How Seth Godin Taught Me The Importance Of Constructive Encouragement

Tara McMullin
Oct 10, 2017 · 9 min read

When I heard my name, my stomach turned.

I was listening to Brian Clark, founder of Copyblogger & Rainmaker Digital, interview Seth Godin, marketing & business thinking god-among-men, on Brian’s Unemployable podcast. They were discussing the problem of mentorship, support, and guidance in the micro business world.

Brian brought up the interview he had just done with me and essentially asked whether my company’s small business community, CoCommercial, could potentially fill a gap.

Seth sounded… skeptical.

Now, getting feedback on my business from Seth Godin is something I’ve only really dreamed about. But at this moment, I was ready to put my head in the sand. I didn’t know if I could handle any less-than-positive comments about the network I’ve spent the last 9 months living and breathing — especially when the feedback was unsolicited.

I kept listening…

Seth’s beef with online communities like ours is that they tend to devolve into useless cheerleading. He said people stop showing up when things get hard.

He also said that, if a community could work hard to ensure that it supported truth — the reality of hard things, bad ideas, and uncomfortable next steps — then it could be useful.

Fair point, Seth. I completely agree.

At first, I felt disappointment. This was a chance for a personal hero of mine to tell me what I was doing was good. In that moment, I wanted cheerleading not truth.

Oh, the irony!

In the next moment, I felt the challenge. While he wasn’t actually providing direct feedback on our product, Seth was speaking to the reality of the market and human nature. Our network needed to be able to work both to our advantage or risk becoming obsolete and unengaged.

Luckily, this was a truth we have already acknowledged as both a team and a community. We have member benefits, processes, and guidelines in place to ensure what we’re creating together isn’t a cheerleading squad but a council of truth-tellers.

When I shared this with our community at CoCommercial, first, they wanted to invite Seth to join and experience how constructive the conversation there could be. Thanks, guys. Second, they wanted to make it clear that what they truly value is a balance between Truth and a Morale Boost.

Seth is right:

Building, running, and growing a business is hard work.

That hard work deserves both radical honesty and encouragement.

There are times when you want to give up and move on. Even when things are going well, the workload can be stressful and the returns meager. Business owners need support to keep going and reminders that what they’re doing matters.

If it’s not cheerleading, what is it?

Constructive Encouragement is the phrase I’ve landed on. So, I went back to the CoCommercial community to ask them to describe this Constructive Encouragement that they were adamant was equally important to their entrepreneurial journey as Truth. There were 7 key themes that make for truly constructive encouragement.

1) It’s specific.

“Great constructive encouragement is specific,” says Mia Scharphie, creator of the Build Yourself Workshop, an empowerment bootcamp for women in creative fields.

Unhelpful feedback is general or shares the responder’s overall perception of the idea or project. Constructive Encouragement doesn’t care whether something is “good,” “great,” “brilliant,” or “creative.” Instead, it hones in on a distinct element of the idea and offers particular praise. It reinforces explicit choices that the person asking for feedback has made instead of giving simply applauding the work as a whole.

2) It’s based on trust.

A high-five from a stranger is always welcome. But when you get a shout-out from a true friend or trusted colleague, you give it a lot more weight.

Jade Eby, manager of operations for Author Accelerator, says her team places a special value on developing trusting relationships with their clients. “Our book coaches spend a lot of time building the relationship with their writers so that, when the time comes to give them that encouragement, the writers take it seriously and are appreciative.”

“Trust” can seem a high barrier to the ability to offer Constructive Encouragement. But it doesn’t take much to gain trust and build a relationship: an active interest in someone’s success, a generous spirit backed by generous action, and a visible presence in the community or individual relationship is enough.

“From that space of relationship, it’s more effective to offer constructive support rather than just cheerleading. And, people who know the other group members are there to support them are more trusting and willing to ask the tough questions where constructive support would help, rather than superficial questions that just are seeking cheerleading,” says Lisa Akers, an herbalist who also literally builds spaceships.

3) It’s clued into your goals.

Encouragement can’t be constructive if it’s not based on your personal goals. Interestingly, the burden for this one falls on the person asking for feedback more than the person giving it.

If you want truly Constructive Encouragement on an idea or project, you need to explain why and to what end you’re pursuing it. That gives the people you’re asking for feedback from context in which to give specific and relevant encouragement.

Steve Treseler, saxophonist and founder of Game Symphony Workshop, says he’s most interested in receiving encouragement from people “who understand where you’re headed and the impact you seek to make.” He also prefers feedback from people who are a bit further along the journey, adding further context to their perspective.

4) It’s action-oriented.

Cheerleading often helps us stay comfortable. We receive praise and feel content that we’ve done enough.

Constructive Encouragement, on the other hand, should spur the receiver to action. Parker Stevenson, co-founder of Evolved Finance, says that a “strong community can inspire you, motivate you, or instill the confidence needed to take action faster or sooner and execute more effectively.”

Anytime you offer Constructive Encouragement, focus on what the receiver will be able to do with the information or perspective — not just how it will make them feel good.

5) It’s beyond basic.

We all forget the basics from time to time but, generally, Constructive Encouragement should go beyond the well-worn mantras of entrepreneurship or business development and elaborate on how those established truths apply in unique ways.

Cathy Goodwin, a copywriter and storyteller, says she really values feedback that comes from people fully utilizing their own experience as marketers, business owners, or, even, clients and customers. Instead of repeating the usual lines, she wants people to use their practical knowledge to go deeper.

Cathy also values differing perspectives. One good piece of feedback can devolve into a chorus of agreement, instead of a real discussion of all the possible viewpoints. Be willing to say something different.

6) It’s invested.

You can hoot and holler about someone’s success or brilliant ideas without caring whether they continue to succeed or churn out genius.

Constructive Encouragement is rooted in your personal investment in someone else’s journey. Lorraine Watson, a spiritual guide and coach, says, “I often find cheerleading feels like a drive by — something high level, doesn’t take up much time, and is more generic. Constructive encouragement has the ability to cut through the crap and create openings for clarity and new perspectives to come through.”

From my own perspective, building and participating in community has been the most direct way to become invested in the success of many. Because I care deeply about our mission at CoCommercial, I care deeply about the success of each and every one of our members. We work hard to instill our mission into the relationship our members have with the community so that they can feel that same sense of investment — and offer Constructive Encouragement from that place.

7) It’s personal.

Constructive Encouragement looks a little bit different depending on the person or the project. Sometimes you do want a giant pat on the back. Sometimes you’re looking for a critical discussion about your next steps. Sometimes you’re open to an equal amount of criticism and sometimes you’re looking to just make the good stuff even better.

When you’re looking for Constructive Encouragement, it’s of utmost importance to be clear and direct about the kind of feedback you want. Andy Mathis, a veterinarian and watercolor artist, says he’s seen this go astray in another community he was a part of. There was a miscommunication about personal expectations for feedback or critique which resulted in a few complaints and, ultimately, much less helpful feedback.

Jason Freedman, co-founder of both 42Floors and Flight Caster, echoes a similar sentiment when he describes “thirty percent feedback.” He’s worked to create a culture where his team members seek out feedback when an idea or project is only 30% formed instead of when a project is nearing completion. At that early stage, he finds his team members are much more open to constructive feedback, deeper discussions about where the project is going, and a different course of action.

As entrepreneurs, we need to take responsibility for asking for feedback before we reach the point of no return, too. It’s incredibly difficult to be open to Constructive Encouragement when you’re nearing the end of a massive project — instead, you only want a pat on the back and a “get ’em, tiger!” Train yourself to ask for help before you feel like you have all the answers and only want confirmation. Then, communicate the stage you’re at so that others know they can respectfully question your direction or assumptions.

How does Constructive Encouragement differ from Constructive Criticism?

Or, why name something new when it seems a term for that thing already exists?

A few of our members brought up a potential gender-political dynamic at play. They thought the idea that hard truths breed success while cheerleading leads to failure smacked of a culture based in a masculine paradigm. I can see the point.

If we allow for the masculine to be a hierarchal paradigm and the feminine to be a collective paradigm, it sheds some light on the problem of “criticism.” In order to provide Constructive Criticism, you need to see yourself in a position that is higher than, better than, or more experienced than the person you are criticizing. Similarly, in order to receive Constructive Criticism, you must put yourself in a position lower than the those offering the critique. There is a natural power imbalance because of the hierarchal approach to critique.

However, Constructive Encouragement can be collective. It can recognize that we all have something valuable to offer when our feedback is contextual, specific, based on trust, invested, etc… You don’t have to be better or higher than someone in order to offer Constructive Encouragement and for that encouragement to be truly valuable. Nor do you have to submit yourself to receive Constructive Encouragement, it can be something that is shared with you as an equally powerful member of the community.

In the end, I agree with Seth.

Cheerleading might make you feel good but it doesn’t improve your chances of success.

And at the same time, I am thrilled to discover another side of cheerleading from my own community members, one that can be equally valuable to truth-telling and hard realities.

In fact, compiling these guidelines for Constructive Encouragement helped me see why I rightly didn’t fixate on Seth’s feedback. It was non-specific (he wasn’t actually responding to our community and its culture). It was uninvested (he doesn’t know me nor was his critique based on an informed perspective of what we’re building). It wasn’t contextualized based on our goals (Brian simply wanted to see what he thought). So while it was valuable feedback in that it got me thinking and talking to people who can offer specific, invested, and contextualized feedback, it wasn’t Constructive Encouragement or Criticism. It was simply the opinion of a really smart dude.

This exploration has made me even more committed to our path forward in making CoCommercial a venue for Truth-telling and Constructive Encouragement. There’s a hunger for something beyond the constant deluge of information for small business owners. There is a real and pressing need for specific, invested, contextual, and action-oriented feedback that can only come from a community of people who have been there, done that, and are still doing it everyday.

I’m incredibly proud to be part of the team building exactly that.

What Works

What Works is honest conversation about running & growing a…

What Works

What Works is honest conversation about running & growing a small business today. We seek out the thoughtful, intentional, and unconventional ways small business owners make it work.

Tara McMullin

Written by

Building stronger businesses at What Works. Producing standout podcasts at YellowHouse.Media. Podcaster, writer, community builder.

What Works

What Works is honest conversation about running & growing a small business today. We seek out the thoughtful, intentional, and unconventional ways small business owners make it work.