4 Ways to Deal with Criticism

As freelancers, we get up close and personal with new acquaintances very quickly.

We go from cordially greeting a businessperson and exchanging pleasantries to sending that person the work for which they’ve hired us in a dizzying space of time.

Whether we’re designing graphics, preparing spreadsheets, writing copy, whatever our bag, we discuss the results a client wants and get to work.

After we’ve put things together and sent them off, we may find that a variation on one of the following ensue:

  • The work is utterly different from what the client envisioned, and s/he responds sounding like someone who asked for no pickles on a burger and got extra pickles instead.
  • The client suddenly seems to admire the work of Simon Cowell and wants to show you that if you think it’s easy to please him or her, you’ve got another thing coming.
  • The client doesn’t understand what you’ve done and asks for something you feel you’ve already achieved, a puzzling dilemma most of the time.

1. Don’t Critique the Critique

I’ve had to fight very hard against the impulse to get knocked off balance by what I consider to be the mindset behind criticisms and requests for changes. For example, as a writer, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten a request to “challenge the reader more. Make some references to French literary theory.”

Generally, clients want more advertising speak, less of anything that requires thought from the reader — which, I then learn, is what they mean by “professional, high-quality writing.”

It’s important to not let these things bog you down.  Find some outlet for your disappointment and move on, thinking of what to do as a result of the criticisms, not the things that are wrong with those criticisms.

If you keep in mind that what might be obnoxious to you isn’t to someone else, it will go down much more smoothly, which brings me to the next strategy.

2. Empathize

Putting yourself in the shoes of the client who’s giving negative feedback isn’t just some altruistic or religious exercise — it can really help. Doing so will make you see, most likely, that the client is asking for what he or she wants or needs rather than taking aim at you.

It’s fair for the client to get his desire, and if you think that he may be amenable to your suggestions, give it a try before getting upset.

3. Get Some Distance

In a way that’s similar to putting yourself in the shoes of the client, looking at the situation with some space will make you feel better.

It’s important, particularly when you’re doing work that is judged subjectively, not to lose self-confidence or to get frustrated by a feeling that what you’re doing isn’t appreciated.

One way to do that is to think of the criticism as not something that’s happening to you, but that’s happening to a particular person you’re observing.  It happens to everyone.

Look for instances of other people being criticized. For example, on the reality show Top Chef, culinary upstarts who have worked for some great chefs and who sometimes have executive chef experience sometimes get very harsh comments.

And in some ways, those criticisms come from the circumstances we encounter, embarking on a project with its own particular demands.  It’s all part of the fun.

4. Focus on Solutions

As soon as you can implement any changes called for, the criticisms are out the window and you can move on to something else. In some cases, the suggestions from the client are general, allowing for some creative problem-solving on your part.

Sometimes they give you an excuse to break some of the boundaries the client had set up.  Once they see a draft of your project, they may realize that some of the parameters they’d set have to be compromised for desired results.

In any event, you might end up with a finished product that looks great in an unexpected way, and if not you can keep plugging away hoping for projects in which your vision holds up.

Criticism is a part of life, not just in work. Hopefully these tips will help you with how to deal it appropriately. But this list isn’t complete. Do you have any tips for how to deal with criticism?

Jeff Maehre is a fiction writer and freelance copywriter. His fiction has appeared in Story, The Northwest Review, Cutbank, and Phoebe; he often blogs and writes other copy about social media.


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