This article was originally published by Amar Singh on Medium. Singh is also the author of "Why Open-Plan Offices Don't Work (And Some Alternatives That Do)."
The first few times I received negative feedback I was surprised about how I felt. I could feel my body getting tight, my temperature rising and a feeling of tension. For a brief moment, I felt as if the air had left my body and could feel myself getting defensive.
It is quite easy to get approval if we ask enough people, or if we ask those who tell us what we want to hear…If you have produced a pleasantly acceptable piece of work, you will have proved to yourself that it is good simply because others have said so. It’s probably OK. But then it’s probably not great either.
Meaningful creative work requires feedback
Just as champion athletes have a roster of coaches intent on optimizing performance, feedback allows you to improve your weak points and accentuate your strengths. Valuable feedback is usually negative. This is natural because you are trying to improve your weaknesses, rather than feel good about yourself. Paul Arden explains in his book, It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Good You Want to Be:
If, instead of seeking approval, you ask, ‘What’s wrong with it? How can I make it better?’, you are more likely to get a truthful, critical answer. You may even get an improvement on your idea.
Negative feedback is hard to take. If you’re making something, you invariably feel part of yourself in the thing that you made. It’s hard to decouple yourself and what you produced. You’re emotionally invested.
When someone criticizes something you made, it feels as if they are criticizing you. It feels like a punch in the gut.
The ‘Gut Punch’
When you get the wind knocked out of you, you recoil and reel. You keel over in a defensive position and the natural instinct is to run away from what caused you pain or to fight it. You wheeze and you have to decide what your next move is very quickly.
When we get negative feedback on our creative output, we often react the same way. We get tense (especially if we find feedback lazy or mean) while we think of what to do next. The creative often enters into a Fight or Flight reaction:
- Aggressively disagreeing with the feedback instead of taking into consideration
- Ad hominem attacks (i.e. questioning the credentials of the feedback-giver)
- Ignoring or dismissing the feedback
- Entering a negative mindset where you believe you aren’t good or capable enough
- Avoiding seeking out feedback in the future
The optimal solution is to ignore the initial fight or flight reactions and take a moment to evaluate the feedback. Consider the feedback thoughtfully. Search past your initial reaction to find value in the feedback.
Gathering your breath
Getting negative feedback can be hard, but if you have the right mindset, you can mitigate the negative emotions associated with it.
Often we are reluctant to share early concepts or iterations because we’re not proud of the work yet. However, if we work too long on something without feedback we often get emotionally invested or develop tunnel vision. We’re reluctant to give up on something we’ve invested so much time in.
Share early and share often, even if your work isn’t ‘ready’ yet. Each time you share is a chance is an opportunity to get inspired, find weak spots and ensure you’re not heading down an untenable path.
Re-frame the situation
Getting thoughtful, constructive feedback is a gift. It’s much more difficult task than simply praising or encouraging the feedback seeker. The feedback giver has to be thoughtful and kind. This takes much more effort.
People who give you honest, kind feedback (especially if it’s critical) are invaluable. Find and cherish these people.
Mind ‘The Gap’
Ira Glass of NPR has an incredible 2-minute riff on the creative process that is a must watch for anyone who makes things.
When we start out, we want our creation to match our tastes. People often get discouraged because their initial output is…bad. They assume a fixed mindset and don’t push through the gap. Behind great creative work, there are countless hours of toiling, false-starts and absolute horseshit. The only way forward is to keep making.
It is almost inevitable that you will receive feedback that you find unkind or lazy. After all, clumsy feedback is a poorly wrapped gift. Instead of shutting down or dismissing the feedback, take a moment and ask yourself if there’s any merit to the commentary. You might be too sensitive or too protective to see the value.
Even if the feedback is objectively bad, practice empathy. Giving good feedback is a skill that requires context, practice and taste. If the person is trying to be helpful, be grateful even if the feedback isn’t valuable. It’s natural to recoil or get defensive, but keep the legendary words of Viktor Frankl in mind:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
Find your space (take a deep breath or count to five), and choose to respond by looking for value, asking clarifying questions and practicing empathy for the feedback giver.
Initially, it’s difficult for anyone to process negative feedback, but it’s essential for improving your work.
The best creatives are able to process, and work through any negative, unproductive emotions quickly and get the value out of constructive feedback. They realize that the feedback is a gift, as it allows them to get the best solution more quickly.
Every negative piece of feedback is an opportunity to get better. Remember Arden’s motto: