The following is an excerpt from Andrew Levitt’s recent book “Listening to Design: A Guide to the Creative Process.”
Listening fully without any desire to judge or cause change can open the most stubbornly shut door. With deeper listening, the desire to change or judge the other person disappears and is replaced by a willingness to just be present. At first I worried that listening was not enough, but eventually I learned that the process of creativity hinges on the ability to listen. We need to get into the habit of recognizing the authenticity of our inner voices. By hearing that voice without judgement, we can access all kinds of riches. All the ideas in the world won’t help you if they fall on deaf ears. When we get an idea, there are so many ways of ignoring or sabotaging it. Staying true to the inner command is the holy moment of design. But listening is the key to successful collaboration and feedback.
Feedback comes in many different shapes and sizes and can be so tricky that the topic probably needs to be a stand-alone course. You need a strong ego to enter into conversation about your work, but if you are too full of yourself it is difficult to get anything out of such a conversation. This is as true for teachers as it is for students.
There are two kinds of feedback: the kind we give ourselves and the kind we get from others. In both cases our ego can be pivotal to making feedback useful. A good place to begin is with the feedback we give ourselves.
Imagine that there are three levels of this kind of feedback: head, heart and gut. A fourth response, which is a composite of all of these, is an integrated response. My benchmark is the experience of focus that I have when I am meditating or studying something that I find intensely interesting, when I can really concentrate and I have a sense of calm clarity. Whenever I have this experience while creating, I try to get out of the way and let that energy take over. The next level is the heart, where I experience a more emotional and expressive level of creative passion. I feel moved by what I am making and drawing and have a strong emotional connection to the design. I may even be in love with it, swept away by it.
The gut level is the most instinctual level of connection and at this level I feel compelled to write, make and draw. I have no choice. The creator at this stage may feel that he or she has superhuman resources. Sleep? Not necessary! I do not consider myself to be the strongest person physically, but in a canoe I can paddle for days with very little rest. When that energy is present while I am creating something, I know that I am on the right track. The presence or absence of energy might be the best measure of creative drive.
Just as feeling energized is a positive sign, having no energy for our creative work is a sure marker that we have lost a connection with our creative selves. We can experience these kinds of feedback when we work both alone We can experience these kinds of feedback when we work both alone and with others. If we open ourselves to our own levels of awareness, we can equip ourselves to offer feedback to others. There are many paths that unfold in the course of creative work and getting to know our own relationship to creativity is a good place from which to learn how to help others.
There are some basic rules that make feedback helpful rather than destructive: practise non-violence; avoid low blows; when uncertain, ask questions. Avoid saying, ‘You should . . .’; known in the language of psychology as a ‘parental introjection’, this can be very polarizing and can stop creative energy completely, because sounding too much like a parent automatically makes the other person feel like a child. Having an adult-to-adult conversation means using sentences that begin with the word ‘I’ not ‘you’, ‘I think’ or ‘Have you thought about trying . . .’. It is also important to make sure that you are not offering feedback as a way of seeking power or taking control of the process.
Sometimes I find it helpful to preface my comments by acknowledging that my viewpoint may be wrong. I learned this from watching the American detective series Columbo on TV. The important point is to give as much power and confidence to the other person as possible, while still speaking truthfully. Take the time to figure out the best way to express what you want to say. I think there are times after a desk crit to simply ask a student, ‘Was this helpful or how could I have been more helpful? Have I left out anything that you think needs to be discussed?’