“Aaaannnddd it’s done!”
Finally, this article I’ve been pouring my heart and soul into is done: my very first for WP Curve, a startup I just started working for. I feel proud because I really stretched myself to make it great. It hasn’t been easy. I’m learning remote work skills, a new company culture and how to create content that business owners and startup founders will enjoy. I want to make a great first impression during these first few weeks.
I send it to my boss for a review. After a few moments I start hearing the “click-click” noise of Slack notifications. He’s poking holes in it like Swiss cheese, and the “click-clicks” keep coming.
Ahh, that moment of getting critical feedback. It can feel like a punch in a stomach, especially when it’s tied to the work we do and what we create. It’s an integral part of the journey of becoming a successful entrepreneur, thought leader or creator.
This feedback will come from coaches, mentors, colleagues, team members, clients and totally random people. But there are gems to be found in critical feedback in certain situations, and as entrepreneurs we need to learn how to sift through that feedback to find those gems.
It’s hard to find good critical feedback these days. It’s much more common to come across praise and cheerleading in this world, or equally shallow insults and criticism. To successfully find those gems of feedback requires a deep understanding of yourself, and of those around you.
In this article I’m going to share a few simple steps you can take to grow from critical feedback.
1 – Listen to yourself
A common approach or reaction is to shut out the feedback and double down on what you’re already doing. Every creator needs to do this to some degree –that’s how new things are created. That hope in yourself and the tenacity to stick with it is essential for growth.
However, there’s a balance to be kept here, because if you just write off all critical feedback as “haters gonna hate,” then you’re little better than the protagonist of the popular children’s book, The Emperor’s New Clothes. The emperor hires a slick tailor who offers him magic clothing that he claims the emperor cannot see, but that everyone else can. A few people try and warn the emperor that he’s actually naked, but he won’t hear it, and instead decides to have a parade to show off his new attire.
This clothing style is only acceptable at Burning Man.
So, listening is important, but before we start to listen to the contents of the feedback, we need to listen to how we react and respond to the feedback.
As we receive critical feedback, one of the first things that’s going to happen is our brain is going to measure it up against the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Your brain is always looking for evidence to prove what it is thinking is right. If you’re curious and attentive, you can gain as much from observing how you react to critical feedback as you can from the feedback itself. If you’re struggling with a sense of impostor syndrome at the moment, it will turn up the volume on anything in the feedback that seems to confirm your fears are correct.
I recommend that your first step be just to get curious. There’s treasure in observing how you respond to critical feedback and what emotions come up for you when you experience it. Becoming aware of your stories can help reveal paths for you to grow and improve yourself. It may help you improve in areas far beyond the feedback you’re getting.
2 – Know what good feedback looks like
Not all feedback is equal in value, and some people seek feedback when they’re really looking for validation. I’ve had a few clients in the past that invest a lot for me and my team to create strategy, copy and design for them. We’ll work hard to research and refine what we want to do.
There’s been many times when we create a strategy and start implementing, and the client starts sharing it with their colleagues, friends, partners and pets and collecting feedback. The client ends up getting confused and stressed trying to reconcile all these ideas. This can hamper or totally derail a project.
While it’s okay to seek feedback, you can’t treat it all equally and expect a good result. Get curious and inquisitive instead; look at the quality of the feedback for what it is, and determine if it’s worth listening to. High-quality feedback leaves some clues:
- It’s specific – Listen for the detailed ideas that are focused on a particular facet of what you are working on. It’s not attempting to target you as a person or your business with broad or vague suggestions. Here’s a negative example of specific feedback that anyone who has done web design will appreciate from The Oatmeal – When Web Design Goes Straight To Hell.
- It’s goal-oriented – Is this feedback that’s related to your big goals? To a degree, it’s your responsibility (especially when asking for feedback) to be clear on your goals for what you’re working on.
- It’s actionable – Good feedback is focused on what the recipient will be able to do with the information.
3 – Consider who the feedback is coming from
One of the most popular booths at the farmer’s market in my hometown is “Old Coots Giving Advice.” I imagine, for the old coots, it’s a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon, connecting with the community and pontificating. Just like these old coots, most of us like to give advice as well. It makes us feel good, and often the advice we give is more of a message to ourselves in the past than it is for whoever may be listening.
So, with everyone offering their “two cents,” you need to pick and choose who you listen to and when you listen to them. Here are some questions to help you filter:
How well do they know me? – Is this coming from someone who knows and understands your goals, strengths, weaknesses and perspective? Is there a degree of trust between you? It takes trust for someone to share true constructive or critical feedback, rather than just cheerlead and avoid it altogether.
How well do they know the subject they’re giving me feedback on? – One of our many magnificent flaws as humans is that sometimes, the less we know about something, the more competent we think we are in that area. This is so common that it has a name: The Dunning Kruger Effect
This means it’s possible that some of the strongest opinions you get may actually come from people who don’t know the intricacies of what you do.
What do they know that I don’t know? – On the flip side, you don’t want the Dunning Kruger Effect to get the best of you either. Consider if they have experience or knowledge in a relevant area you may be weak in. They may be giving you very good feedback if they’re seeing it from a different perspective. I prefer to seek out people who are farther along in the journey than I am.
What’s going on in their world right now? – Even the most rational people are subtly yet strongly influenced by their emotions and what’s happening in their lives. The feedback someone would share with you on a day when they just won the lottery would be very different from the feedback they would give you on the day their favorite pet passes away. You may not know every detail of what’s happening in their life, but even asking yourself this question can help you look at their feedback from a new perspective.
4 – Consider how their experience influences their feedback
Imagine your dreams have come true and you’ve finally been invited to be a judge on your favorite reality TV cooking show. Well done! (Pun intended).
There’s a showdown between two chefs. They get the same ingredients and are preparing the same meal for you.
The first gives you the dish, presented on a beautifully colored platter. Little herbs and tasty sauces are symmetrically placed across the meal, and colorful vegetables are arranged in a way that makes you reach for your phone to snap a picture for Instagram before you take your first bite.
The second looks like they dumped the skillet out onto the plate without any thought at all. They forgot to bring you a fork, so with mild disappointment, you take the used one from the first dish. How did this chef even make it onto this show? Where is that mean celebrity chef to berate them for their presentation when you need them?
You choose the first chef as the winner by a landslide.
If you closed your eyes and received a few bites from each meal, you would get the same taste and smell, the same feeling of satisfaction after eating, and the same nutrition.
Nevertheless, one meal outshined the other.
What does this have to do with getting critical feedback?
Just like how the presentation and the experience of a meal can impact how we feel about it, the presentation and experience of what we offer can influence how people respond to it.
There was a time recently when I was chef #2. I had something amazing to offer, and I was reaching out to colleagues and friends to share it. I have been reviewing and coaching on how people can improve their presentations and webinars.
I reached out to a colleague to offer this to them, very excited, perhaps feeling a bit of hubris, and ready to make an impact. I got started reviewing this presentation. I found a few great opportunities for improvement in the talk and started remarking on how I would change it. I honestly wasn’t at my best — it was near the end of a challenging day –but I wanted to push forward and get this last bit of work done.
They reached out and said they didn’t need this help and that it wasn’t for them. I asked them why, and I was fortunate enough to get some very frank and specific feedback. One of the first things they said was that they felt like my commentary was condescending and the presentation of my ideas was very much in the chef #2 style.
Are they going to be open to implementing and benefiting from my ideas having had this experience? Probably not.
There’s all kinds of conclusions I could draw from this. Knowing what we now know and considering the example of reality TV shows and chefs, we can recognize how the experience has colored the value they see in what I have to offer.
I took the time to carefully consider and reflect on this feedback. I listened carefully to how they described what they experienced, and thought of how I could better present what I was offering in the future. I didn’t need to throw the whole product out the window — I just needed to consider how to improve the way I presented the product.
Without careful consideration of feedback, I may have misinterpreted what they were sharing and taken it personally, concluding that I’m not a very good chef. Or, I could have written it off as “haters gonna hate,” emperor-with-no-clothes style, and missed out on a rare and valuable opportunity to grow.
Your best tool in the face of critical feedback is curiosity. It’s hard to be curious and angry (or sad, or frustrated or any other negative emotion) at the same time. If you can manage to get yourself into a curious mindset and start asking questions, you can home in on the gems.
Seek out quality critical feedback, and do it in an intentional and thoughtful way. Find coaches and mastermind groups and a community full of people who have achieved what you want to achieve, who you respect, who know you and have a relationship with you. May you find your own treasures in critical feedback.