Advice on taking feedback from a writer with feedback phobia
By Chris Gillespie, founder of Find A Way Media
Wounded by words
I am sometimes lousy at taking feedback. I know intellectually that it's good for me – it’s the only way I’ll grow as a writer. Yet sometimes, when I’m feeling low, a client’s words will wound me in the heart.
I’ll stagger back, incensed. I’ll try to count off all the times they’ve been mistaken. I’m the writer, I say. They don’t know what they’re talking about.
But then the feedback festers. I’ll pace about. I’ll fantasize about firing the client and muse over what I’d say and how I’d do it. I’ll open my finances and try to imagine all the other, better clients that must be out there.
If my fiancée is around, I’ll plead for consolation. But if she replies, as she often does, “You’re not going to like my answer …” I’ll storm outside.
I'll bathe myself in the muddy snow and blaring horns of downtown Brooklyn and, kicking myself, wonder why I’m not better at what I do. After some distance from it all, the cold will defeat me. I’ll slink home, cheeks ruddy red, prepared to thaw.
I’ll remind myself of the Jim Rohn quote after which my company is named:
Finally, I’ll admit that I’m neck-deep in a pool of self-pity. I’ll breathe deeply. I'll relax. And I'll decide not to fire the client. I could, I reassure myself. I just don't want to.
Pain probably means you’re on the right track
There are many theories on how we learn and integrate information. The simplest and most applicable one I’ve ever come across comes from The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. He calls it the build-measure-learn loop.
In this model, we try, we measure our results, we adjust, and we rebuild. That measurement phase sounds innocent, but it rarely involves a ruler. Often, it’s a frustrated client with their hand up saying, “No.” No, they didn’t like the headline. No, the article missed its mark. No, they don’t want to work with you again.
As Helpful.com Co-Founder David Pardy put it, “No hurts.” And nobody ever really teaches us how to deal with it. Yet you must if you want to grow. Every time you raise your guard and fight the feedback you’re only blocking out the lessons.
Plus, the psychological pain isn't a sorry accident. It serves a vital purpose, for if learning hard lessons didn't hurt, would you remember them?
Painful feedback, I have to constantly remind myself, is part of growing. When my work hurts, it means I'm on the right track, and accepting it is the only way I’ll ever build better articles.
But, that doesn’t mean I have to take it sitting down. I have a few tricks for making it easier.
Here are a few tactics that help me take feedback:
Shouting, “Thanks for the feedback!”
I try to respond to digital feedback by holding my arms up in the air like a self-affirmation guru and shouting, “Thank you for the feedback!” Does this work? I think so. It certainly saves me from taking myself seriously. It’s become much less awkward since I moved into my own office.
Keeping a feedback scorecard
On my computer desktop, I keep a virtual sticky note where I record every time I get feedback on my writing. I keep my standards high – a simple grammar check doesn’t count. I reserve it for structural, ‘What were you thinking?’ elbows to the gut.
Every 30 feedback points, I buy myself a predetermined prize. Right now I’m working on a new coffee grinder. Next are some long overdue new shoes. I feel mixed emotions about feeling excited about getting hurt, but that's precisely the point -- it lessens the blow.
Live to fight another day
If I’m not ready for it, I’ll save the feedback for the next morning when I’m refreshed and ready. If I read through a client’s negative comments while upset or tired, I’m far more likely to reject them and build an emotional wall that I’ll have to tear down the next day. If I tackle feedback when recharged, I’m much more magnanimous.
I always try to thank the client for their bravery and reiterate that their feedback is key to helping me deliver the quality they expect. I want to create an environment where clients feel welcome to provide feedback. I’ll also accept any blame if there’s any to be had, such as a missed deadline. Good clients appreciate when you fall on your sword. If they apologize back, you’ve got yourself a good one.
Read about Zen Buddhism and non-attachment
I try my best to separate myself from my work, and let my ego go. I’m a big fan of the loose principles of Zen Buddhism as explained by the late philosophers Jiddu Krishnamurti and Alan Watts. I adhere to the belief that ego-driven desires are the source of all self-imposed suffering which, according to these two, is most suffering. Every time I get upset about feedback, I know I’m only upset because I’ve confused my writing with my own self worth.
A rejection of my writing is not a rejection of me. So what if the client doesn’t like it? I’m glad they had the courage to tell me. If they didn’t, I’d go on making mistakes. I'd be condemned to a life of mediocrity. Perhaps, eventually, my clients would even be the ones to fantasize about firing me. If I can internalize this lesson, words cannot wound me. They can only help me grow as a writer.