I think I'm a creative being, and you probably see yourself the same way. I create some things for myself, in which case, how I feel about that work is all that matters. But I create a lot of things for other people, and rely on their feedback for my own growth, so I know if what I'm making helps or even matters, and how to get better.
Heading to one extreme is dangerous. Making decisions by committee 100% of the time makes it impossible to create consistent work that is reflective of your signature.
Some feedback is less relevant, or not very helpful. This kind of feedback, even just a little, sends some people off the rails, deciding that no feedback is better than ill-intentioned or misinformed feedback. Pinterest is full of memes that encourage us to shrug off the critics and JUST BE YOUR MOST AUTHENTIC SELF cause haters gonna hate. This self-protective advice tells us to ignore all outside criticism, cushion our fragile egos with the adoration of our supporters, and never leave the cozy cocoons of support groups / social media networks / creative retreats with like-minded individuals, for fear of shutting down our courage to create.
But surrounding ourselves with only positive feedback can send us and our work down a quick path to irrelevance. Assuming that we create better when we are open and responsive to all feedback, how do we distinguish between feedback that stings because it's mean-spirited, and feedback that stings and can help us grow?
So how can we work productively with feedback?
Here’s what I do:
1. Prepare, if I can.
In some cases, such as during formal review processes, I know feedback is coming. It’s built into the agenda. So I assume the person offering feedback is doing so with good intent (to help me grow), and I prepare to receive the feedback with an open heart. I smile, to put myself and the person giving me feedback at ease. I ask if I can take notes, so that I don’t forget anything.
2. As I hear the feedback, I stay neutral and grateful.
It can be tempting to go into explanation mode or otherwise defend myself, or (in rare occasions) even go on the counteroffensive. Smiling helps a lot when I feel myself going defensive. In order for this to remain a feedback session and not an argument, my role is to receive the message, ask questions to clarify when needed, and act on the feedback later.
Another question that is OK to ask is, “What alternative do you suggest?” or, “What would you like to see instead?” It’s reasonable that the person giving feedback can also suggest a solution.
Someone stopped me in the hall to offer unsolicited feedback about a group activity in a workshop I recently facilitated. Everything she said pointed to something I could do to ensure that this situation, which had never come up before, wouldn’t happen again. But when I asked her, “What alternative do you suggest for me?” she said, “Nothing. I don’t think you should change anything. This was about how I reacted and what I learned.” The discussion went in a whole different direction from where I thought she was headed, and I would have made incorrect assumptions had I not asked that question.
At the end of the feedback session, I remind myself how giving feedback can take immense courage, and I thank the feedback giver for sharing with me. My appreciation is genuine, because no matter what, I know I will always learn something!
3. After the feedback session, I do most of the processing.
There are only two things to do: (1) act on the feedback or (2) nothing.
Here’s the kind of feedback I get that I’ll almost always act on:
- Feedback I already knew or heard, and has now been validated. Easy. Make the change.
- Feedback that may sting a bit, but carries a thread of truth even after the pain is gone.
- Feedback from someone I trust completely. This feedback deserves weight because of who said it.
Here’s the kind of feedback I’ll spend more time processing, and may or may not act on:
- Feedback that is more biased personal opinion, rather than opinion formed relatively free of that person’s personal context. (“Well, I’m afraid this step of your plan would be a waste of time, because when I tried it on my project, which is nothing like your project, it failed…”) More critical analysis can help decide whether I use this feedback or not.
- Feedback that is in the clear minority. One dissenting opinion out of fifty won’t get me to change direction. A successful public speaker I admire greatly says that his ratio is 1:20.
- Feedback that is more of a personal judgement than analysis. This requires additional reflection, because even though it is not the feedback I expected, it might still be valuable feedback.
4. If I’m still chewing on some feedback, I get an outside opinion.
I said chewing, not stewing. Chewing is a mental process. Stewing is an emotional process.
- Seek a second opinion. I’m not trying to build a case against the original feedback, or against the person who gave it to me. I’m ready to face the music if the second opinion confirms the first.
- Ask the second "opinionator" (Evernote does not believe this is a legit word, but I'm not open to that feedback right now) to help me come up with ideas to tackle my challenge. Sometimes the best alternatives come from those who have distance and objectivity.
- If I’m still not ready to take action, I get clear on the opportunity if I take action, and the cost if I don’t.
- What is the best that can happen if I change this?
- What is the worst that can happen if I don’t?
I let these answers guide urgency behind change based on original feedback.
What about you? What tips and suggestions do you have for handling feedback productively?