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one person hands another a piece of paper reading feedback. a cat and a plant sit in the corner.

Artwork by Stacy Nguyen

Six Ways to Give and Receive Feedback Like a BAMF

Written By Stacy Nguyen | Dec 11, 2019

In an ideal world, everything that we create would be perfect upon the first draft. In an ideal world, everything we put out would garner universal acclaim, and no one would have one negative thing to say because it’s all perfection. In an ideal world, critical feedback wouldn’t even be a thing that we ever worry about.

But that’s not the world we live in. So here are six ways to get over your fear of feedback.

Try to minimize the lies you tell yourself just because you have this idea of yourself as the hero of the story.

When I was younger, critical feedback felt like a knife to the heart all the time. I was a lot more insecure in my ability to contribute back then.

To cope, I would paint myself as a victim in my own mind — and my feedback giver was the perpetrator. I would seek out crappy reasons to build myself up (“I’m the talented one here, not them!”) and minimize the truth of their words (“One time she said we should fax a form! Clearly this person is incapable of saying anything worthwhile!”).

When people don’t enjoy working with us, we don’t get work.

Many of us rely on this defense mechanism so that we don’t have to face and deal with our secret fear of being an imposter who will eventually be publicly found out as a failure.

It can work in the short term.

But in the long term, we close ourselves off from growth. We create a reputation for ourselves as “overly defensive” and “fragile.” It’s not fun for other people to work with us. And the effect of that kind of avoidance compounds. When people don’t enjoy working with us, we don’t get work.

At a point, I figured out that I was telling a bunch of tiny little lies to myself all day, every day to preserve my own idea of who I thought I should be. It was exhausting.

So I started consciously watching for it. I’d listen to my internal narrative in the course of the day and I’d do the equivalent of putting down a mental sticky note whenever I noticed I was lying to myself because I felt insecure about something.

Over time, the act of doing this actually helped to correct the issue (also, general maturity and increased life experience helped, too). I started catching myself and correcting, naming my feelings for what they actually were. “You are antagonistic to this feedback because you feel like you worked really hard, and you don’t feel like your hard work is recognized by the client.”

Basically, I started being more self-aware and honest with myself.

Get smacked in the face with really brutal feedback, the kind that lingers for years afterward, and then understand that everything else that comes after will pale in comparison.

The worst feedback always feels the most emotional — like they’re an indictment of your integrity or your character, not necessarily like they are about the work. That kind of feedback can linger for years — and that kind of feedback will always sting a little bit when you think about it.

Embrace this feedback. Once you conquer this, you can conquer anything!

One time, as a news editor, a writer accused me of being racist against him because he was white and I edited his stuff a touch too hard. And I lost my mind, got super pissed, and I was like, omg, I WILL KILL HIM.

So we had a really brutal fight because I was mad defensive. And then after that, he sent a mass email out to all the other writers telling them I was a terrible asshole with no morals. That was embarrassing.

And that is a form of feedback!

This kind of feedback hurts the most. When I get it, I have to expend so much effort not letting it tank my entire week. I have to do so much self-coaching to get through someone calling me a crappy human because they didn’t like something I wrote.

But you know what the upside of getting this kind of feedback is? Everything else is easy.

A client rather rudely tells me that they dislike an element of a design I worked hard on? 

Okay! We all feel and see stuff differently sometimes!

A colleague tells me I was a little callous or impatient about something, and it made people feel stressed out? 

Hey, at the very least, thank you for not calling me white-racist and then sharing that news with everyone who works with me!

Don’t actually use the word feedback. It’s a loaded word. Use other words instead.

I do a lot of branding work, which is basically work where I take my EQ (emotional quotient) and use it to shepherd clients through what can be a really fraught and emotional process of re-identifying who they are.

In the course of this work, I am constantly running around begging people to give their honest truth about stuff because clients like it when you build community and get people’s buy-in through this kind of info exchange.

I try to never freaking use the word feedback. I never ask people, “Can I get some feedback on this?” When you ask for feedback, some people think you are asking them to be Roger Ebert and give you the critical review of a lifetime. When you ask for feedback, people often feel subconscious pressure for it to be actionable, so they tend to pull something critical but maybe half-baked out of their brains.

And that kind of feedback is not all that useful in the work.

Instead, I position my feedback-solicitation as advice-solicitation. Like, “Hey, so this is what we’re trying to accomplish here, but I’m worried it’s missing the mark. Do you have any thoughts or ideas on how we can make this clearer? Also, am I being a little paranoid right now?”

When I actually need sign-off from a client, I get pretty specific to keep everyone efficient and on task. I send a bulleted list of our goals or what I have done to try and meet their requests. Then I might ask something like, “Is there anything else I may have missed or is this okay to finalize?” instead of asking an open ended question like, “What do you think?”

Dude, remember that you can open your mouth and say stuff back to people.

People are very sensitive and scared of feedback because they are scared of being maimed. I get that. But you know what is super empowering? Knowing that you can ‘maim’ people back.

I like to joke around with people: they can say whatever the hell they want to me — I don’t even need feedback to be kind or nice or constructive. They can say they hate my face to me.

But the deal is: I get to say something back to them. So they better think about that before they let whatever is bouncing around in their heads fly out of their mouths.

Feedback is designed for you to think harder about your work — a challenge for you to see your work through someone else’s eyes. Feedback is designed for you to question your decisions and figure out for yourself if they are good decisions.

It’s often not as dramatic as that. Everyone I work with tends to be amazing. My response to feedback that I don’t agree with tends to be something like, “Yeah, I don’t agree with that.”

And then my colleague or client might press it and say more stuff to amplify their point, then I might say stuff back that includes reason for why I think the way I do — and then it’s like, OH SNAP, we are having a very engaging conversation about this that will result in a better deliverable, heeey!

Be confident in yourself! Receiving feedback doesn’t actually mean you need to follow it.

I feel like this point should go without being said — but based on how many people I come across that don’t realize this, I think that I should say it right now. Feedback is just feedback. It’s not the word of God.

Feedback is designed for you to think harder about your work — a challenge for you to see your work through someone else’s eyes. Feedback is designed for you to question your decisions and figure out for yourself if they are good decisions. If you feel good about your decisions, then cool! Fight to the death about them with your boss! You are well-positioned for this!

But if you feel shaky on certain things, maybe it means the work can use a rework. And that’s great. That’s the iterative nature of work.

Feedback legit yields better work. So if you want to improve your craft, accept that you need to fold it into your workflow.

I cannot even tell you how many times I mentally wrote off a person’s ability to give me useful feedback only to get slapped in the face with some real legit insight. I’m annoyingly snobbish sometimes, so there are moments when I get frustrated and I’m like, “I don’t listen to feedback on design from anyone but a designer!”

I am always wrong when I say crap like this to myself. I always eat my words. Everyone can give really useful feedback that makes your work better — because anyone can have an experience with your work. For instance, non-designers or non-writers often show me where I need more clarity because they misunderstand my intentions.

This largely depends on your attitude, too. If you are closed off and expect that feedback is always neatly packaged in a palatable way for you — you miss out on a lot of growth opportunities. I have learned that, for me, it’s often the flippant, casually rude comments that really create huge growth spurts in my work — ‘cause I go nuts and I’m like, “WHAT DID SHE MEAN BY THAT?” and then obsess for hours and rework for hours.

The result is always something a million times better.

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