Want to give good feedback? Do the opposite of professor Bhaer in “Little Women”

“You’re really gonna marry that guy?”
“You’re really gonna marry that guy?”
Image: Sony Pictures
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There are several reasons to dislike Friedrich Bhaer, the German professor who eventually marries Jo March in Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women. Maybe you were rooting for Teddy Laurence, in which case Bhaer—depicted by Alcott as older, “not handsome,” and moralizing—seems like a stick in the mud compared to Jo’s passionate, fun-loving suitor. Or maybe you had wanted Jo to fully embrace her independence and stay single instead of seemingly settling for Bhaer, as Alcott herself had wanted for her protagonist, before bending to pressure from her publishers and fans and consigning the headstrong Jo to marriage.

Now Greta Gerwig’s excellent new film adaptation of Little Women has served up a third, entirely legitimate reason to be anti-Bhaer, one that will resonate with anyone who’s ever dealt with a harsh teacher or a confusing performance review. The man gives absolutely terrible feedback.

This becomes clear in a scene in which Jo (Saoirse Ronan) meets with her friend Bhaer (Louis Garrel) in the drawing room of the New York City boarding house where both are staying, and watches nervously as he reads her stories. Jo, a young, ambitious writer, has been published in newspapers, but she’s still very much at the beginning of her career—which means that every piece of praise or criticism she receives now could shape the path she chooses to follow. She respects Bhaer, so his opinion of her work will carry extra weight.

What does Bhaer do in this highly sensitive scenario? Violating almost every rule of constructive criticism, he looks up from the clippings, and says simply, “I don’t like them.”

It gets worse from there, with Gerwig’s script (pdf) offering a useful case study in just how quickly and disastrously a feedback session can unravel.

FRIEDRICH: I don’t like them.

JO …

FRIEDRICH Honestly, I think that they’re not good.

JO (fumbling) But, I, they’re published in the papers, and, people have always said – I’m considered talented –

FRIEDRICH Oh I think you’re talented, which is why I’m being so blunt.

Jo, deeply offended, starts to gather up her work.

JO I can’t afford to starve on praise.

FRIEDRICH Are you upset?

JO Of course I’m upset! You just told me you didn’t like my work!

FRIEDRICH I thought you wanted honesty.

Ah, yes, the old “I thought you wanted honesty” rebuttal.

The problem here is that Bhaer is being honest, but not helpful. He doesn’t try to unpack why the stories fail to resonate with him. Nor does he offer suggestions as to how Jo might improve them, or what she might try writing instead. And while he ultimately admits that he thinks Jo is talented, he fails to serve up any concrete praise that might help her better understand where to direct those talents and how she can continue to develop as a writer. His feedback is incredibly self-centered; it’s all about his reaction, which gives Jo nowhere to go.

If this is how professor Bhaer talks to his students, he is one pretty useless teacher. And he risks not just hurting their feelings, but doing real damage to their futures.

No need to grin and Bhaer it

Giving negative feedback is a tricky undertaking to begin with. Most people experience any type of criticism as a social threat. It makes our hearts beat faster and our bodies tremble. We go into fight-or-flight mode. It’s hard for a lot of people to process feedback even when it’s sensitively delivered.

So what should Bhaer have done instead of giving Jo a proverbial slap in the face? One option would have been to chat with Jo before he read the stories, to assess the manner in which she’d prefer to receive his critique. This is a technique recommended by Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone in their book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. Maybe a handwritten note—containing more information than “they’re not good”—would have gone over better! (To be fair, Jo appears to be a glutton for punishment throughout the movie, repeatedly watching people read her stories right in front of her—an experience that would prompt many creative types to have a nervous breakdown on the spot.)

Bhaer would have been wise to also frame his feedback as part of a two-way conversation with Jo, rather than approaching her stories from the position of critic-on-high. Wharton School professor and organizational psychologist Adam Grant recommends that those offering criticism level the playing field by noting their own imperfections and giving the other person the opportunity to ask questions or provide additional context. Grant also says that simply asking the other person if they want some feedback lays important groundwork. “Once people take ownership over the decision to receive feedback, they’re less defensive about it,” he explains.

Others go so far as to recommend that we give up critiquing entirely. A recent cover story by Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, published in the Harvard Business Review, argues, “Focusing people on their shortcomings or gaps doesn’t enable learning. It impairs it.” If you want to help a person grow, they say, you should instead direct their attention to their strengths, hopes, and goals—the mode of thinking in which we’re most open to learning and considering new possibilities.

Nurturing self-confidence

This guidance would likely appeal to the French philosopher Charles Pépin, whose recent book-length essay Self-Confidence is centered around the idea that self-confidence doesn’t form in a vacuum. As children, we develop confidence because our parents or caregivers give us an inner sense of security. As we get older, teachers, mentors, coaches, and peers help us to further develop our confidence with their encouragement and support.

“Every parent, every instructor, every teacher, every friend in Aristotle’s sense should keep in mind this two-pronged method of making someone confident: First instill confidence, then show confidence,” Pépin advises. That is, first offer praise that shows the other person you believe in them. Then push them to take on some ambitious task or responsibility, to show how much we trust them.

The crucial flip-side to Pépin’s argument is that if someone lacks self-confidence, it’s not really their fault. They probably just haven’t had the chance to benefit from relationships that teach them to trust themselves. Instead, if they’ve been getting feedback at all, it’s from people like Bhaer, who focus on their flaws and struggles.

This is why young people, who’ve had fewer chances to be exposed to the supportive adults of the world, are particularly vulnerable to criticism—and why it’s incumbent upon their teachers, bosses, and mentors to take care with what they say. If a young person hasn’t yet learned to trust themselves, they may internalize criticism and take it to extremes, deciding to abandon a potential career or give up on a dream on the basis of one person’s opinion.

Thankfully, Jo was raised by Marmee—a loving, committed parent—and grew up putting on plays for the neighborhood children and showing her stories to her sisters, who adore her writing. So while Bhaer’s bad feedback temporarily turns her off storytelling, she can’t stay away.

The most satisfying part of Gerwig’s movie may be the scenes in which Jo pulls herself out of her self-doubt and grief over her sister’s death by staying up all night to write in the attic, falling asleep on the couch and then waking up with a start to keep scribbling. The energy with which she dedicates herself to her book is not thanks to her conversation with Bhaer; it’s thanks to the people who’ve told her she’s capable of great things.

“No one will forget Jo March,” Jo tells Bhaer in a blaze of fury after he flatly dismisses her work. “I can believe it,” he says softly. Whether or not Jo’s stories were any good, it’s the only smart piece of feedback he gives.