Status, giving constructive feedback, and handling hecklers

Feedback can be a wonderfully sharp knife that, like the surgeon’s scalpel, can cut away the mistakes and imperfections and leave that which remains stronger and better, with space to grow, with the surgeon receiving thanks and flowers. However, all too often he who believes himself a surgeon acts more like a vicious butcher, roughly hacking away and carving chunks out of healthy flesh, causing pain and anger and sometimes the type of knife fight that puts people off giving feedback in the first place.

I say, don’t let that put you off giving feedback, let it encourage you to become the surgeon. And, with the help of certain tools, you can.

This morning at Early Bird Speakers (EBS), my Toastmaster’s Club, I was one of 4 evaluators and, of the 4, I was voted as best evaluator. The Evaluator role is one I particularly enjoy at Toastmasters because the skills I have learnt there have made me better at offering constructive and positive means of changing to people I like and respect without offending them.

Why is feedback so powerfully dangerous?

One word: Status. Before I go into how to deliver an effective evaluation, it is important to peel back to onion and understand what exactly evaluation does from a status perspective.

Most human interaction involves status, from tests of status, to proof of status, to challenges to status. Status is a very fluid beast, that goes up and down, and is highly important in the most important power game in the world, namely reproduction. However, we don’t need to peel the onion all the way to its sexy, naked core, except to slap a sticker on her bum that says handle with care. Because one wrong move and this fickle beauty will turn her affections to someone else.

Status is not money, status is not power; nor is it beauty, or control of resources, or even class. Status may be indicated by these things, status may even provide some of these things, but ultimately status is very simply the interplay between people. It is quite possible to have a high status tramp talking to a low status king (and makes great theatrical viewing). Status is so important that people fight for it, agonise over it, brood about it for years. Believing you are lower status than you deserve will put a chip on your shoulder (and, ironically, until you get rid of that chip, you will always remain lower status than the people about whom you are chippy). Having a belief of being low status even makes you die younger (making your chips not just unpleasant, but also unhealthy).

As such, status is both a reward and a punishment; any interaction that affects status means that you are either rewarding or punishing the other person in that interaction. And punishment breeds resentment, avoidance, and a desire for revenge (for more on punishment, see below).

Feedback and status
All forms of criticism affect status. Some forms boost it, some diminish it. When someone asks for feedback, by asking for it they are already defending their status by saying they have the status to take the criticism, you are giving them something they have asked for, and they are going to use it to improve what they are doing. Or it may be that they just want to hear nice things, so they are asking you to stroke their ego (i.e. boosting their status). It is important to be aware though, that if your feedback contains nothing positive, you are lowering their status and therefore punishing them.

However, when you give unsolicited feedback, unless it is universally positive, you are saying “I have higher status than you” or “I challenge your status” (this is what is happening when a comedian is heckled). In fact, even when it is entirely positive you are also attempting to boost your own status in relation to them by saying both that you have the authority to give the feedback and you are also giving them a gift which will hopefully make them like you a fraction more. Unsolicited feedback is about boosting your status, often at the expense of theirs. So don’t do it and don’t be cruel…

It is interesting to note here that criticising someone is less about the person being criticised than it is about the person doing the criticising. Criticism is the worst form of unsolicited feedback and it is why critics are hated. Once you know this though, you begin to realise that they are effectively just like hecklers, raising their voices and trying to feed off your status. And it doesn’t matter if they do it from a moral viewpoint, an artistic one, or from a political, intellectual, or any other platform. Each and every one of them is saying “I am better than you, I am higher status than you”. But status is an interaction. Whether or not you accept that is entirely up to you, and if they are feeding off your status, that means you have status for them to feed off – as Andy Warhol said, don’t read the reviews, weigh them!

Dealing with hecklers
I once did an improvisation course with the amazing Rob Broderick of Abandoman, one of the best improvisers in the country. I learnt a huge amount on that course, but one thing I learnt was as important than anything else I have learnt in comedy.

Rob was teaching us about “endowing”, whereby you endow a member of the audience with an attribute, and then improvise about them and build their whole character and being from this initial assumption. When it came to my turn, probably because of my own defensiveness, the girl I endowed I totally tore into and tore apart, making up dreadful things about her in my improvised creation of her character, building her to be a horrendous ogre of a beast. Entirely unaware of what I had done, Rob then asked the girl how she felt. She felt awful. I had verbally battered her into the ground, and in fact was almost on the verge of tears.

When I realised this, I was shocked. I felt terrible; that had certainly not been my intention, and even thinking about it now still gives me a pang of guilt. But this incident taught me a massively valuable lesson, because Rob then got me to endow this girl as a hero rather than the villain I had just done. This time, I built her up and made up wonderful and crazy things about her, coming up with funny ideas and making her a bizarre, strange, heroically positive character. When asked how she felt, she felt great, and so I did too.

Rob then pointed out that, by lowering the status of someone in the audience, you raise your status above them by a certain degree, but you lower their status with respect of the audience. When you raise the status of someone in the audience, you still raise your status above them by the same degree as if you’d lowered their status. However, their status is now higher than that of the rest of the audience, so you have actually raised your own status with respect to the audience much, much higher.

This is a risk when dealing with a heckler as raising their status may give them the feeling that they have the status to continue to interact (which can be a pain!), but just knowing how to play with the status of members of the audience like that does make the whole game much more fun, and whenever I talk to my audiences now, I remember Rob’s words and try to turn these people who’ve come to watch me into heros.

Constructive feedback

So, now we understand what feedback does to status, how do we deliver it in a way that is constructive, both to the endeavour being fedback upon and to the status of the individuals in the interaction? This is where Toastmasters comes in.

Toastmasters style evaluation
In every Toastmasters meeting, there are speakers, and there are people tasked to evaluate these speakers. Also, every member of the club fills in feedback slips which are given to the speakers for their private reading at the end. This helps both the speakers to improve their speeches and speaking, and helps the evaluators to improve their feedback skills.

Being Toastmasters, there is a guide and a standard method for everything. The standard method for giving feedback is very simple, and its structure further boosts the status of the person receiving the feedback, whilst at the same time giving them pointers for improving in the future.

This structure (1200 words from the start of this article!) is as follows: Commend, recommend, commend.

This means you start by saying something you enjoyed or thought was done well about the piece, you then move to something that you think could be done differently (try to avoid saying what you think is wrong; rather frame it so as to give an idea as to what might have been better, thus the criticism is constructive rather than merely dismissive), and finish off with another thing that you enjoyed.

This applies to so much in general life, from giving information to your boss or feedback to an employee, to encouraging your flatmate to change their ways, or the glorious fights with deeply loved but deeply flawed family members… Try it yourself, it is amazingly effective, gets your point across and still allows the other person to like you.

From the evaluation perspective of Toastmasters specifically, I find the structure forces me to think objectively about that which I am evaluating. I try to break my feedback down into 1) structure and content, 2) what the objectives of the speech were, and 3) how the speech was delivered. The way that I go about this is by putting together the three headings at the top of a piece of paper and underneath, as I listen to the speech, I write down what I notice about it in all the categories.

Then, at the end of the speech, I rewrite all my observations onto a second sheet, but this time in the structure of commend, recommend, commend, and try to have a minimum of 3 commends, a maximum of 2 recommends, and one final commend. Finally, I write it out a third time as bullet points for each, maybe on an index card.

When I deliver this, I think that it is important that people understand what I am evaluating the speaker about, so I explain that I will be talking about structure, objective and delivery and, by that stage, I have my points ready to deliver. The care that I take over the feedback I give shows the respect that I have for the speaker. That respect translates into status for the speaker from the rest of the room, and the quality of evaluation I give translates into status for me (especially when I win Best Evaluator of the morning!)

However, over and beyond all this talk of status, there is a fundamental. It is important to me that the person receiving my feedback feels positive about it and can see how to improve; after all, I would want someone giving me feedback to take the same amount of care.

You see, at the end of the day, I am still a comedian, and comedians have egos a fragile as filo pastry..!


Early Bird Speakers, my Toastmasters club

Punishment and the Pursuit of Happiness – video of a speech I made about punishment

Rob Broderick, Abandoman, great comedian and amazing improviser


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