5 tips on how to respond to critical feedback as an activist

Have you been criticised as an activist or campaigner? Read on below for my tips on how to deal with criticism constructively.

I’m so grateful to manage the Bootcamp programme, not only because I get to support the development of a whole range of campaigners and activists, but also because it’s taught me a lot on a personal level.

My understanding of politics–of the different types of marginalisation (see the definition of this word below) or structural oppression people face, the language I use, the actions I choose to take, and the ways in which I campaign and organise–has developed and grown in ways I never imagined it would.

Definition: Marginalisation is the process of pushing a particular group or groups of people to the edge of society by not allowing them an active voice, identity, or place in it.

Definition: Systemic (or structural) oppression is the ways in which history, culture, ideology, public policies, institutional practices, and personal behaviours and beliefs interact to maintain a hierarchy, based on things like race, class, gender, sexuality, and/or other group identities – that allows the privileges associated with the dominant group and the disadvantages associated with the oppressed, targeted, or marginalised group to endure and adapt over time.

One of the biggest learnings I’ve taken away from Bootcamp is how much unlearning I have to do when it comes to my privilege (see my definition below). How I have unintentionally and intentionally hurt and marginalised many people over the years, and will, unfortunately, continue to do so.

Definition: Privileges are special rights, advantages, immunities granted or available only to a particular person or group. My privileges include being white-passing (I am not white but I am often mistaken as being so) and able bodied (I do not identify as disabled). 

One thing that has led to this learning has been receiving critical feedback, often but not always from someone I have hurt. More often than not that person is marginalised in one or multiple ways, based on their race, class, gender, sexuality, disability, or another aspect of their identity. And too often, the hurt I’ve caused is linked to that marginalisation.

Although I’ve still got a lot of learning to do, I’ve actively engaged in bettering myself when it comes to taking on critical feedback.

I see people being criticised in the Bootcamp space (and in other spaces) for doing things like misgendering people, using language that feeds into racist narratives, and so on.

Definition: Misgendering people is referring to people as a gender they do not identify as. For example, referring to someone as a woman or using the pronouns she or her when they are a man, and use he and him pronouns.

Sometimes, people – both at Bootcamp and in other activist spaces – have a hard time dealing with this. I can relate to that. But I’ve also come up with strategies to be better at receiving that feedback in a way which is good for the person I’ve hurt, good for myself, and good for anyone who I could potentially hurt in the future. I thought I would share them in case they are of use to anyone who wants to improve how they hear feedback.

It’s in no way an exhaustive list, and is somewhat limited given the privilege I hold. But if you think this might be written with you in mind, then hear me out — here are my top tips on how to deal with critical feedback:

1. Pause, breathe, take your time

Hearing critique can be scary and can produce viceral, immediate negative emotions. It can induce anxiety, make you panic, cause you to feel embarrassed, angry, or hurt. It can be even be triggering for some people.

Take your time before you respond, make sure you pay attention to how you are breathing, and if you need time to find a response, feel free to say that to the person who has offered feedback (it’s a good idea to first apologise for hurting them, and thank them to let them know you value their feedback).

2. Don’t assume you can’t be wrong because you’re someone who’s trying to be good

The activist and campaigning community is full of people trying to right a whole range of wrongs. You may be one of those people who is dedicated to improving the lives of others. That’s something to be commended, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t cause harm.

Everyone makes mistakes, and it’s important to remember that it’s not your self-worth that is the key issue here. Don’t think of the feedback as a personal attack. Feedback is an offering, someone has chosen to give you a little bit of their time to explain something to you. Accept it gratefully and recognise the value the person has placed in you in offering a piece of their knowledge.

It’s somewhat natural to act defensively when criticised. But being defensive serves no one – not even yourself, as it can lead to you putting a wall up when there is potential growth and learning to be found on the other side. Being an ally isn’t just about listening to positives from the groups that you work with. It means wanting to see a just future, and making a firm commitment to a lifelong journey of learning. And yes, that can sometimes mean admitting that you are wrong.

3. Listen, ask clarifying questions – but don’t always expect answers

The most important part of receiving feedback is to listen, and listen in a way which improves your understanding of why you caused that person hurt, anger, or whatever emotion they expressed. Don’t interrupt them, don’t provide rebuttals or replies based in defensiveness, and if you are able, notice what your body language might be communicating.

Ask clarifying questions if you don’t understand, be open if – for example – they are telling you about something you have not considered before or have little knowledge on. If the person who has offered feedback is willing, they may offer you more examples and help you to understand the background to the feedback they have given. Never see this as something they owe you.

Especially for people who are marginalised, giving feedback should be recognised as emotional labour. Something marginalised groups are not often thanked for but expected to give.

4. Offer a clear and heartfelt apology – but don’t overdo it

Once you have received the feedback, and the conversation has come to a close, make sure you apologise if you did not do so already at some point in the conversation.
One good way I’ve seen people deal with feedback that has required them to do some processing is by telling the person:

  • That you are grateful for the feedback.
  • That you are sorry that they have done something to hurt the person.
  • That you need some time to process and they would like to check back in with them once they have done this.

If the person declines the check-in, be understanding. They may feel anxious about it, or be feeling drained from giving the feedback. Respect their wishes and don’t take it as a slight. For a lot of marginalised folks in activist spaces, this kind of feedback is something they have had to do often; it can tire you out!

However, if they are open to you checking back in, you’ve got a little time to prepare. I would suggest:

  • Re-stating what was problematic about your behaviour. Keep it brief. The idea here is to indicate to the feedback-giver that you understand their feedback.
  • Name the impact you understand that it had on the other person. Again, you don’t need to go into detail – especially if it’s a topic that might be triggering for the other person.
  • Share how you plan to better yourself in the future. Thank them again for helping you here.

There are also things I would definitely recommend people don’t do. These include:

  • Not apologising in a way which puts the blame on them or their feelings e.g. ‘I am sorry you felt…’ Use language that takes ownership ‘I am sorry I did… which caused… impact.’
  • Making it too much about you, or self-flagellating, by saying things like ‘I feel terrible,’ or ‘I’m always messing up!’ Whilst most of us can relate to these feelings, what you could unintentionally be doing here is asking for more emotional labour from the person you have hurt – in that they may feel pressured to reassure you. If you have hurt someone who is marginalised, your focus should be addressing the situation with their needs in mind.

5. Go away and do your own research and make commitments to change your behaviour

As a person who volunteers and socialises in spaces with marginalised people, I am often called upon by people to explain aspects of intersectionality.

I am usually happy to help explain aspects of identity–race, sexuality, disability, gender, and so on–if I have the knowledge. But I also hold a range of privileges that mean that the things I have to explain aren’t often wrapped up in my own personal identity.

But I am also a queer woman of colour who has experienced various trauma and discrimination – and sometimes I tire of talking about those aspects of me, as if my experiences of marginalisation now mean that I owe people without that experience an education.

Sometimes, if you are looking for answers to things, it’s best to look for it yourself. Look for resources online. Ask for reading, podcast, and other educational recommendations. Use Google to find stories of lived experience (but be careful not to assume all people who have a common identity of lived experience will feel the same way).

Lastly, make lifelong commitments based on the learning you have done both in person and by yourself. Sometimes being criticised triggers an emotional response that makes you want to leave activist spaces, retreat to places or social circles where you are less likely to be challenged. But doing this evades your own accountability, and leads to movements and activist spaces being fractured and losing resource.

Instead of letting personal ego get in the way, think about the work you could do to change your own behaviours. Think about what is at the root of behaviours that have hurt other people. Think about how you challenging yourself, and potentially others, can strengthen work which will lead to collective liberation. Dedicate time to learning about power and privilege – without placing the onus on oppressed people.

Unsure where to dive in? This NEON guide is a good place are a good place to start. Accept that it’s a journey. You will mess up. You will continue to hurt people. Focus on the fact that you can do work to make these occasions less frequent, and less negative in their impact.

Audre Lorde said ‘without community, there is no liberation.’ And you can’t build a strong and authentic community without the skills to receive critical feedback.

What if you think they’re wrong?

I wrote this article having experienced many people make mistakes and hurt people based on lack of understanding of marginalised identities they do not have direct experience of and/or knowledge around. This is not to say that – just using myself as an example – as a marginalised person, anything I have to say about experiences based around my marginalisation is always true and any belief that the non-marginalised person has that contradicts my beliefs is always wrong.

You might find yourself in situations where you feel you cannot take back something you’ve said as you just don’t believe it to be true. In these situations I would recommend still acknowledging the hurt caused, and judging the next steps based on the space you are in, the resources available (for example, do you have any links to anyone who has conflict resolution skills?), and asking the person you’ve had conflict with what they would like to see happen – if they are okay with that.

There are so many different scenarios in which activists might give each other feedback that it’s very hard to give catch-all advice.

The advice I’ve given above doesn’t always fit the bill, but more often than not, I think there’s a lot people in the campaigning and activism community can learn from it.

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