I have harbored a lifelong dislike of feedback. I didn’t like it in sixth grade when a kid on the bus told me my brand new sneakers were “too bright.” And I didn’t like it when a senior executive heard my pitch for a digital project and said, “I hate this idea.” Turns out my sneakers were pretty bright, and my pitch wasn’t the best idea. Still, those experiences and many others like them didn’t help me learn to stop worrying and love the feedback process.
We can’t avoid feedback. Processing ideas and synthesizing feedback is a big part of what we do for a living. I have had plenty of opportunities to consider why both giving and receiving feedback is often so emotionally charged, so challenging to get right.
And here’s what I’ve found to be true.
When a project is preoccupying us at work, we often don’t think about it as something external and abstract. We think about it more like a story, with ourselves in the middle as the protagonist—the hero. That might seem melodramatic, especially if your work isn’t the kind of thing they’d make an inspirational movie about. But there’s research to back this up: humans use stories to make sense of the world and our place within it.
Our work is no different. We create a story in our heads about how far we’ve come on a project and about where we’re going. This makes discussing feedback dangerous. It’s the place where someone else swoops in and hijacks your story.
Speaking personally, I notice that when I’m giving feedback (and feeling frustrated), the story in my head goes like this: These people don’t get it. How can I force them into thinking the same way I do so that we can fix everything that’s wrong with this project, and in the end, I don’t feel like a failure?
Likewise, when I’m receiving feedback (and feeling defensive), the story goes like this: These people don’t get it. How can I defend our work so that we keep everything that I like about this project, and in the end, I don’t feel like a failure?
Both of these postures are ultimately counterproductive because they are focused inward. They’re really about avoiding shame. Both the person giving and receiving feedback are on opposing sides of the equation, protecting their turf.
But like a good story, good feedback can take us out of ourselves, allowing us to see the work more clearly. It can remove the artificial barrier between feedback giver and receiver, refocusing both on shared goals.
Change your habits around feedback, and you can change the story of your project.
Here are three ways to think about feedback that might help you do just that.
Good feedback helps us understand how we got here
Here’s a story for you. I was presenting some new wireframes for an app to the creative leads on the project. There were a number of stakeholders and advisors on the project, and I had integrated several rounds of their feedback into the harmonious and brilliant vision that I was presenting in this meeting. That’s the way I hoped the story would go, anyway.
But at the end of the meeting, I got some of the best, worst feedback I have ever received: “We’ve gotten into our heads a little bit with this concept. Maybe it should be simpler. Maybe something more like this …” And they handed me a loose sketch on paper to illustrate a new, simpler approach. I had come for sign-off but left with a do-over.
I felt ashamed. How could I have missed that? Even though that feedback was hard to hear, I walked away able to make important changes, which led to a better outcome in the end. Here are the reasons why:
First, the feedback started as a conversation. Conversations (rather than written notes) make it easier to verify assumptions. When you talk face-to-face you can ask open-ended questions and clarify intent, so you don’t jump to conclusions. Talking helps you find where the trouble is much faster.
The feedback connected the dots between problems in our process so far (trying to reconcile too many competing ideas) and how it led to the current result (an overly complicated product). The person who gave the feedback helped me see how we got to where we were, without assigning blame or shaming me in the process.
The feedback was direct. They didn’t try to mask the fact that the concept wasn’t working. Veiled or vague criticism does more harm than good; the same negativity comes through but without a clear sense of what to do next.
Good feedback invites each person to contribute their best work