Why use positive feedback?

Oct 22 2019

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: Joe Rosser Photography

Last week, a recent Intro To Clown student sent me a questionnaire. She's doing a research project about the use of positive feedback in creative learning environments. I happened to have a very long train journey - all the way from Glasgow to Bristol, would you believe? I thought – what better way to pass the time than to joyfully grapple with the subject of positive feedback. I'd like to share some of what I wrote with you, dear reader. I hope it's useful.

How do you use positive feedback in your work?

In all of my workshops and devising processes, I use a positive feedback model to help students and theatre artists frame their after-performance feedback in useful, supportive and nourishing ways.

First I ask the performer: What did you enjoy? This encourages the performer to savour their pleasure - which is essential for clown performance. Your clown thrives off your pleasure and being able to name it allows you to engineer more of it. Invariably – the bits you're most enjoying are the bits that the audience enjoyed too.

Next I ask the audience the following questions:

  • What did you enjoy? 
  • What did you want more of? (something you actually saw them do, not your own ideas) 
  • What touched you?

I ask them to speak in the “I” and only speak on their own behalf (rather than “you” or “we”) – other audience members are invited to do “jazz hands” to show the performers if they also resonate with that response. I ask people to bring their own feelings into their feedback as much as possible.

This way, the performers can receive a collection of individual responses – rather than a 'right or wrong' response. This positive feedback model respects the autonomy of each artist, encouraging each individual to be the author of their own work.

Where did all this come from?

I learned this feedback model from legendary fooling teacher, Franki Anderson, back in my early 20's. Franki's philosophy is “Look after the flowers and the weeds take care of themselves.” She trains her workshop participants to look for the diamonds in each others work and hand them back to each other.

Experiencing this style of feedback was literally life changing. Up until this point I'd been absolutely nobbled by my inner critic. Performing for audiences had always been a bittersweet experience. I'd started performing very young, growing up in the circus. Although I loved performing, I'd often find myself at the mercy of my inner critic.

Before I trained with Franki, I'd done a lot of traditional European 'via negativa' style clown training (where the clown teacher vaguely tells you to do an impossible thing, then sits there banging a drum and telling you you're shit). This method did not work for me. In hindsight, I realise I did not have a strong enough sense of inner resilience to experience any benefit to this way of working.

Even though the criticism in via negativa training is meant to playfully and creatively guide people towards being vulnerable on stage, I could not hear it in this way. Every word hurt me deeply. I would freeze on stage or fight the audience or be generally pathetic. My clowning in these workshops was absolutely crap, I was always the one curled up, crying in the corner. After these classes, my inner critic would finish me off, making sure I got the message that I was not good enough to call myself a performer. I would self harm in various ways to punish myself. Most of my memories of clown training are of a horrible, grim, painful battle.

Then I found Franki. I trained with her on and off for two years, but it took a while to relax and soften into her way of working. I was so frightened of being told I was shit, I would constantly guard and protect myself on stage. Eventually, the positive feedback worked it's magic – through learning how my performance moved and touched audiences, I began to trust myself and my creative impulses - this allowed me to commit more to my choices, take more risks, be more vulnerable and listen more deeply than I ever had done before. I became a much better performer.

I've used the positive feedback model in my own work as a teacher, facilitator and devising director ever since, that's nearly 20 years (my goodness, I am old now). I'd say that different people need the positive feedback model explained in different ways, but in my experience, having worked with kids of all ages, teenagers, adults with learning difficulties, adults with mental health issues, elders with dementia, professional theatre makers, business people, university students... EVERYONE benefits from both delivering and hearing positive feedback!

How does it work?

You know when you've done a shit on stage, right? You don't need anyone pointing it out! Much better and more powerful to receive personal and positive feedback about what touched a single individual in the audience and get a sense of the resonance with other members of the audience. This way your heart can stay open and actually hear the feedback. We grow through kindness and compassion.

Positive feedback brings humility and humanity into the transaction – which is essential for the kind of work I do. My work is all about accessing authenticity on stage – this entails embracing vulnerability – so the more authenticity I can bring into the room, the safer the process becomes for everyone. As Brene Brown says, vulnerability needs reciprocity in order to be healthy and safe (or words to that affect).

As a qualified dramatherpist, I have a higher than average percentage of people with mental health issues coming to my workshops. People hear via word of mouth that my classroom is a safe enough space to fully be themselves. Asking participants to refrain from judgemental feedback definitely helps to maintain a safe space.

Why don't you use negative criticism?

The big risk of allowing negative criticism into a vulnerable stage of creativity or learning is triggering a shame storm. As a dramatherapist, I'm able to help people through shame storms and out the other side – but it takes time and can leave deep marks on people's confidence.

Shame is the dark twin of vulnerability and is never far away in my rehearsal rooms or learning environments. Shame and it's chief adviser, the inner critic, cause people to shut down, self sabotage, fight or run away. Limiting negative criticism can help to limit the amount of shame storms we have to deal with in the room. But of course- that's not an exact science! Shame can be triggered by a passing glance, a misinterpreted yawn or a clumsily voiced opinion.

Sometimes shame storms can contain important information about boundaries crossed, protection needed or integrity compromised – so shame's not all bad. But in order to find the treasure in a shame storm, you need bravery, compassion and very strong boundaries.

There are particular people that seem to thrive on negative criticism – but at what cost? Through punishment and fear we learn to comply. What use is compliance in creative expression? I want to see people's crazy, unique worlds on stage. I want to view the world through their eyes. I want to see risk, sensitivity, vulnerability and compassion on stage. Comedy is not generic. There are universal truths – of course – but my students learn to access the universal through the personal. Nobody can tell you who you are. Why would you want them to?

After training with Franki, I went out into the world, searching for another teacher who would give me some concrete feedback about my performance techniques – I wanted to be a great performer and felt like I needed a teacher to tell me whether what I was doing was right or wrong. I searched for this teacher for about 10 years before realising that all clown teachers can really offer is their own taste. I picked up all sorts of amazing techniques from all sorts of teachers, but really, learning to trust my own taste was the key.

Negative criticism never ever got good results for me! It made me deaf, blind, pathetic and cross. And not in a funny way. In my experience – both as a participant and as a teacher, it's much more powerful to help people find their own internal quality gauge. If you're continuously looking for external validation, you'll never find your own unique creative voice.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy:

How to deal with shame

How to deal with criticism

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