Just weeks ago I had the honor of leading the main ritual at Paganicon, a Pagan conference in its fifth year taking place in Minneapolis, Minnesota. I felt the main ritual went really well, and over the course of the weekend I received a lot of positive feedback from people who had a deep, transformative experience during the ritual. I also heard from the convention staffers that fully a third of the feedback forms positively mentioned the ritual or one of my other workshops. 

As a teacher and ritual leader, it's always really exciting to hear that my work has had a positive impact!

However, after I returned from the event, I was directed to a blog post from another presenter at Paganicon who really disliked the ritual I facilitated. In fact, this presenter also had some problems with my presence on at east one of the three panels I spoke on. And it made me think a lot about feedback and leadership.

Receiving Negative Feedback
Now...I work very hard to maintain a balance. I try really hard to not be one of those Pagan teachers/leaders/authors who buys into their own "press releases," as my friend Taylor Ellwood puts it. A lot of people offer the advice, "Haters gonna hate, just don't listen to any of that." And yet, as a teacher and leader and author, I do feel morally compelled to listen to feedback. I do need to observe my own work and behaviors to ensure it's in alignment with my goals. My last post here was about the need for us all to be willing to look into the mirror and see the impact of our actions, and I believe this is crucial for the work of building healthier groups.

At the same time, I struggle with my own ego-related issues that stem from a lot of bullying during my childhood. I struggle with that nagging sense of self-loathing, that voice that says, "Of course people hate you, because everyone has always hated you," the voice that leads to the anxiety spiral that leads to depression. Over the past years, I've worked hard on my own personal growth in order to heal some of those old wounds and grow my self confidence.

Often my gut reaction to feedback is either immediate denial, or immediate anxiety. If it's denial, I'm dismissing the feedback out of hand. "That person is full of it, I don't need to listen to that, they don't know anything." If it's anxiety, it's the "I suck because I've always sucked and people can tell" spiral.

Process: Get a Cool Head
When I receive negative feedback, I work to let my emotions come to some stillness before I can really sift through what someone has said and see if it is of value. For example, years ago I realized that some of my rituals were difficult for people with mobility challenges to participate in. This feedback helped me to design rituals that were more inclusive and more accessible. As a leader, I've received feedback that I sometimes push volunteer team members too hard. I wrestled (and still wrestle) a lot with that one, but it's allowed me to become a better leader because I can adapt my behavior so that I'm not such a taskmaster.

It's really hard to internalize feedback like that when I'm in Denial Mode, or Anxiety Mode. It can take time to get a little distance from the feedback to see if it's of use to you as a leader. 

While many people advise offering feedback in person, what I will say is that reading feedback in an email or other online format allows me the time and distance to have my own honest emotional reaction without having to keep calm for someone standing in front of me. That being said, if you are presented with negative feedback to your face, particularly if you're getting this feedback in a crowded room after you've taught a class or led a ritual, the best thing you can do is hear it, smile, thank the person, and deal with your emotions around it later on.

Process: Sift Through
In my last post here on PaganSquare, I talked a bit about knowing yourself and your habits. This is crucial work, and relates to giving and receiving feedback. Above I mention the Denial Mode and Anxiety Mode. Because I already know that I do this, I can tell pretty quickly where I'm at with the feedback. It allows me to know which direction I'll need to work on.

If I'm in Denial Mode, I will need to check in with a few close friends or colleagues and ask, "Is this really accurate feedback? Is this me not seeing something that I do that is bad?" If I'm in Anxiety Mode, I'll need to check in about the opposite. "Am I just focusing on the negative? Am I letting this one piece of negative feedback eclipse all the other positive feedback I've had?"

What really helps is not only knowing your own emotional process around hearing things like this, but also knowing what makes good feedback and what is less-than-useful feedback. It helps to consider the positive and the negative feedback you've received in the past. I'm the first to admit that I don't like hearing bad things about myself, but if I'm hearing negative feedback about myself and it's something I do that's hurting others, I can work to shift that.

For instance, I know that I have the bad habit of taking on too many things and then I drop the ball on people. It's not something I like about myself at all, but if I weren't aware of it, then I wouldn't have the ability to shift how I approach projects. I still drop the ball at times but I'm working hard to say "no" to projects early before I fail to complete a task later on.

Sometimes with feedback, you have to go with your gut, but I find it really helps to ask a lot of questions and to question my own assumptions. Does it fit? Does it make sense? Is this something that you do? Is this something that caused a problem? Or is it feedback offered by someone who's upset about something that has nothing to do with you? Is it feedback offered by someone who is angry at you for something else entirely? There could be any number of reasons.

I do find it helpful (once I'm ready to open up to others) to talk to others about the feedback to get a sense of what people who know me well think about the feedback. Sometimes they can point out what I can't see. "You do really do that, yeah...it's kind of frustrating." Or, "You're being way too hard on yourself. This person doesn't understand X, Y, or Z about the work you do."

Working through negative feedback isn't always the easiest process, but if we want to build healthier communities, I feel that we need more people willing to listen to negative feedback. 

Of course, it helps if it's genuinely offered with love. There's a big difference between feedback offered with love and compassion and feedback that's just someone with sour grapes going on a rant. 

When I find myself in the position of offering someone feedback about something they said--maybe it was a discriminatory comment about someone's race, sexuality, or gender--I am almost always offering that feedback from a place of love because I'm making the assumption that my friend or colleague doesn't realize how discriminatory and hurtful they are being. It doesn't mean that critique is painless just because it comes from a place of love, but the feedback has a very different feel to it.

Juggling the Feedback
So with all of that, you might ask where I’ve landed as far as juggling the feedback on my Paganicon ritual. I took a couple of weeks to process it, and I also checked in with a few trusted friends/colleagues to get a different perspective. They agreed with my own assessment; much of the feedback wasn't clear or effective.

I've pulled out a few pieces of feedback that are accurate or at least useful to keep an eye on, and the rest is feedback I can discard for a variety of reasons. There was feedback about my ritual being stuck in the gender binary, and that has has encouraged me to check in with friends of mine who are trans, genderfluid, and gender-nonconforming, to see if there are areas I need to continue to fine tune. The feedback that made assumptions for my motivations veered into being rude, and wasn't particularly useful. 

Often with negative feedback I walk a tightrope. I try to not assign motivations or make assumptions about where someone is coming from…and yet, understanding the perspective and filters of the person offering the feedback will impact how I listen to the feedback.

In this case, instead of me assigning motivations to the person who wrote the blog and trying to figure out what their issue with me might be, what I'll say instead is that that person and I probably just don't gel on our approaches, and my work isn't up their alley.

I know what that's like. I attended a ritual at a major festival that I wanted to like. It had some cool stuff going on. But the overall flow of the ritual had some hitches, and then there wasn't a clear/crystallizing ending. There was just a big howling mass of people cheering on as the bonfire was lit, and then the drummers kicked up a beat and some people stayed to dance and others wandered off. It's unfair of me to say "That ritual was bad," it's more accurate to say, "I didn't gel with that ritual process." Many others had no problems at all with it.

So what makes good feedback? Giving and Receiving Effective Feedback Part 2

Feedback Series:
Giving and Receiving Effective Feedback Part 1
Giving and Receiving Effective Feedback Part 2

Facilitating an Effective Feedback Session Part 1
Facilitating an Effective Feedback Session Part 2
Facilitating an Effective Feedback Session Part 3