On the list of things most of us have a love-hate relationship with, feedback would be towards the top. Actor and writer Tahlia Norrish explains how performers can reframe this feedback to progress in their career.
By Tahlia Norrish
Intellectually, we appreciate the purpose of feedback is to make us better. Emotionally, it can still be hard to take. As actors, however, our ability to effectively integrate feedback (direction) can be the defining factor in whether we book work, and when we do, our experience on the job.
Fortunately, smart humans at Harvard Business School and Stanford University have a simple, ready-made strategy we can employ to grow from useful and/or necessary suggestions while keeping our sense of self-worth stable. All it takes is a little reframing.
The current paradigm
The current feedback paradigm (for the most part) ties the comment(s) to an action that occurred in the past, for example, “You weren’t connecting with your partner at the top of that scene”. While the comment itself may be factually correct, there isn’t anything we can do to change a past action.
Due to feedback’s inherent roots in the past (which the word itself implies), receiving it can feel like a final evaluation - much like receiving a big, red “C” stamped on a school paper - a permanent reflection of us and our limited potential. In many cases, this is enough to trigger our species’ “threat response” (fight, flight or freeze), and this is where the issue lies.
A joint meta-analysis by professors Avraham N. Kluger and Angelo DeNisi revealed that, as a result of the perceived “social threat”, over a third of the time, feedback actually has a negative correlation to our future performance. No doubt we can all recall a time that this has proved true in our own lives.
The question then becomes: how can we assimilate direction productively?
A more empowering alternative
The answer (and the more empowering alternative) turns out to be “advice”. We simply have to switch the words and therefore our focus.
“Advice” may still reference a past action, but comes packaged as something we can actually do and change moving forward. If feedback presents an evaluation, advice presents an opportunity.
As Alison Wood Brooks and Francesca Gino, professors at Harvard Business School, explain: “Whereas the past is unchangeable, the future is full of possibilities. So, if you ask someone for advice, they will be more likely to think forward to future opportunities to improve rather than backwards to the things you have done, which you can no longer change.”
While the strategies below will help us put this reframe into practice for the most part, there will inevitably come times when we still receive tactlessly delivered critiques. The key here is to read the “advice” between the lines, that is, to flip the thing we didn’t achieve in the past (the given feedback) to something we can now execute in the future.
For instance, if we take the feedback example above (“You weren’t connecting with your partner at the top of that scene”), we might conclude, “Listen to my scene partner with my whole body” is a more advantageous directive. On these occasions, we become our own coach in a sense, which is a tremendously enabling response, so be mindful we’re being a compassionate one!
Putting into practice
In crude terms, there are two sources of exposure to external feedback: unsolicited (not-asked-for) and solicited (asked-for). Each has a different method of implementation, but both result in a more valuable experience for all.
- Unsolicited: The most effective way to handle unsolicited feedback is to preempt moments when others may be inclined to provide it. If we feel a feedback sandwich is coming our way, we can play offence and ask this specific individual if they have any advice. This has several positive repercussions:
1) The thoughts they then offer will be future-orientated
2) We’ll impress said individual with our proactivity and drive
3) They’ll likely be a wee bit flattered that we asked
- Solicited: As we’re already on the front foot when seeking advice from another, the key lies in being super specific in our request. This could mean instead of asking, “Do you have any advice for me in scene three?”, we could pose, “I’ve tried X and Y, but I still don’t feel I’m hitting scene three. Do you have any suggestions?”
The choice is ours
We’ve all heard the Charles R. Swindoll quote, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” This lies at the core of why reframing is such a powerful practice.
As actors, we’re going to encounter feedback on an almost constant basis; being “directed” is an intrinsic part of our job. If we’re able to view and engage it constructively, we’re more likely to achieve its aim: to make us better. And, over time, our reputation for doing so may just be what keeps us perpetually in demand.
Tahlia Norrish is an Australian actor and writer currently based in London. After graduating from both The Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (Acting & Musical Theatre) and Rose Bruford College (BA (Hons) Acting), Tahlia stepped up as Head Coach at The Actor’s Dojo - an online coaching program pioneering actor empowerment.
Tahlia's headshot is by Ben Wilkin.