How to Deal with Confrontational Feedback
Sadly, some clients can be just as sensitive, and triggered as online trolls; You recommend an update to a logo they designed themselves (even though you didn’t know that at the time); You disagree with their suggestion that paying for backlinks is a legit marketing strategy; You ask them to clarify what “I don’t like it” means in response to the mockups you delivered. Before you know it, they’re providing irrelevant feedback, slinging insults at you, or poo-pooing every action you take. It’s not really professional or fair, but it is what it is, and now you’re left having to deal with it. I recently had someone respond to an article I wrote, calling the design concept I was proposing “evil” and “s***”. It’s not like that hasn’t happened before. I’ve had my content written off as “stupid”, “pointless”, and once had someone feel the need to tell me they wouldn’t read an article I wrote because dating apps (the subject of the piece) only cater to “the attractive 1% of the population”. It’s not just trolls that will direct illogical and unfair criticisms at creatives either. I managed web design and marketing projects for years, and encountered a number of clients who were more than happy to personally attack our team, or voice unhelpful feedback when they weren’t satisfied. So, today, I want to look at how web designers, and creatives in general, can more effectively handle unfair or unhelpful criticism of their work. Wherever your unfair or negative criticisms come from, keep the following in mind before you respond to any of them:
1. Understand Where the Negativity Comes From
Let’s be honest: People are super sensitive these days and it’s very easy to “trigger” highly emotional and volatile responses. Social media is partially to blame for this as it makes it easy for people to hide behind their screens and avatars as they spew hate speech, abusive comments, and generally try to stir up trouble. You also have to consider the state of the world — on a global scale as well as the personal worlds we build for ourselves. I think it’s a lot easier for some people to nitpick about something trite or something that goes against their personal beliefs than it is to deal with real problems in the world. This doesn’t justify or excuse any unfair comments made of your work. But it helps to understand where the underlying anger, jealousy, or nastiness is coming from.
2. Remove Yourself from the Criticism
When people make comments about you or your work that’s irrelevant, illogical, or mean-spirited, it’s a tricky situation to be in. The same thing goes for clients who give vague, unhelpful, or hurtful feedback like “I could’ve done that myself” or “You don’t get it”. Unfortunately, the response you have to these kinds of unfair criticisms could end up hurting you in the long run if you:
- Get defensive and fight back, potentially compromising positive relationships you worked hard to build;
- Take it personally and let it feed into insecurities you’ve tried to tuck away “Why should anyone pay me to build their website?”;
- Become fearful of taking risks and pushing boundaries and, thus, become stifled creatively.
Instead of letting your emotions run amok, you need to remove the “you” from the criticism. This goes for any kind of feedback you receive. You are not the one under the microscope here; it’s your work that’s under scrutiny. If you can take yourself out of the equation, then the response you give becomes less about defending your personal integrity, skills, etc., which makes you more likely to respond calmly and professionally.
3. Choose the Best Response for the Situation
Whether a comment has come from a troll or a bad client, you need to quickly work through your options. Here’s what you can do to determine the best response:
Is the Argument Clear?
For now, don’t focus on the validity of the argument. You just need to establish if the commenter is thinking clearly or being driven solely by raw emotion. If the argument is something like “This is stupid” or “This isn’t good”, you know it’s going to be like pulling teeth to get a clear explanation of the grievance. The comment is vague and hurtful for a reason. If it comes from a troll, it’s probably not worth responding to. They’re just looking for a fight. If it comes from a client, you will need to respond. The best thing to do is to ask, “Why?” Again, you don’t want to get personal. Just focus on getting them to give you specific details or examples of what isn’t good and what they actually want.
Is the Feedback Relevant?
Nothing is more frustrating than putting something out there, only to receive feedback on something else entirely… or something that doesn’t matter. I recently wrote an article on a controversial subject, so I expected a lot of heated debate around it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. What I hadn’t expected, though, was that someone would try to reduce everything I’d written to a spelling error in the piece. Now, spelling and grammatical errors happen. When someone is nice enough to call them to my attention, I make sure they’re fixed right away. However, this person wasn’t looking for that. The comment was phrased so as to make my argument seem invalid because of one typo. This is the kind of commenter that doesn’t want you to say, “Hey, thanks for pointing that out! We fixed the error.” They want you to open up the conversation and give them the floor to point out more issues with what you’ve done. When you receive this kind of feedback or comment — one made for the sake of meanness or to demonstrate dominance over you — it’s probably best to leave it be. They just want to nitpick for nitpicking’s sake.
Is it Worth Debating?
Let’s say that you’ve received a comment that you don’t agree with, but is valid enough in its own right. Is it worth responding to? If it sounds as though they genuinely want to have a conversation or healthy debate, then yes, it’s worth responding. That’s part of the reason why art is created: to get people thinking and talking. Just remember to check yourself before you respond. This isn’t about you. You can certainly disagree with what they have to say and you can bring data to back up your argument, but you don’t need to be defensive. Here’s what I always remind myself before I engage with someone who has a counter-argument for something I created: There’s a lot to learn when you step outside the bubble of your work and look at it from someone else’s perspective. I actually find that responding to feedback and comments makes me better at my job and I think this is something that would be especially helpful for web designers. Why? For starters, it helps me figure out what people like and dislike (especially as the market changes). I also enjoy getting to learn more about other people’s perspectives as it almost always inspires future work of mine.
Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and to take risks in your work. I know it’s hard when one voice comes through so clearly, casting doubt on your body of work or your talent overall. But that’s just one person who’s made up their mind to be mean-spirited or unfair. If you’re ever feeling down about something someone said and you can’t shake the comment, take a step back and look over the good feedback you’ve received. These are the people who appreciate what you do. And even when the feedback isn’t always positive, they’re the ones who’ve chosen to share feedback that’s productive because they want to help you become better at your job. These are the people worth listening and responding to. Featured image via Unsplash.