A Good Home

How to Give Feedback to Anyone

Now that people are back at work, school, voluntary commitments, I thought I’d post this advice from a few years back:

A team member, working on a project with me years ago, had seen me give feedback to others.  She noticed that I always pointed out ‘the positives’ before getting to what needed improvement, and especially so if the critique took place in a group-setting.

One day, she told me: “If you ever have to give me feedback, just get to the bad stuff first. Please don’t spend a lot of time telling me what’s great: it’s the bad stuff I need to know about.”

So there came a time when I had to identify a few things she needed to improve. I respectfully pointed them out, specifically and without identifying the positives upfront.

It meant I’d compromised my own leadership principles to give her what she’d said she wanted.

But she felt deeply hurt.


Praise matters. Everyone I’ve ever met wants to know what they’ve done well. The fact that you noticed it, the fact that you value it, matters. Praise matters. 

Praise opens up a door for the recipient to hear and absorb your suggestions about weaknesses in their work. This is especially true for work that is very personal or tasks someone has laboured over.

Honest praise matters even more than criticism of weaknesses.  Giving honest, specific praise allows you to reinforce the high standards that you believe the other person is capable of attaining. In some cases, that’s enough.

“I like how you described the setting in this particular paragraph. You used the five senses to great effect. It pulled me into the story and made me feel I was right there, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, smelling. Do more of that when you describe the other settings in the story.”

Being specific in your critique of someone’s work can point the way to continued improvement, as the above once did for me.

Early in my career, I deleted entire scripts, short stories or scenes of TV shows because someone I respected said: “It doesn’t work”.  It didn’t occur to me back then to ask: “What specifically doesn’t work?”

If someone requests your feedback, ask: What specifically should I look for?” (Is it the storyline, the character development, the way you describe things, use of dialogue — what?)

Criticise the work, not the person.  Most people flinch at receiving ‘negative criticism’.  One way to make that even worse is to criticise the person, when you should be criticising the work. It’s fine to praise a person’s particular skill in a personal way (“I’ve noticed that you’re skilled at writing dialogue,”) but it’s not okay to say “I’ve noticed you’re really bad at dialogue.”

Praise in public, criticise in private. I learned this soon after becoming a leader. Even the strongest personalities can be hurt when their efforts are criticised in front of others.

Agree on Guidelines for Group Critiques. You need to share expectations upfront with your group, and give each other permission. Never take consent for granted, even when everyone says they know what they signed up for.

Critiques should build up, not beat down. It’s not just because “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down”.  It’s because feedback isn’t complete till you have identified both what works and what needs work. When someone receives your critique, s/he should feel equal parts challenged and empowered to make the changes required.

A Good Home

Known for my Cooking

First written about five years ago

I’m known for my cooking. How I wish that were not so.

I burn things, miss some of the ingredients, or forget what I added then put them in all over again.

It’s right there in my books, on my blog, and in the memories of everyone who knows me. And now nobody trusts my cooking.

Take my friend Marilyn.

“Do come for lunch”, I say.

“Oh, great,” she says.  “You choose the restaurant.”

“Choose the wha….?”

What’s the point in visiting a person at home if you’re going to go out for lunch, I think? But I was so glad to see Marilyn, I didn’t say it.

Then there’s Elaine.

“You make the tea,” she said. “But I’ve read your book. So I’ll bring something for us to eat.”

Then one day Jane took sick. Sick people are usually glad to eat what someone else cooks, so I decided to make her one of the few dishes I do well.  

Hmm. Cauliflower stew?

Maybe chicken?

“I could make you a roast chicken”, I phoned Jane and said, not revealing the thing was already seasoned and in the oven.  I was so sure she’d say “Yes”.

But Jane politely declined. “I have pneumonia,” she said. “Don’t want you to get it.”

“I didn’t know you could catch pneumonia from someone else,” I argued.

“Well, with your luck, you just might,” she replied. “But thank you, dear.”

And with that, she hung up. There’s no balm in Gilead, I thought.

So there I was, stuck with a whole roast chicken sitting in my oven. Or lying on its back, as roast chickens are wont to do. Surrounded by lovely roast potatoes.

But the real reason I didn’t push the chicken is because, since I had to deliver it whole, I wasn’t sure how it tasted.

“How ‘bout we eat half and bring her the other half?” I asked my husband.  “That way, we will already know how it tastes. And I’m sure she’ll accept it if I tell her you said it’s good.”

“You can’t bring someone half a chicken!” he replied. “It’s like giving someone your leftovers.”

“But they won’t be leftovers!”

He wasn’t buying it.

What to do?

I’ll cook something for Muriel, I think.

My friend Muriel was in her 80’s, her husband Michael in his 90’s. Michael took seriously ill and had been in the hospital for weeks. Muriel, meanwhile, needed all the help she could get. She spent almost every day at the hospital, returning home exhausted.

I briefly considered giving her a roast chicken too, but then I started to worry – what if it had too much seasoning for her taste? Worse, if she got sick anytime in the next 10 years, I’d know it was my chicken that did it.

Then Muriel called to say Michael was improving. I was so happy, I unthinkingly offered her both roast chicken and butternut squash soup.

She immediately – perhaps wisely – accepted the latter, and I only briefly wondered if Jane had tipped her off.

My soup, meanwhile – made with butternut squash, apples and onions – always turns out well.

So I decided to bring soup for Muriel. And soup for Jane.

Both appreciated it. Success, at last!

But within days, my poor husband claimed he was sprouting feathers.

“Chicken again?” he asked.

Yes, my dear. Until that roast chicken is all gone.

A Good Home

I Got Tripped Up

I have written 3 memoirs and done author readings to countless audiences. You’d think I’d be a pro at speaking about my own life. But recently, I surprised myself.

Each month, 2 members of the public art gallery board to which I belong are asked to give personal presentations so we may all have a better understanding of each other: who we are, the lives we’ve lived and what talents we bring to the board. Everyone takes it seriously and much work goes into each presentation.

For me, the challenge wasn’t what to put in but what to leave out. My projects in the television industry, writing, and the community have won so many national & international honours that the choice, in the end, was easy. Leave out most of it; focus on just a few items; read a couple brief excerpts from one of my books.

So what tripped me up?

I spoke very briefly about my early years in Jamaica and our family’s homes and gardens there, sometimes reading from A Good Home, my first memoir.

I mentioned, almost in passing, a painful sacrifice my parents made for the betterment of their children.

Reference to my own years in high school (a tiny girl in a land of giants) was equally brief. Then I mentioned my first children’s book, Myrtle the Purple Turtle, and how it came about because my younger daughter was bullied (age 5 almost).

For all my alleged smarts, all the outstanding achievements, I didn’t realize that the combination of those 3 events in one presentation would hit me in the gut, right in front of an audience.

In the early years after A Good Home was published, I protected myself: I stayed far away from discussing anything to do with the car accident, the PTSD, and the pain that bedeviled my life. My audiences knew that and cooperated.

This time, though, I was tripped up by older memories – recollections that I didn’t expect to trigger such strong emotion. I didn’t cry but that’s only because I was ‘doing the duck’ thing – calm on the surface, paddling like hell underwater.

Am I sorry I included those mentions? No. So, what did it teach me? I’m not sure. Because if I needed to, I’d probably do the same thing again. Except that I’d probably space them out, realizing that these were still painful memories. And I’d have a glass of water nearby.

I hope you’re having a great week,


A Good Home

Rain and Other Blessings

There’s so much rain here this morning, the tree branches are drooping low above the deck – so low that I would have to dodge them if I went outside.

But you’ll get no complaints from me – as my mother would remind us children when we wouldn’t eat our vegetables: “Be thankful! Children in some parts of the world are starving.”

Indeed, I am thankful that we have enough food and that it is raining. I’m also aware that people in some parts of the world are in the grip of a punishing heat wave or drought, and that, even in the “developed” countries, some children don’t have enough to eat. How we take care of each other and how we take care of the earth (so she will take care of us in return) are twin issues we still haven’t sorted out as a species.

In the last few weeks, I’ve also had reason to look closer to home. At my husband, who continues to support me, his children, grandchild and his mother and still does volunteer work to help make others’ lives better.

Recently, a not-for-profit organization he’s chaired through the last 3 challenging years honoured him for his leadership at a dinner in downtown Toronto.

Director after director stood up to praise Hamlin for his outstanding leadership during this challenging time – the kind of leadership which some said they’d never experienced before.

But it was the incoming chair’s reference to Hamlin as a real-life Armand Gamache (main character in Louise Penny’s Three Pines series) that moved me almost to tears. I understood the reference right away because I’ve read all Louise Penny’s novels and admire the fictional Canadian police inspector Gamache, but it never occurred to me that the qualities I admired about Gamache were qualities my own partner also possessed.

I should have known. Armand Gamache is a thoughtful, courageous, and wise leader who asks the right questions in tough situations. He takes care of his team, and in his private life, is a dedicated father and grandfather, a good friend, and a lover of literature and the arts. He carries some old wounds. He occasionally makes personal and professional mistakes, but acknowledges and works to correct them. But his values are solid.

Later, the speaker, Yvon, privately explained to me further why he thinks Hamlin and Gamache are so alike. I kept my composure – barely. Yes, I agreed: Gamache and my husband are alike in the ways that matter. It just took someone else to point out the similarities.

Later, I thought of all the other sacrifices my husband has made that his colleagues don’t even know about.

I look at this brave man who held the fort through the post-accident years, as my harrowing recovery dragged on and on and drove me to despair. He took over everything – the company we ran together, care of home, care of me. How did he ever sleep or rest?

Some days, I see the price he paid for being the strong one when I was at my weakest. He should be retired now, but all those treatment expenses, all those years of lost income, took their toll on us both. He should complain, but he rarely does. Some days I wish he would… Instead, he has made a practice of focusing on our blessings.

So this post started with gratitude for rain, the earth, and our blessings, and has become a thank-you for my husband.

Sometimes, your life’s greatest blessings are right there beside you.

I wish you a good week,