6 Tips for Giving and Receiving Criticism - Fifth Letter
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Criticism

6 Tips for Giving and Receiving Criticism

Since the dawn of time mankind has had an opinion, good, bad or ugly. Historically, one needed credentials for their opinion to carry any weight. Before the internet only the authoritative (or very brave) would publicly criticize but today, everyone has a platform to openly critique someone else’s work or behavior on a global scale without any formal training in how to provide useful or actionable criticism.

 

My daughter, who is ten, has been after me for some time to allow her to set up her own YouTube account. She aspires to be an animator and wants to have a platform to showcase her work. So far I have held firm that she is too young to be posting her work (or herself) in a public forum, much to her chagrin. More than the personal safety issues, I am concerned that any criticism she may receive for her animations may discourage her from pursuing her passion. Don’t get me wrong, as a design professional I know the value of criticism. But I also know how rare it is to receive truly effective criticism, especially from anonymous trolls who don’t know or don’t care that what they’re viewing is the handiwork of a child. I’ve also earned rather thick skin over my 20-plus years in the design field—something that my precious progeny has not yet developed.

 

I am well aware that design is not the only profession that is subject to critique. From architects and food service to nonprofits and researchers, we all must learn to give and receive professional assessment. Luckily for creative professionals the art of critique is part of our education. Wouldn’t it be great if that were the case for every profession? Since it is not, I have prepared some tips on how to be great at giving helpful feedback and pointers on how to take not-so-constructive, but inevitable, slams.

 

Before I do that I will point out that the best way to improve yourself professionally is to seek out constructive criticism. Years ago I had a client take a logo design I created for him to his friendly neighborhood bartender for his input. Being human, the bartender was happy to give his opinion, however, he wasn’t really qualified and, needless to say, that project didn’t go well. So, consider this a bonus tip: Seek analysis from qualified people. (For example, those with more experience in your field, experts in the subject matter or problem, or people who might be the end user of a product you’re developing.)

 

3 Tips for Being Great at Criticism:

 

    1. Know your limits. While it’s certainly a boost to your ego when someone who respects you asks for your opinion, if you’re not truly an expert at whatever you’re being asked to critique you’re really only providing your best guess. Is that what you want to give to someone who thinks highly of you? There is nothing wrong with referring your friend to one of your connections who can be more helpful. For example, if you’re a bartender being asked to critique a logo you could say, “I know I am a master at mixing the perfect mojito but I don’t know anything about the psychology of color choices. I do know a great creative director who could give you some insight.”
    2. Before you give feedback, ask the right questions. Truly understanding the problem that needs to be solved will help you give solutions instead of opinions. Sometimes, when asking the right questions, you may discover that the person who has asked for your critique doesn’t really understand the problem, which may be why they’re unsure of their solution in the first place. “How did you arrive at this result? What are the limitations of this project? What are the goals and how will you measure success?” are just a few examples of how you can steer the conversation toward the correct conclusion. Asking insightful questions can lead to the right direction without you ever having to be critical at all.
    3. Don’t give feedback based on personal preference. If you’re truly an expert at the task at hand, you should be able to provide sound reasons for any changes you suggest. “I don’t like this” should never be uttered if you’re basing your judgement on principles of your field rather than your own subjective feelings. If a colleague asks for your thoughts on what appears to be a half-baked idea, instead of shooting down the idea, suggest they do more research about X or point out the risks that could derail their plan so they can be prepared with a plan B. Whatever the idea or product being analyzed, if the best you can say is “that won’t work” or “I don’t like this” or “this isn’t the solution” without any principles, data or facts to back up your instinct, see tip #1 above.

 

3 Tips for Receiving Poor Criticism:

 

The number one thing to consider when you receive some not-so-nice or not very helpful criticism is the source. The second thing to consider is intent—whether this person is honestly trying to help you improve or is simply inflicting you with projected criticism. Once you determine those two things, how you should deal is much clearer.

 

    1. Walk away. Just as you should recuse yourself from administering advice that you aren’t qualified to give, recognize when someone who isn’t important to you is simply being mean for their own sadistic entertainment. You are so much better than that drama. Don’t give them the satisfaction of acknowledging anything they have to say.
    2. Ask questions. On occasion someone who is important to you might stoop to the level of put-downs or disparaging comments. This could be an angry co-worker or a dissatisfied customer or your mother. (She only wants what’s best for you.) You can’t simply walk away from these people. Sometimes the best way to diffuse this situation is to ask questions that show you really do care about what they think, even if you don’t agree with their assessment or delivery. “How can I do a better job with this moving forward?” “How would you handle this?” or (if you’re actually in the wrong) “What can I do to make this right?” You’ll be surprised how quickly someone will soften their tone when you respond in a way that takes the high road.
    3. Smile and nod. Then there is that outlier situation when a total stranger, well-meaning but a bit naive, offers you some really bad advice. Your instinct might be to roll your eyes (that’s my go-to annoyed facial expression). Resist this instinct. Smile, say thank you and roll on. There is no reason to waste one second of your lifetime dwelling on this. Save your energy for the task at hand.

 

So, will I ever let my daughter open a YouTube account and post her precious work? Sure. But first, I’ll help her seek out truly constructive criticism from sources she respects and teach her how to ignore the trolls.
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Jan Badger, Shape Shifter at Fifth Letter, is handy when you want to start a fire and fills many roles including making sure projects deliver on time and on budget. She is willing to share her opinion on just about anything just about any time. Contact Jan at jan@fifth-letter.com.