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Kelly Hayes-Raitt: “Acknowledge that the criticism may sting”

Acknowledge that the criticism may sting. When you are providing feedback about someone’s work, it always feels personal to the person receiving the feedback. So never say “It’s nothing personal.” That’s just patronizing.People know when they are not given genuine feedback. False praise does as much harm as insults. If all I do is mislead […]

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Acknowledge that the criticism may sting. When you are providing feedback about someone’s work, it always feels personal to the person receiving the feedback. So never say “It’s nothing personal.” That’s just patronizing.

People know when they are not given genuine feedback. False praise does as much harm as insults. If all I do is mislead my clients, they’ll get discouraged, they won’t continue to work with me — and their books will languish.


Asa part of our series about “How To Give Honest Feedback without Being Hurtful”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelly Hayes-Raitt.

Kelly Hayes-Raitt coaches authors to help them get their books into the world. She’s an award-winning journalist, and several of her essays have been published in travel anthologies and literary journals. She travels full-time as an international housesitter, writes for several travel and housesitting e-zines and coaches authors throughout the world.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

Istarted writing personal essays while I was reporting from Iraq during the early months of the US-led occupation. (Several of these essays have since won literary awards.) I spent the next few years reporting from refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Syria (before their civil war) and writing about my experiences.

I’ve suffered from just about every form of “writer’s block”! As I learned to overcome these blocks — and to develop the courage to put my work “out there” — I yearned to help other writers get their books and essays completed and published.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I work with writers of all levels and genres. My goal is to help each of my clients take their writing to the next level and develop the confidence to share their work more widely.

I work very closely with each of my clients. Every writer is different — and sometimes writers are “different” when they are working on different projects — so I work on the individual conundrums.

I offer new clients two free hours of consultation so we can see how we work together before making a longer-term agreement. This is an important opportunity for me to determine how much help I can be on a given project — and for the writer to see whether my feedback will be helpful. During the two hours, I read for an hour and then the author and I discuss my notes for an hour. It’s usually during these discussions where the magic happens!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

The most interesting thing I’ve noticed since I started working with authors is my growing confidence — in coaching and in my own writing. I never really “started” this career; I just eased into it as I saw how my clients responded. This is going to sound woo-woo and crazy, but something happens when I’m talking with authors about their writing conundrums. I get ideas I’d never thought before. I’ve learned to trust these insights and share them. It’s amazing to see my clients light up!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A big mistake I made when I first started editing books was not believing in myself and what I had to offer writers. A couple of times, I offered my services free to friends. One friend got very upset by my feedback and it really damaged our friendship. In hindsight, she didn’t really want feedback; she wanted approval. (I did note, however, that she incorporated every single note I gave her!)

Now, when I charge for my services, I send the message that I value my time and expertise. That attitude attracts writers who also value my time and expertise. Since my expertise is offering feedback, I want to work with writers who are open to feedback.

What advice would you give to other CEOs and business leaders to help their employees to thrive and avoid burnout?

I allow my clients to have their own quirks if that expresses their own creativity. No cookie-cutter coaching here! By discussing problematic writing with my clients, we mutually brainstorm possible solutions, so my clients leave fired up to rewrite. Successful business leaders can work the same way to help their teams thrive.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

“Leadership” is such a huge concept. Since this is an article about giving feedback, I’ll contain my answer to this. The best leaders don’t give “feedback,” per se. They lead their clients, coworkers and employees to find solutions to the “bigger picture” problems that the leaders point out.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Before a video chat with a client where I’ll provide my notes on their very personal work, I “center” myself:

I move to a place where I’ll have no distractions so I can focus fully on my client.

I take a few deep breaths to calm myself. (Yes, I still get nervous!)

I remind myself that this book is not my project and, therefore, it’s not important if my client agrees with me. I check my ego!

Most importantly, I put myself into a mindset that I’m giving service. It makes a huge difference in my tone of voice.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Can you briefly tell our readers about your experience with managing a team and giving feedback?

What I do is touchy: I provide feedback to individuals about their very personal creative writing. Sometimes, the stories themselves are about their personal experiences — which means the feedback has to be especially sensitive.

I do more than the stereotypical “sandwiching” (i.e., positive comment, not-so-positive comment, positive comment). One of the main reasons I offer new clients a free consultation is I want to be sure I can really help them. If a writer is looking merely for accolades, I’m not the right coach for him or her.

Of course, I note the strengths I see in a piece. More importantly, I point out the places that need improvement (and, hint, it’s usually not where a writer is stuck, but someplace earlier in the piece). Often, a writer’s strong-suit just needs to be displayed more frequently. I might say, “You did a really great job with sensory description in this section and you could do the same in that section to make it feel more alive.”

What I really love is brainstorming with a client on how the piece can be improved. My notes aren’t merely “develop this character better” — it’s a conversation on how the character can be developed.

That’s why I call myself a “coach.” I brainstorm with my author-clients about ways the problem areas can be improved. I think it’s this type of “team problem solving” — where a leader encourages creative thinking to approach a problem from a new perspective rather than merely highlighting problems — that inspires people.

This might seem intuitive but it will be constructive to spell it out. Can you share with us a few reasons why giving honest and direct feedback is essential to being an effective leader?

People know when they are not given genuine feedback. False praise does as much harm as insults. If all I do is mislead my clients, they’ll get discouraged, they won’t continue to work with me — and their books will languish.

One of the trickiest parts of managing a team is giving honest feedback, in a way that doesn’t come across as too harsh. Can you please share with us five suggestions about how to best give constructive criticism to a remote employee? Kindly share a story or example for each.

• Acknowledge that the criticism may sting. When you are providing feedback about someone’s work, it always feels personal to the person receiving the feedback. So never say “It’s nothing personal.” That’s just patronizing.

• Use their strengths as part of the solution. For example, every writer has his or her own special genius. If I can find that and articulate it to my client, it’s something I can always return to when discussing the problematic parts of his or her book. For example, if a writer is particularly good at writing dialogue, I might suggest s/he breaks up a rambling block of backstory with some dialogue — rather than merely pointing out the ineffectiveness of the long block of text.

• Maintain a matter-of-fact tone. Tone is so critical, especially when meetings are happening via video chat instead of in person. I work hard to keep my tone light and informational rather than scolding, superior or “educational.” I inject humor where I can so that we both enjoy the conversation.

• Ask why someone made that suggestion or acted as s/he did — from the perspective of genuinely wanting to learn. I ask a lot of questions. For example, instead of telling a client that a scene doesn’t work, I encourage writers (especially memoir writers) to trust their initial instincts and to dig deeper to uncover why the scene is important. Often, that discussion leads to a breakthrough on how to make the scene sing!

• Work together to find the “how.” When I problem-solve with a client, s/he leaves our critique session feeling empowered, feeling like a creative success and feeling inspired to rewrite. (…and that is a trick because people rarely feel “inspired” to go back to the drawing board!)

Can you address how to give constructive feedback over email? If someone is in front of you much of the nuance can be picked up in facial expressions and body language. But not when someone is remote.

How do you prevent the email from sounding too critical or harsh?

Nope. Don’t do it. Ever. Not only would I miss my client’s cues and feedback to my feedback, if you will, but emails take on a life of their own. It’s too easy to get the tone or the wording wrong and hurt someone’s feelings. Then the email gets sent around under the heading “Can you believe she said this?” It’s just not worth the effort to try and roll that back; I’d rather prevent it from the start by insisting on a face-to-face video chat.

In your experience, is there a best time to give feedback or critique? Should it be immediately after an incident? Should it be at a different time? Should it be at set intervals? Can you explain what you mean?

I schedule a time with my clients to give my notes. For new clients, I wait to email my notes until just before our chat, so we can go through my notes together. Once I’ve developed a rapport with a client, I send my notes a day ahead of our chat and then we discuss their questions.

How would you define what it is to “be a great boss”? Can you share a story?

I’m not a “boss”! The last thing I want to do is “boss” people around. I offer feedback based on my expertise and my clients can take those suggestions — or not. I’m here to support their individual writing journey, not exercise my own ego.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Compassionate Listening is a fabulous training that teaches people to listen for and appreciate the underlying values of someone’s message, rather than concentrating on formulating your next point.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Would you rather be right — or loved?”

How can our readers further follow your work online?

I share many tips for overcoming writer’s block (or, really, any creative blocks) at www.JumpStartMyBook.org. My eBook Jump Start Your Book: Practical Tips for Harnessing Cutting-Edge Brain Science to Beat Your Writing Blocks and Unleash Your Creativityis also available. To schedule a free consultation with me, email [email protected].

Thank you for these great insights! We really appreciate the time you spent with this.

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