I don’t know about you, but I’ve received enough tough feedback in my life to hate asking for it. But it has its place in life. Feedback helps us see ourselves and our work from angles we cannot access. If we choose to embrace it, it can make us push ourselves harder and further, and in the end we come out stronger. But feedback at the wrong time, or of the wrong kind can at best be irritating, and at worst shatter our confidence and be detrimental to our creativity and growth.
Asking for feedback
Understand your goals & be specific
Asking for feedback could quickly turn into a bunch of people poking around in your project. So, it helps to set some goals beforehand. What is it you want to achieve by asking for feedback? Finding the answer to this question will help you pick your feedbacker, and set boundaries as to the type of feedback they are allowed to give. Do you want someone to pick out all your spelling errors in a blog post? Or perhaps you need a second opinion on a business idea. Sometimes all you need is a quick yes/no regarding a design, so you can move on with your process.
Being prepared with your specific feedback question also helps the feedbacker give better feedback. If all they’re getting is a “Hi, can you please give me feedback on this” attached to a 10-page PDF business proposal, you might not get the feedback you need. They are either going to miss the mark and go off on an unhelpful tangent, or they are going to be too overwhelmed and probably just say “Really cool, well done!” – also not always helpful.
Curate your feedbackers
In an ideal world you would have specific people for specific feedback. It helps to have 1) people who just love and support you no matter what, 2) people who know you and your dream, but will give you feedback to improve it, 3) people in your specific industry who can give you detailed, technical feedback, and 4) people who will see the bigger picture and can point out where you’re going wrong strategically.
An example: One day I was working on a new vocal & piano song, and was getting stuck in my head regarding the arrangement, mixing, recording quality. I needed another musical person to give me feedback, but because it was quite a personal project, I didn’t want anyone to tell me I was wasting my time or that I should start over – even if this song went nowhere, I was still enjoying the process and wanted it to be as musical as possible.
If I had taken the song to a random non-musical person, they might have said “It’s nice, but very sad”. If it had gone to a record producer, they might have said “This isn’t pop enough, I think you should start again.” So, I went to my good friend, who knows my dream, and she said “Luca, this is so beautiful, and I know exactly what vibe you’re going for. But I think to translate that properly, you need to make the piano more rhythmical, and add more reverb.” All I needed was a second pair of ears, and that’s what I got :)
Take time to reflect & process
Even after setting yourself up with goals and curating your feedbackers, receiving feedback can be tough. You might hear that you should start over, or that you completely missed the mark. You might get someone responding with a lot of new ideas, much better than your own. The feedback might be very personal from someone who knows you well.
Before reacting to the feedback (this is hard, I know), try to see it from whence it comes. Is this person telling me to start over, because one day their boss told them the same thing? Is this person being harsh because they’re overworked? Oftentimes people also bring their own agenda into feedback, which is not ideal – but you need to be on the lookout for it. Maybe they see something of themselves in your idea, and instead of providing useful feedback, they live through your idea and completely bulldoze over your process.
After receiving feedback, but before making any changes, take time to process what you’ve heard. Preferably sleep on it. Receiving feedback will almost always exert some sudden change in your mood (uplifting or ruminating), and ideally you want to make decisions when you’re calm and collected. This will also allow you the time to check in with yourself emotionally and accept and work through any triggers that have gone off.
Understand the person’s goals before you give feedback
It’s OK to ask questions before you give feedback. Sometimes the receiving person hasn’t been specific about what they want feedback on, and instead of offering them the whole kitchen sink, it might be worth both your whiles to figure out what they need precisely. This also helps you to focus your critical thinking, cut out distractions, and ultimately provide more useful observations.
Similarly, you need to understand their overarching project goals. They might simply be asking you for copywriting feedback on a social media post, but your response will be different whether they are doing a standalone post, versus a series of 10 posts with a specific call to action and long-term goal.
Some people just instinctively know how to make others feel comfortable. This is a skill, and can be developed with practice. When you are about to offer your feedback, remember that the person asking is probably in a very vulnerable position. They’ve gotten to a point where they need some kind of help or opinion, and that opens them up to possible rejection. Showing that you can be trusted, and that their vulnerabilities are safe with you, is integral to a healthy feedback process.
So how do you provide the safe environment they need without compromising on your feedback? You start with a positive. Usually there will be many to choose from: their effort, their cool idea, their creativity, their efficiency, their enthusiasm, or just the fact that they’re doing this thing! (“What you’re doing is so cool!”). This sets the tone of respect and admiration, which results in them being much more open to your ideas for improvement.
After that it should be easier to bring up any comments or views you have on the project. When they have understood that you’re “on their side”, they will see you as a mentor instead of someone that’s just trying to pull their idea apart.
It’s not about you
This is also a valuable life skill, and comes down to empathy. If you are able to understand someone else’s feelings and where they’re coming from, you won’t often take things personally. With regards to feedback, it means you will be able to see the person asking for feedback as a unique individual with unique needs and dreams. Their goals won’t necessarily be your goals, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help them to reach them.
One of the most unhelpful things you can do when giving feedback, is jumping on the person’s idea as if it were your own. Unless that person asks you to brainstorm with you, they don’t want you to hijack their project and tell them all the things they should be doing. If they’ve prepared their question(s) well, you should be giving them feedback that they need. And if they haven’t, it’s your responsibility to stay objective and focus on them, not you.
A last thought
Feedback has its place, even though it’s often a bitter pill to swallow. However, by setting goals and boundaries you can curate the process so that you receive the feedback that will make you better and stronger. Similarly, when you’re giving the feedback, tapping into empathy and self-awareness can elevate your responses and make you super useful.
Feedback isn’t all that different from day-to-day communication. Sometimes there are misunderstandings, and oftentimes things get taken personally. And as with daily life, taking some time to reflect and process always helps to let go of ego, and to reassess what is important. Within safe emotional environments, there is always space for growth.