Saturday, September 5, 2015

How to Encourage People to Give Opinions without Having to Take Them

 “I want you to tell me what you really think and then not be offended when I don’t care.”

If only the world was that perfect.

It is, however, an actual sentiment I’ve expressed to people that I trust, good friends whose opinion I highly value. I’ll often be in a situation where I’ll ask them to brainstorm with me, but preface it by saying, “This is something I’ve been struggling with for a while, so the answer is not going to be simple. I need you to help me consider all of the options, but I probably won’t accept them.”

It’s a fair forewarning that my good natured companions understand.

But honestly, it should be a prevailing idea in constructive criticism. Yet, both sides are difficult to achieve.

There are, of course, opinionated people out there who will give you advice even when you don’t want it. I’ve had people approach me as I walked off the stage of closing night to tell me what I should have done differently—on a show that was over for choices that will never come up again, even in a restaging of the same play. But that’s not as common as you’d think, and many people—even those who normally would offer up their two-cents for free—will suddenly clam up and be unable to tell you of their opinion when directly asked. While many of us are dying for feedback, and you’d think it would be easy to get, often getting opinions requires a great deal of encouragement and pandering.

“I will listen to you and respect you,” we need to imply.

Which, in many cases, should be true. But listening and respect is not necessarily the same as obeying. It is imperative for authors to think critically about all criticism and never just oblige someone out of quasi-respect.

Advice can be bad. Advice can be contextually unsuitable. Advice can be banal. Advice can focus on priorities the author doesn’t care about. Advice can contradict the opinions of someone else. Advice always suggests to play it safe when the author really should be taking risks. If you take every opinion you get, you will come up with a homogenized, colorless piece of common denominator drivel. You will write that bad, uninspired Hollywood film, and you will never be considered innovative.

Which advice to take and which to ignore (plus which to take a part and only partially apply) is a complex question for another time. The issue now is about what to do when someone actually is willing to give you their opinion and you don’t want to take it. You want them to keep speaking their mind, but you know if you tell them no, they won’t want to say anything again. What do you do?

First… You might be able to say nothing at all.

In most situations, I wouldn’t suggest this. I have been in many meetings, feedback sessions, and criticisms in which we would discuss ideas for hours only to have the passive-aggressive (but well meaning) person turn around and do something completely different.

Even if I don’t have to do anything for your project, it can be highly insulting to think someone agrees with you only to find out they were ignoring you the whole discussion, pandering to you to avoid conflict. It’s a waste of your time, for one thing.

But if the speaker is never going to know whether you took his advice or not, I don’t see any reason to state you won’t.  I would never suggest to outright lie about it, but it is okay to just thank them and move on. If it’s with a anonymous stranger on the internet who you’ll never see or work with again, then you don’t have to make a point to respond, outside of maybe “liking” his post, or whatever the forum’s equivalent.

But if it’s someone you know, especially if it’s someone you’re going to work with again, it is important to never mislead them into thinking  you’ve agreed when you haven’t.

You might say, “Let me reread the work and considered it.”

And then do it.

If there is even the remotest chance—even a tiny, unlikely chance—that you would take their advice, it is perfectly acceptable to tell them you need time to contemplate the change. By doing this, you’re not saying you agree, but you’re not saying you’re just ignoring them either. That way, when later they read your work and find that you’ve ignored everything they’ve suggested, you can give them your arguments—that you’ve actually thought about—as to why.

When you’ve given an opinion time to gestate, it becomes less offensive that you’ve rejected it. Most people will recognize their advice came right off the top of their head and that you valuing your own longer contemplation over their in-the-heat-of-the-moment opinion isn’t the same as you valuing your own heat-of-the-moment opinion over theirs.

They’ll also be more likely to take your arguments seriously if they think you’ve spent some time considering it. Also, your arguments will probably honestly be better if you have spent some time considering it.

Not writing an opinion off right away can be a sign of respect, even if you don’t take it in the long run.

If you know that you will not be reading it again and absolutely refuse to take the advice, I recommend not lying about it. For one thing, I think passive-aggressively placating people is hugely disrespectful. If you get caught in the lie, you’re going to ruin your relationship with them.

But, more importantly, it’s always useful to argue when you don’t agree with something. Giving them an opportunity to explain themselves will make them feel more in control, and you’re going to receive more information about the opinion than you would if you just smile and nodded. Telling them your reasons for not taking their advice gives them opportunity to poke holes in your reason. As long as you are capable of being honest with yourself and recognizing if you actually care about these holes or not, it’s a good thing to at least hear a variety of pros and cons.

Tell them why you don’t want to take their advice.

I’ve said in the past that you should never feel obligated to explain yourself. Answering someone when they’re questioning you will often validate their opinion they have the right to question you. If you feel like that’s what’s going on—the person speaking is just challenging you and your credibility to enhance his own—he’s being disrespectful, you’re probably not going to get any honesty out of him, and the information delivered is only as useful as it seems on the surface. You don’t need to engage in an argument when you feel they’re just trying to prove your inferiority.

But when they’re not giving you their opinion to be an asshat, and you get the sense they truly believe what they’re saying and are, at least on some level, trying to help you, you should be respectful enough to explain your thought process.

Even if you don’t really understand why you don’t want to take the feedback, just be honest. It’s perfectly okay to say, “I don’t know exactly why that doesn’t sit right with me, but it just feels like it’s not where I want to go.”

If they care about you, they’ll understand. More importantly, you should always trust those feelings because there probably is a real reason outside of ego and stubbornness.

I wrote a play about two women making fun of a play, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 style. One of my readers, an actress, took exception to them talking throughout the show without ramification and wanted the actors to react to their rudeness.

I understood where she was coming from, and agreed with her from an actor’s standpoint it was frustrating to have people talk throughout a show. But there was something about having the actors acknowledge it that I just didn’t like, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I told her exactly that—I felt it was a problem, but that solution didn’t feel right.

A few weeks later I was thinking about it, and I realized what the issue was; the real audience (you and me) was supposed to forget that the play with in the play wasn’t a real story. The humor was, at times, that you grew so immersed into the lives of these “characters” that you forgot Molly Aire or Becca Ette’s existence until suddenly they said something. I wanted the play within the play to seem real, and having the actors break the fourth wall wouldn’t enable that.

I could then go back to her with that consideration in mind and she was better equipped to discuss solutions to the problem while still considering my priorities.

But what if you don’t have the time, like it’s a criticism on Twitter? Or you feel the person tends to be extra sensitive and less understanding?

Thank them and tell them you love to hear their opinion, and leave it at that.

“Thanks so much for the comment, and please continue giving me your opinion in the future!”

This is the nicest way to say, “That is just your opinion and I’m not taking it. But I appreciate it.”

They probably won’t feel like speaking their mind again, but being honest about what you want from them without lying about what you intend to do with their advice will at least make you look confident and assertive in a polite way. If you just don’t respond, they’ll think you’re a snob. If you argue with them, they’ll think you can’t take criticism. If you lie to them about taking it, they’ll feel insulted. And if you try too hard to pander to them, they’ll think you don’t know what you’re doing.

When in doubt, always just be honest. Don’t worry about using the most effective argument, just discuss the most important one. People giving feedback can be just as egotistical as we perceive authors to be, and just remember it’s only your job to hear them out and try and understand what they have to say. If, at the end of the day, you realize it’s not for you, you’re not an egomaniac for refusing the advice. Just be polite about the way they do it. And if you’ve done everything in  your power to be respectful and they still hate you, it’s probably their problem.