Feedback vs Criticism: the Importance of Learning with Consent

When it comes to self-directed learning, one of the biggest concerns brought up by those not practicing it is the perceived lack of teaching: people can’t learn things on their own, goes the common thought, they need to be measured and tested, they need that feedback! Of course, people can learn things on their own sometimes, and self-directed learning is by no means an entirely (or even mostly) solitary pursuit. But I do want to discuss the meaning of feedback, and when it is and isn’t helpful.

I saw a thread on Twitter by Annalee Flower recently that explored, in the context of writing, just what good feedback actually is and pointed out what I really think is the heart of the issue:

“The thing about feedback is, it can only be constructive if it’s consensual. Presuming to tell someone how to improve their work when they never asked you is presuming a position of authority.”

I think that quote applies whether we’re talking about writing or anything else, and no matter the age of those involved

Constructive feedback must be consensual. If “feedback” is not consensual, it’s rarely if ever helpful.

Though the terms could be used interchangeably depending on context, for the purpose of this post I’m going to separate the two, and use feedback when I mean consensual and helpful, and criticism for the opposite.

In the decade I’ve been blogging, I’ve had a host of people edit my work for me, at my request or with my agreement, and I’ve also had people appoint themselves as my retroactive editors without my consent, once a piece of mine has been set loose into the world.

I’ve had people who’ve never talked to me before send me a tweet pointing out a small typo and saying nothing else. I’ve had strangers send me long emails literally breaking down a post of mine piece by piece to point out every perceived grammatical error (often only some of which are even “errors” to begin with, instead of deliberate stylistic choices). Or send me even longer emails telling me all the ways I’m wrong while assuring me they’re just being helpful by sharing their oh so valuable criticism.

All of the above are examples of people criticizing my work, to me, without my consent. People who, as Annalee Flower put it, are “presuming a position of authority.” This is, by the way, entirely different than criticizing a piece of work on your own social media channels, with your own friends, or on your own blog. It’s also different than someone respectfully disagreeing with me, saying “well actually, I think it’s more like X…” or “I think you left out some important context” or anything else of that nature. When I put something out there, it is with the full understanding that it will likely be interacted with, shared, and disagreed with. The thing I take issue with is when someone comes to me not on equal footing, but attempting to correct me.

If someone writes a blog post responding to one of my posts about how they think I’m wrong, that’s fine.

If someone sends me an email “editing” a post of mine without my consent, that’s arrogance.

The latter stands in stark contrast to all the countless editors, both professional and amateur, who have helped me with my writing over the years, with my full and grateful agreement. Almost to a single person they’ve been part of my improving skills, and I can’t imagine where I’d be without their feedback.

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