critique:

  1. Thank the person. The person who is offering their advice (hopefully) took time to offer you thoughtful, focused critique. Check your ego. If you argue or get defensive, they are unlikely to provide you feedback again.
  2. Take it to heart. Ultimately, you own your dance. It’s up to you to weigh the person’s critique and decide if you want to incorporate their feedback for next time. But at least consider it – there’s a reason you asked them for their advice in the first place!

How do you give and receive dance critique?