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I’m an Agilist, a former software engineer, a gamer, an improviser, a podcaster emeritus, and a wine lover. Learn more.

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Listen and Change

I should stop being surprised by how much my training as an actor and an improviser is useful beyond performance. Today’s epiphany was about feedback.

As an actor, you have to learn to take the note. This was hammered home to me during my sophomore year in college. After one of the last rehearsals before our play opened, the assistant director was giving me feedback on some lines I had fumbled. I was working through them, and in the process I was explaining why I’d messed them up. The director — my friend Rob — looked at me and said, “Paul. Take the note.” And I got it. The AD wasn’t asking me questions, so no answers were required. He was telling what I needed to fix, and my commentary on why I’d done what I had didn’t matter to that. I stopped talking, acknowledged the input, and next rehearsal I fixed it.

Sometimes, when we get feedback on something we’ve done, we don’t always want to take the note. When someone says, “Could it do this instead?” our instinct is to say that would be hard, or to say that they shouldn’t want it to do that, or any of many other variations on “no” that use more words than that. We don’t really listen to what they’re saying because we’ve become defensive and feel the need to justify what we’ve done. Fortunately, there’s way out of this.

First, take the note. Listen to what they’ve said and what concern it expresses. Why are they asking for this change to the feature? What’s at stake here for them? They wouldn’t bring it up if it didn’t matter to them, so your first job is to figure out what’s important here. It’s not about you at this point, so don’t just wait for your turn to talk — listen.

Then, do what a good improviser would do and ask “How could I say yes to this?” The reason you’re getting this feedback is because the person giving it to you perceives a gap between what is present and what is needed. Feedback systems exist to close that gap. That means that we have to be open to changing based on feedback. If not, we’re running in open-loop control.

Saying yes can be hard, of course. Maybe there’s a powerful reason why you can’t do exactly what they’re asking for. If so, see if you can propose an alternative that captures the essence of the concern they’re raised. Maybe you think what they’re asking for is a bad idea. In that case, you really need to figure out their perspective, because you probably don’t have the same understanding of the situation. Dig deeper into the reasons for their request, being open to the possibility that that there’s something you don’t know that makes their position make sense. And maybe you just don’t know how to get around what’s preventing you from giving them what they want. In that case, collaborate on a solution with them. Tell them, “I’d like to find a way to do that for you. I’ve got these problems that I’m not sure how to deal with. Can you help me work through them?” You may not always be able to get to yes together, but you have to try.

In order for feedback systems to work, we have to (a) listen to the information we’re getting, and (b) act on that information to change the situation. These can be hard things to do, but a simple place to start is by taking the note and considering how to to say yes.

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