5 keys to taking feedback like a badass

Gandalf and Saruman

No one likes to work with someone who refuses to take feedback. We’ve all worked with people like that—someone who’s determined that he/she is right and that others are wrong and that the work produced is without flaw or need of improvement at all, whatsoever. Period.

It’s not easy.

There was a period of two years during which I worked with two graphic designers who are absolute opposites when it comes to handling critique of their work.

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.

Watching them showed me their distinct approaches—and how to be better at taking feedback myself.

State a willingness to listen.

At the end of every presentation, Gandalf closes with “we look forward to your feedback.” People leave 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.

Most people who review your work know they’re supposed to provide feedback. What they may not know is how it’s going to be received; it can be scary to speak up or point something out or share an idea.

But it can put them at ease if you verbally welcome it.

Give rationale for your decisions.

Gandalf the Grey
Yes, I can tell you why I smote that headline.

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-you-can’t-possibly-understand tangent that often involves a lot of twenty-dollar words.

It can be easy for us to ‘just know’ why a phrase or the way a piece is organized works and why something else wouldn’t. Wouldn’t it be nice if people just took our word for it?

Of course it would, but it’s part of their job to ask you about why you’ve done what you’ve done. And it’s part of your job to ‘sell’ it. Think about your work, about why you did what you did. Know your style standards. Know your stuff.

Trust your work, your process and your skills.

Ask “why?”

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. Not cool.

When someone asks us to change something or says that something isn’t working, ask “why?” Get clarification. Dig deeper. Find out what they’re reacting to because it may not be what you think. It can give you a different take on the problem, how to see it from a different perspective. It also shows that you’re willing to listen.

Be mindful of your face.

It wasn't me. It was the software.
You want me to change what?

Gandalf is grace under fire. I’ve worked with him for five 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. It’s rude and disrespectful.

It’s also easy to do.

My Annoyed Face and my Thinking Face are the Same Face. When I’m listening to someone, I sometimes raise my eyebrows which look like I’m either confused or I’m thinking “Nuts to you, jerkface.” Even my husband sometimes asks if I’m annoyed or thinking.

Be mindful of your face.

Own your mistakes.

Especially when they’re called out in front of other people.

Gandolf never blames the software or throws a colleague under the bus. When he makes a mistake, he owns it and fixes it. And he acts likes it’s no big deal (because it usually isn’t). Saruman’s go-to phrase is “I’ll have to check the copy doc,” thus deflecting the mistake to the writer instead of owning his very-human mistake.

Owning your mistakes builds trust whereas passing the buck and deflecting destroys it.

That said, if someone calls out a typo that isn’t actually a typo, I’m all for respectfully standing your ground and offering rationale.

(I’m a little sad that I’ve seen this often enough to make it a point in this post.)

It sounds simple,
but it takes work.

And once in a while, you’ll have to check yourself. I do, especially when I work with new partners and have to build the trust between us. But as a copywriter or other type of professional writer, your ability to deal with feedback is essential to building the professional relationships that help you stay employed and respected.

There are two faces of handling feedback: taking it and giving it. In an upcoming post, I’ll go into some lessons I’ve learned for giving it.

Now, over to you…

I’d love to hear from you. How do you maintain your cool in the face of feedback? Especially when you disagree with that feedback?

Note: This is an updated version of a post that ran previously.


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