Articles - 17th March 2020

Getting better at taking (and giving) criticism

Words by Tom May
Illustration by Avalon Nuovo

When you’re a hormone-filled teenager, a bad day can feel like the end of the world. Once you’re an adult, things calm down and your life feels more under control. Well, most of the time anyway.

Recently a bad day at work reminded me that, despite reaching the grand old age of 49, relatively minor events can still flood my mind and body with powerful and wounding emotions that bring me to the brink of paralysis.

To be clear, no one died, or got hurt. I didn’t lose my home, possessions or money. But a magazine article I’d written had been criticised by the commissioning editor. This was work I’d poured my heart and soul into, not to mention an inordinate number of hours… and it stung. More than I feel proud to admit.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. One minute you’re merrily bouncing along, buoyed by a smug sense of self-belief, the next you’re metaphorically on your back, bubble emphatically burst. And what hurts the most – what really, really hurts – is when you know the criticism is actually quite accurate.

So why do we react so dramatically? Blame evolution. The ape parts of our brains interpret any criticism by others as a step towards social exclusion. And those neural pathways were forged at a time when social exclusion likely meant getting eaten by a sabre-tooth tiger, so an urgent response was called for.

Unfortunately, in the modern world, this often propels us towards inappropriate behaviour. At the first sign of criticism, we go into defensive mode, prompting us to stand our ground and snap back angrily. Of course, when you’re a freelancer, this is just about the most foolhardy thing you can do. Good luck getting more commissions from that client in future.

But the defensive instinct is strong, and so even if we manage to grit our teeth, our brains frantically search for something to deflect the criticism. “The client didn’t give a clear enough brief!”. “The deadline was unrealistic!”. “With the little they’re paying, what did they expect?”. And so on.

To my mind, there’s nothing wrong with allowing yourself five minutes to vent in this way. It’s human nature, and as long as these wild thoughts stay safely in your head: no harm, no foul. Experience however tells us that, eventually, you’re going to have to deal.

But here’s the good news. If you deal with criticism in the right way, then it will actually boost your career. Why? Because from a client’s point of view, the fact your work isn’t perfect first-time isn’t actually the important thing. What’s important to them is how you deal with it. If you show you can react with good grace, listen to what they say, and make the appropriate changes quickly and efficiently, then you set yourself apart from the vast majority of freelancers, and they’re almost certain to hire you again.

So what’s the secret to getting it right? To me, it’s largely about making that psychological step from anger and denial into acceptance and a constructive reply. For instance, with that magazine article I mentioned, one of the issues was that the design case studies I’d included were too “samey”. My (eventual) response to that was: “Good point. Let me do a bit more research and find a wider range of projects to talk about, and hopefully that will improve the article.”

Crucially, I can spend a LOT of time composing these email responses; sometimes up to an hour. That might sound over-the-top, but if it makes the difference between establishing my reputation as a problem solver rather than a problem maker, I consider it time well spent.

During this time, I’ll draw on all my powers of empathy, and consider what words will make the client feel like they’ve been listened to, and that their problem has been solved. For example, I always set out a timeframe in which I promise to deliver a revised version, rather than making them wearily ask for one later.

Most importantly, I keep my responses brief and to the point. The fact I haven’t delivered what my client wanted is already eating into their valuable time: I don’t want to burden them further with waffle. For example, if I feel the need to apologise, I’ll keep it short: “Sorry this wasn’t what you were looking for”. The temptation, of course, is to unleash pages of long-winded, apologetic explanation, but in all honesty, that’s more likely to irritate than ameliorate.

When I follow these guidelines, I find that I’m soon chatting away happily to the client again, and any sense of my feeling under “personal attack” vanishes as quickly as it arrived. And that’s key, really. Because although we may hide behind fancy job titles, both clients and freelancers are just people, trying to get through the day. As long as you keep that in mind, you can’t go far wrong.

The same principle applies, of course, when you need to give out criticism rather than receive it. It’s all about empathising with the person whose work you’re criticising, and thinking carefully about where the solution lies.

That means, for example, focusing your criticism on the work itself rather than the person creating it. This might sound like splitting hairs, but when it comes to emotion, the difference between saying “I was looking for an illustration with a little more detail” and “I don’t like the way you draw, it’s too simplistic” is profound. A sense of empathy will also help you avoid giving subjective opinions (“I don’t like it”) and focusing on objective ones (“The colour palette doesn’t conform to the brand guidelines”).

You’ll also find that focusing on possible solutions – rather than just ranting that the work is “not good enough” – will speed your path to a quick and stress-free resolution. For example, if a photographer has supplied an image for your design project that doesn’t quite fit the brief, consider whether they need to reshoot, or if they might be able to fix the issue in Photoshop. (The latter might ultimately be impractical, but they’ll at least be glad you gave them the option.)

It’s also important to be specific. Broad or vague criticism is not just personally infuriating, it makes it more difficult to find a way forward. So for example, don’t just say “The app interface you’ve designed isn’t user-friendly enough”, but list examples of tasks that users might wish to perform, and outline why they might find it difficult to do so.

No-one would pretend that any of this is easy; in fact both giving and receiving criticism is one of the biggest challenges we face in our working lives. But if we can draw on our experience of being on both sides of the fence, it can help us empathise and become better at both. Above all, remember that the collaborator or team member whose work you criticise may one day become one of your own clients. So do as you would be done by, and you won’t go far wrong.


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