And now for something everyone hates.
It’s just plain no fun when someone tells you they think you did a crappy job on something.
Criticism that isn’t invited or sought out can feel invasive and undeserved, or like someone just discovered your dirty secret. It can leave you feeling off kilter and exposed.
And while criticism can be helpful and give you a perspective on something that turns out to be incredibly valuable, very rarely is our initial reaction to bad feedback, “Oh, joy! I’ve been given the opportunity to grow yet again and learn about myself in a new and exciting way!”
Usually it leaves me a little sweaty, anxious and wanting to hide out while the embarrassment dissipates.
Ignoring negative feedback without thinking about it is not an option; neither is discounting anyone who criticizes you as a dummy who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
But the other extreme isn’t much good either: everyone who criticizes you isn’t correct and you shouldn’t stop making art just because they said so.
Now, as an ace negotiator you know that information is gold, but you’re savvy enough to understand that all information doesn’t carry the same value. Negative feedback is just information. So, let’s put on our negotiator caps and treat it as such.
First: breathe. Do it again. And again. Whether it’s face to face, over email or on the telephone, most of us immediately stop breathing when we get crappy news. Then, when we do breathe, it’s shallowly, without enough oxygen to help us think about what to do. So, consciously, purposefully: breathe.
Second: Do not react. You haven’t done anything other than breathe at this point, so what on earth is informing your reaction? Your instincts? Those same things that made you stop breathing a second ago? You really want to rely on those right now? Do not react.
Now: Let us assess.
- Is this particular piece of feedback regarding a professional endeavor or a personal project? Different projects help us reach different goals. And each project within our professional and personal portfolios contributes to those goals in different ways. Knowing where the work that you’re getting feedback on fits into your larger goals can help you figure out what to do with it.
- Is the person giving you the feedback someone you know, or a stranger? People that know you can give you feedback that takes into consideration how this piece fits in with your other work; strangers will likely only be able to give you feed back on the particular piece they’re looking at. And that’s fine, there still might be very valuable information there, but it’s not of the “you should quit now and become a shoe salesman” variety.
- Is the person giving you the feedback a fellow professional or a client? Fellow professionals usually give feedback about craft while clients give feedback about what they want. Both are important, but confusing the two types of feedback, or treating them as the same thing really isn’t going to help. For instance: if you changed your style every time a client gave you feedback your craft would suffer. If you always refused to respond to clients’ feedback to protect your craft, you quickly wouldn’t have any clients.
- Is the critic an anonymous internet presence? By refusing to attach their real name to the criticism they are providing they’ve told you in no uncertain terms to ignore everything they’ve said. Cowards don’t give good advice.
Okay, so now you should have a bit of a better understanding of where this criticism fits in the world. It is not about your entire existence and being and it is not the united voice of everyone you’ve ever interacted with. And it’s probably not complete drivel, either. It fits somewhere. Let it fit there; letting it grow and apply to places where it doesn’t fit is unhelpful and a waste of energy.
Part of understanding where the criticism fits in your world is understanding how much attention and energy to put into it. The advice that follows can be taken and applied in various combinations that only you will know because only you will know the situation you’re dealing with. Sometimes you’ll need to only do one or two of these things. Sometimes, you’ll need them all. Invest your energy appropriately.
- Does it make sense?
Pretend the work isn’t yours for a second and look at the work through the eyes of the criticism. Does it make sense? Resist the urge to answer the critic while you’re doing this. So if they said the color balance was off, do not immediately respond to the criticism with “Well that’s part of the larger theme, you moron!” Just yes or no; when looking at the piece with unbiased eyes, does the criticism make sense?
- Ask questions.
Even if you disagree vehemently with what’s been said, ask questions. Use open-ended questions: Can you tell me more about what you mean by “shoddy piece of crap”? Are there specific examples in the work that you think really highlight my “complete lack of talent”? Do you have examples of work that better captures “any understanding of creative expression”?
You’re doing two things: (1) you’re encouraging them to give you better information about their criticism and (2) you’re getting rid of the puffery. Folks that don’t give criticism professionally (so, most of us) tend to overdo it a bit with the hyperbole and vague exclamations. If you’re going to learn anything, broad, generic information isn’t going to help you. Figure out what you can ignore and how to better understand what they’re really getting after by asking questions.
- Talk about the criticism with someone you trust.
Pick someone who will be honest with you and who is not emotionally invested in the criticism. Share with them what your reaction has been thus far and ask for their opinion. Listen. People who know us and love us tend to know how to teach us things better than strangers. Respect the fact that they are not reiterating the criticism, they are talking with you about the criticism. If they reiterate it and it’s not helpful, you’re allowed to say so.
- Know yourself.
Very generically speaking, women tend to personalize criticism and apply it too broadly; men tend to treat it as the irrelevant mutterings of professional head butters and ignore even the helpful bits. You might not fit these molds, but chances are you have a particular way of responding to crappy news. Know what it is. Figure out what is helpful about your style and what’s not. Then be aware of it when dealing with criticism. “Oh, I’m doing that thing where I start lashing out and calling his mother names. I’d better calm down.”
- Give yourself permission to think.
Just because someone’s told you something doesn’t mean you have to react to it immediately. If the interaction is face to face, it is OK to say, “Thanks for sharing that with me, I need to think about it and I’ll get back to you,” and then walk away. There is no rule that says you have to respond to things immediately, but we often act as if there is.
Featured image by glassblower via Flickr.com