On the side I organize jazz trios for restaurant gigs, about six a week. For us jazz hobbyist they’re not bad gigs. They pay solid money so I’ve got lots of musicians who want to play them. It’s nice—the musicians are eager to please so that I’ll hire them back.
I play bass and sing, and one thing about bassists—we like to create deep grooves with the drummer. I’ve had a few drummers who would love more gigs and I’d love to have them back, but only if they change some little thing about their playing. Play softer, steadier, less busy—one or two things to work on if they chose to.
We musicians all have fixer-upper flaws like these, but neither we, nor our peers necessarily know what they are. Still, it would be useful to share our feedback. We could ingest it with a grain of salt and then later digest it, deciding what’s nutritious and what’s crap from whatever feedback we get from each other.
Still, ingesting feedback doesn’t prove that easy. It tastes bitter; we tend to want to spit it back in the server’s face rather than ingest it.
Giving feedback isn’t easy either, and may not be worth the risk. I’ll often bite my tongue rather than causing a fuss, sometimes just not hiring people back, which is unfortunate. I too get laid off of gigs without being told why.
Turning the Minor Major
We can all be hypersensitive about feedback, often because we interpret minor criticism as major. By minor criticism, I mean saying something like, “Here’s a habit of yours that you might want to work on.” By major criticism I mean saying something like, “You’re a failure.”
Aren’t there shadings subtler than that? Sure. We could talk about nested or graduated feedback, for example telling a drummer his snare drum is too loud, he’s too loud, he’s a bad drummer, he’s a bad musician or he’s a failure as a person.
But I mean to keep it simple—just two levels, the minor and major—bad at this one thing or bad overall—simple because in a way I think many of us—me included—have a tendency to interpret at just these two levels: I have a flaw; I am a flaw.
I’ll speak for myself. A lot has to do with my torso’s reaction to minor feedback. I get a vague stomachache, chest ache or both, as though minor feedback creates a fissure through which some toxic swill seeps in. The swill portends a flood of panic, as though I’m about to recognize that I’m fatally flawed.
A toxic swill pools mid-torso and festers like a collecting point for all sorts of psychic antigens, my all-time greatest hits against me all paddling toward the ache to breed together, giving me the general impression of being a failure.
I find it useful to understand the mechanics of my torso’s amplification of minor feedback to major. To name it is to tame it. If I can see where the translation happens I can intervene to overcome my tendencies to amplify hypersensitively.
There are variations on the amplification theme. Sometimes minor feedback becomes major because I’ve lucked into a string of minor feedback, and one more piece is enough to make me generalize that I’m fundamentally flawed.
Sometimes it’s that a minor criticism touches a particularly sensitive nerve, some vulnerability where I’ve had doubts about myself all along, doubts I’m trying to keep below the threshold of noticeability and then when someone brings it up, it resurfaces.
Sometimes it’s the reverse, not a sensitivity but a source of pride. For example, if I pride myself on laying down very steady bass grooves, someone critiquing my groove seems to be attacking a pillar on which my general self-esteem rests, and the whole thing crumbles.
Whatever the mechanics and source of this amplification, it can create the kind of disconnect you might remember from O Henry’s famous story, The Gift of the Magi: A young couple, madly in love want to give each other the best possible Christmas gifts. He pawns his pocket watch to buy her a fine comb for her beautiful thick tresses; she cuts her tresses to buy him a beautiful chain for his pocket watch. Their love-intended gifts undermine each other.
Out of appreciation for a friend you want to offer a minor helpful suggestion, which your friend interprets as an argument that he’s bad overall. Your gift fails and your friend’s response does too. He gets defensive, implying that you shouldn’t have shared it, which is a minor criticism of you that you might interpret as major, as though you are a jerk overall. Two people’s potential gift of minor feedback missing the mark, because in hearing it we pawn or cut off our generally positive self-esteem.
It’s obviously more complicated than that. For one thing, given the prevalence of this pattern it’s easy for either the giver or receiver to exploit it. A catty feedback giver can pretend he’s giving minor criticism when actually it’s major, “Wow! Aren’t you sensitive! I was just trying to offer a minor suggestion that you give up your dreams because you’ll never succeed! Why do you have to blow things out of proportion?”
And the unreceptive recipient can deliberately amplify the feedback to keep from having to ingest it. “Right, so when you say I should drum quieter, what you’re really saying is that I’m a total loser. That’s cold. You’re a horrible person.”
Nine tips for managing hypersensitivity:
Here are a few ways I work on taking feedback less sensitively and giving it more productively: