5 keys to taking feedback like a badass

Gandalf and SarumanCube dweller or freelancer, how well you handle feedback affects your professional brand.

My ability to take feedback has always been one of my professional value props. (I grew up in an ‘honest’ family.) But these past few months, I’ve been working elbows to elbows with two graphic designers, who are polar opposites when it comes to handling critique on their work.

Watching these two in action side by side has given me some new pointers to up my feedback-taking game. And I’m happy to share them with you.

Note: When I refer to these creative colleagues, I’m obviously not going to use their real names. So I’ll call them Gandalf and Saruman. Personal preference.

1. State a willingness to listen.

Most people on the hook to review your work already know they’re supposed to give you feedback. But it can help put them at ease if you verbally welcome it.

At the end of every presentation, Gandalf closes with “we look forward to your feedback.” People left smiling and thinking about the work. At the end of one particular first round presentation, I heard Saruman close with “keep your feedback to a minimum.” The air in the room grew cold, and people left thinking he’s a diva.

2. Give rationale.

Gandalf the Grey

Yes, I can tell you why I smote that headline.

It’s often easy for us to ‘just know’ why a phrase or the way a piece is organized works and why something else wouldn’t. We’re the pros aren’t we and oh wouldn’t it be nice if people could just our word for it?

Of course we are and of course it would, but that’s a terrible answer when you’re asked why you made the creative decisions you made. Think about your work. Think about why you did what you did. Know your style standards. Know your stuff.

Trust your work and let them know why you did what you did.

When Gandalf is asked why he did something, he simply explains how his work solves the problem. Saruman often says “because” and then goes off on an I’m-a-mysterious-creative tangent.

3. Ask “why?”

When someone asks us to change something or says that something isn’t working, ask “why?” Ask for clarification. Dig a little deeper. It can give you a different take on the problem and show that you’re willing to listen.

Gandalf somehow knows when to ask “why?” when feedback doesn’t make sense. Saruman automatically assumes the feedback is stupid and once he walks away, often refuses to do it.

4. Watch your facial cues.

Keep your face relaxed and thoughtful.

Gandalf is grace under fire. I’ve worked with him for more than two years. Not once have I ever heard him whine about anything—and he has kids. On the other hand, I’ve seen Saruman twist and squirm and roll his eyes in front of a project’s stakeholders.

I recently learned that when listening to feedback, I sometimes raise my eyebrows. I’ve never noticed but sometimes people take it as confusion (I don’t understand what they’re saying) or I’m emphatically if silently saying “Nuts to you, you’re wrong.”

5. Own your screw-ups.

It wasn't me. It was the software.

You want me to change what?

Gandolf never blames the software or throws a colleague under the bus. When he makes a mistake, he owns it and fixes it. Saruman’s go-to phrase is “I’ll have to check the copy doc,” thus deflecting the mistake to the writer instead of owning that he can’t copy and paste. (Not that this annoys the ever-loving crap out of me or anything.)

Last week, I sat in a conference room with 20 people who were pointing out typos. Most of those typos happened in layout, but I was still responsible for double-checking the work.

I was embarrassed, but I owned it like a grownup.

Yes, this all sounds simple. But it’s not. It takes work. And once in a while, you’ll have to check yourself to see if you’re still taking feedback like a champ.

I’d love to hear from you. How do you maintain your cool in the face of feedback? Especially when that feedback really is stupid? 😉

2 thoughts on “5 keys to taking feedback like a badass

  1. I needed to read this! Thanks for laying it out using LOTR references, too. Major cool points. *raises eyebrows* 😉

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