Constructive Criticism Pt. I: Growing From Client Feedback

Written by Elizabeth Wellington on October 5, 2017

Constructive criticism can be tough to swallow, even if it helps you grow. I remember the first time a client gave me pointed feedback, my stomach turned and I visibly winced while I heard her point. Although I still don’t like it, I’ve gotten more comfortable being on the receiving end of client input, especially as I’ve seen it transform my work.

Growing from constructive criticism requires diligence and an understanding of the learning process. If you can focus on growth rather than perfection, feedback will set you up for a positive career. With that in mind, here’s how to use constructive criticism as a way to thrive — not crumble — as a freelancer.

Ask for Feedback

The first step to growing from client feedback is to ask for input. Some people will be more forthcoming than others, so don’t be surprised if you have to make the first move. I start with a simple, “I would love to hear how the project is going from your perspective” or “Is there anything I can do differently?” I build this feedback into the scope of a project in advance, so I can create the time for these important conversations. I check in a few times throughout a working relationship to make sure we’re still on the same page. If there are any discrepancies, I can tackle them head-on rather than finding out months later.

Stay Present and Neutral

Sometimes, a client will only offer glowing feedback. It’s just as important to absorb these details; they’re highlighting your strengths as a professional. Other times, you may be surprised (or even flummoxed) by how many changes they suggest. Perhaps they don’t like the creative direction you took, or they have radically different expectations of anything from email response time to your comma usage. When you’re overwhelmed by negativity, take a deep breath. Stay present and neutral, taking short notes when necessary. And if you’re speaking in person, keep smiling and nodding.

If it’s only a few pieces of feedback, I thank the client and mirror their thoughts in a summary of how I’ll adjust going forward. If I’ve absorbed a lot of criticism, I’ll say something like, “Thank you so much for that feedback. I’m going to take some time to absorb these suggestions, and I’ll get back to you if I want to discuss it further.” Instead of being reactive, I give myself the time and space I need to evaluate how I should incorporate these changes into my day-to-day work.

During later conversations, I’ll often restart the discussion and ask further questions. For example, if they’re unhappy with my work, I ask to see a sample of a parallel project that they thought succeeded a similar goal. This type of approach helps turn vague direction into concrete guidelines that I can use to guide my work. Through the rest of the working relationship, I also try to point out the areas where I’ve adapted to their feedback. It helps reinforce that their requests were heard, and it conveys the professionalism with which I run my business.

Communicate Clearly About Expectations

Sometimes, feedback isn’t constructive or it pushes past the scope of the project. In these two scenarios, I’m always transparent. If negative feedback isn’t grounded in the actual work — it’s in the mind of the client — I ask them to point out specific details. Then, I thoughtfully explain my reasoning for each choice.

When clients want a complete re-write (or too many adjustments) because they’re unhappy or their goals have changed, I use my discretion. Once, a client sent me the wrong sources to use as the basis for an article. Despite their frustrations, I politely but firmly insisted they pay for the work. The error had been on their end, and there was no way for me to anticipate their negative response. In these situations, I keep a neutral tone and maintain my boundaries.

Adopt a Growth Mindset

Overall, the most dynamic careers evolve from a growth mindset, or the emphasis on transformation rather than perfection. Harvard Business Review describes people with this perspective as “individuals who believe their talents can be developed (through hard work, good strategies and input from others).”

At the same time, criticism prompts a sense of a primal threat, which can trigger fight or flight mode. Being aware of this psychology at work is the best way to stay neutral. Remind yourself that growing and evolving depends on both positive and negative input. The more comfortable you get with feedback, the easier it is to learn from it every day. Your fearlessness will make you more willing to take risks and tackle new challenges.

That said, a growth mindset doesn’t mean you should blindly accept someone’s unfiltered negativity. Just as we’re all learning how to grow from constructive criticism, many individuals are learning how to give it, too. When people offer feedback that’s too generic, unfocused or downright mean, I either ask more questions or let it go. Instead of perceiving those criticisms as issues within my own work, I chalk it up to their own limitations.

Ever since I signed a contract with my first client, I’ve had creative breakthroughs and embarrassing missteps. There have been more than a few “oops” moments, as simple as spelling mistakes and as significant as disappointing an enthusiastic collaborator. The more I grow as a freelancer, the more I recognize the importance of resilience. If you can process the feedback from each project before you return to your craft, you’ll see the benefit of your accumulated experience come to life.

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