At some point in your career, you will deal with negative feedback from clients. It’s nearly inevitable.
But how you respond to that feedback will be the difference between having a lot of successful projects or a lot of angry clients.
One of the keys to responding to feedback well lies in separating the feedback itself from negative emotion – in other words, don’t take it personally.
That’s not to say you should be impervious to negative feedback, however. There’s a fine line between brushing off negativity and ignoring genuinely helpful commentary.
Even negative feedback can be useful if you know how to handle it.
Why Negative Feedback Matters
There’s good reason to consider how you respond to feedback. Research shows that 46% of newly hired employees will fail within 18 months, and 26% do so because they can’t accept feedback.
Mark Murphy, founder of Leadership IQ and author of Hiring for Attitude says that being able to accept feedback is a sign of self-awareness.
“Somebody who has enough self-awareness to recognize they might need feedback, that’s the person that’s going to say ‘Even when I’m on my best game, there’s always something I could’ve done to be better.’”
Research also shows that there is a difference between negative and positive feedback, though both can be helpful in the right circumstances. Positive feedback (e.g., “Here’s what you did really well”) increases commitment to your work by boosting your confidence. Negative feedback (e.g., “Here’s where you went wrong”), on the other hand, is informative — it tells you where you need to spend your effort, and offers insight into how you might improve.
Negative feedback in particular is helpful for those who want to become experts in their field. While positive feedback will make you feel more at ease with the challenges you’re facing, negative feedback will motivate you to do what it takes to make your work the absolute best.
Of course, just because it’s ultimately helpful, doesn’t mean it isn’t hurtful. So how do you deal with negative feedback while still moving forward?
How to Respond to Negative Feedback
Because the goal here is to motivate you, it’s important that you don’t immediately react to the negativity and you keep your head above water. That can be difficult depending on the client, but here are a few things you absolutely shouldn’t do…
What NOT to Do
Don’t get emotional. Negative feedback can often be tied to negative emotions, and while it’s natural for humans to feel like they’re being criticized, it’s important to step back and look at the situation for what it really is. Are they giving you personal feedback? (e.g., “You didn’t listen to what I said”) or are they giving feedback on your work? (e.g., “This isn’t what I had in mind”).
Sometimes what people mean is different than what they say. Maybe the work isn’t up to their expectations, but they still direct their words as if you’re the reason everything is failing. This is a good time to be self-aware about whether or not the client is unhappy with you or simply something you did (because there is a difference).
If the feedback is about you personally, don’t become defensive. Whether or not the feedback is true, try to use “I” statements – like, “I know this happened, and here is how I will fix it…” – to show that you can take responsibility and that you don’t hold a grudge.
Don’t miss a chance to clarify. Again, don’t assume that you understand what the client is saying. Try repeating back to them what you think you heard: “What I’m hearing is that there are three major things that need to be improved, and here is what you would like to see happen…”
You can also ask questions like:
- “What exactly don’t you like?”
- “Can you give me an example?”
- “Can you point to the bit you don’t like?”
- “Is it the font itself or the size of the text that’s the problem?”
- “Are you saying you don’t like the story, or the way it’s being told?”
Your goal is to understand and help them articulate their opinions. Remember that you’re not necessarily agreeing with them, you’re just clarifying what they mean.
Don’t dwell on it. One thing that constantly bogs down new developers is dwelling on the small mistakes instead of focusing on how to improve. Remember that every developer will get things wrong, and that negative feedback isn’t a sign of failure, but rather an opportunity to improve your craft and truly become an expert.
What to Do Instead
Give a solution. It’s more beneficial for both you and the client if you’re the one spearheading the conversation. Instead of giving statements about the problem, describe a potential solution and ask whether it would be acceptable to the other person.
For example, you might ask: “I know you don’t like the look of it, but if I can show you evidence that your customers prefer it this way, will you sign it off?” Your goal is to leave the room with a clearly agreed upon next step towards a solution.
Ask for time. Unless you can fix something on the spot, it’s okay to ask for time to come up with a solution or to dig for more information. Saying something like, “I would like to think about this and get back to you. Is there anything else I should know?” will show that you take what you’ve been told seriously. It also gives you time to think through the accuracy of what you’ve been told, perhaps testing its validity with others.
Have a plan for integrating helpful feedback into your habits. At the end of the day, negative feedback is about self-improvement. But if you never take the opportunity to actually improve, it can remain a negative experience and nothing else. That’s why it’s important to integrate anything that is useful from the feedback experience.
Does the feedback mean that you aren’t communicating clearly enough? Do you need to become a better coder? Do you need to have a better project intake process? Make a list of things you can improve and then keep refining through practice.
Negative feedback is what you make it out to be. If you take things personally or assume the worst, the situation will ultimately be a negative one.
If, however, you can take some time to clarify, reflect, and come up with a solution, you will turn a negative situation into something that can spur growth.
Not only will you make yourself a better developer, but your clients will love you for it.