Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

How to Deal with Crushing Feedback on Your Creative Work

Sarah is a web designer who’s been burning the midnight oil to create a site for a new client. It’s a high-profile job for a big brand, with the promise of more to follow, so she sees it as a fantastic opportunity.

It’s been a tough week but when she looks at the finished work she feels it has been worth it – it gives her that tingling feeling she gets when she’s done something special. She can’t wait to show it to the client.

The moment of truth arrives, when the client delivers his verdict:

“Well, I have to say I expected something better than that.”

Sarah is crushed. For a moment, she almost starts defending the work and explaining the thinking behind it. But instead, she takes a deep breath and asks a question.

“What is it you’re not happy about?”

For the next fifteen minutes she does nothing but ask and listen intently, taking detailed notes and checking that she has understood his concerns.

Eventually, she narrows it down to one specific aspect of the design. When she realizes why he’s disappointed, she breathes a sigh of relief – it’s a relatively trivial point, and easy to change without compromising her design.

“If I can fix this for you, will you be happy to sign the project off?”

“Sure, if you can change that before my presentation tomorrow afternoon.”

She almost starts defending the work and explaining the thinking behind it. But instead, she takes a deep breath and asks a question.
Chances are you’ve been in Sarah’s shoes: you produce work you’re really proud of, then someone with none of your professional skill, knowledge, or expertise judges it in an instant – often based on vague or subjective criteria. They don’t know much about art but they know what they don’t like.

And as long as they are your client (or your boss) you have to work with them, to help them articulate their response to your work, and find a way to move the project forward.

Which is easier said than done when your work is being judged or dismissed – it’s only natural for the criticism to sting. So here are some tips on dealing with this kind of crushing feedback on your work.

1. Take a deep breath – and focus on getting what you want

Sarah could have got defensive at the client’s first response, but she bit her tongue and took a different approach – because she knew from experience it was her best chance of getting a positive outcome.

Don’t react defensively – or aggressively – no matter how hurt, disappointed, or annoyed you feel. Start by taking a deep breath and reminding yourself of your goal.

2. Clarify the feedback

Before you explain, defend or offer to fix your work, it’s essential that you understand exactly what the other person doesnt like about it. This is not easy, given that they may not express their initial reaction very clearly or constructively.

Here are some of the common traits of unhelpful feedback:

  • Vague—they dismiss your work in general terms (‘awful,’ ‘terrible,’ ‘no good’, ‘disappointing’) without specifying what criteria the judgment is based on.
  • No examples—they fail to back up their judgment with specific examples.
  • Exaggerated—sweeping, black-and-white judgments, with no acknowledgment of fine grades of quality, or alternative points of view.
  • Disrespectful—they may be rude or aggressive.

Before you can have any meaningful discussion, you need to clarify what they are talking about. You can do this by asking questions:

  • “What exactly don’t you like?”
  • “Can you give me an example?”
  • “Can you point to the bit you don’t like?”
  • “Is it the font itself or the size of the text that’s the problem?”
  • “Are you saying you don’t like the story, or the way it’s being told?”

At this stage your goal is to understand (and help them to articulate) their criteria for judgment, and how exactly (in their opinion) the work fails to meet these criteria. You are not agreeing with them, just clarifying what they mean.

3. Ask solution-focused questions

The next step is to move the conversation forward to a positive conclusion: either (a) getting the work accepted in its current form or (b) agreeing on what needs changing. Solution-focused questions are powerful tools for doing this.

To ask a solution-focused question, describe a potential solution and ask whether it would be acceptable to the other person. For example, to get a piece of work accepted in its current form, you might ask:

“I know you don’t like the look of it, but if I can show you evidence that your customers prefer it this way, will you sign it off?”

Or to agree what needs changing you could ask:

“So if I change the colors and add the new headline, you’ll be happy?”

Your goal is to leave the room with a clearly agreed upon next step towards a solution. They may still be skeptical or unsure, but at least you know what you need to do to get the work accepted.

Over to You…

How do you deal with crushing feedback on your creative work?

More insights on: Clients, Meetings, Office Dynamics

Mark McGuinness

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Mark McGuinness is a coach who helps creative professionals create more, suffer less and attract more opportunities. He is the author of the popular blog Lateral Action and the book Resilience: Facing Down Rejection and Criticism on the Road to Success.
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