Two recent events made me think about the ways we react to feedback and how I was trained some 15+ years ago.
My first experience with feedback on creative projects was in an online, international poetry workshop. The workshop required you to read some basic rules about effective writing, required you to maintain a critiques-given to critiques-received ratio, tempered that with explicit guidelines on how to give effective feedback, and had guidelines about how to receive and incorporate critiques effectively.
One of the main rules was encapsulated in a FAQ question:
Q: What if the critique doesn't appreciate the art of my work and it hurt my feelings?
A: Thank them. Always.
(I am paraphrasing).
I learned the art of giving and receiving critique in that environment, and it permanently shaped how I respond to feedback. I am extremely grateful for that fact. It gave me the tools to navigate accepting criticism in all parts of my life.
In my professional work, I supervise a group of very talented and passionate people. They amaze me on a daily basis. That said, they make mistakes on a regular basis. Lots of mistakes. Half my job feels like being a combination of mentor, mother figure, and task- master as I try to herd super-smart cats into getting the necessary work done with the least amount of chaos.
Recently, one of those workers asked to speak to me. I had told her three weeks ago that she did something wrong and reviwed the correct way to do the task. She had apparently felt upset after the encounter and been stewing on it for weeks, particularly because I made the correction in front of other members of the team.
My knee-jerk reaction? There was nothing personal in the feedback, it had been kept in a neutral "this is the established process, please follow it" wording, and I had said it in front of others because I juggle a million things a day and taking more time to pull her aside and talk one-on-one would make my entire day longer.
What I said? "I really appreciate your feedback. Tell me more specifics about how you understood whatI said and what parts made you uncomfortable."
With prompting, she gave some specifics. A lot of her feelings also related to misinterpreting unrelated events and decisions. She thought responsibilities were moved around as punishment for that first mistake; they weren't.
I continued to thank her for being open and clarified the situation. I agreed in the future to try to give feedback one-on-one, even if we just step outside the room briefly.
She left the conversation relieved, happy, and feeling more motivated to work. In supervisor terms, that interaction was gold. As a boss, I would much rather know when people are unhappy then have them gossip and complain outside of my awareness, lowering morale and possibly creating problems where none need to exist. In human terms, I care about the people I work with and want to maintain a trusting, positive relationship.
If I had reacted defensively to her feedback, it would have gone a very different, unhelpful direction and she would probably not approach me the next time something I did upset her.
People will often say it is harder to accept criticism about creative projects because they are more personal. Even if I accept that premise, I think it underscores the need to focus on responding to criticism with an initial, "Thank you." That response can get you through the first wave of negative emotions, and once those emotions have settled, you can engage more criticially with their criticism.
I am currently receiving a steady stream of feedback about my game. There are days I want to avoid the internet entirely because I will most likely encounter some criticism of my work. Knowing I can read the criticism and initially engage with no more effort than, "Thank you for telling me this," helps keep me logging onto email and other necessary online platforms.
I would say about 20% of the feedback falls into "wow, I had a blindspot there and this is super novel and helpful!" and 80% falls into "yep, I know, I'm working on that."
When I get feedback in the latter category, my knee jerk reaction is to say I know that's a problem and here is the explanation of why I have not fixed it yet or why I did it that way.
Instead? I've gone back to tried and true, "Thank you for telling me that! I'll be sure to consider it." (Or some variation.)
Anytime someone says something negative about my work--my game, other creative projects, my day job--my first emotional reaction is usually a mix of anger, embarassment, frustration, or anxiety. All of those emotions push for a defensive or overly-apologetic response. Instead, I let the emotions wash over me like a wave and stick to the script: "Thank you for the feedback."
Once the initial emotion passes, I can step back and analyze the feedback. What parts are helpful and align with my goals? How can I implement those parts? What parts should I ignore or tweak?
Importantly, thanking someone for their feedback is not the same as agreeing with it or committing to use it. The thank you is to say, "Hey, I appreciate the time you took in giving that feedback." In closer relationships it can also say, "Hey I appreciate the risk you took in sharing something that could be uncomfortable or cause conflict."
Thanking someone for their feedback also naturally focuses me on, "What part of this feedback am I grateful for?"
This shift in perspective has really helped when someone gives feedback about something I already know is a problem. It allows me to avoid the defensive, "I KNOW!" reaction and instead realize: "Hey, this is confirmation of my own editing process. I can be more confident when I edit/change this aspect because multiple people have mentioned the same thing."
I am not perfect at always responding this way, but I can say the only times I've regretted how I responded to feedback was when I stepped away from a mindset of "thanks for your time" to "I need to defend myself."
(Huge caveat: abusive/toxic relationships are a whole different thing.)
If someone critiques your work, thank them. Always.
This blog is a mix of game design analysis, commentary on issues affecting indie dev spaces, and some personal reflections.