Back to Basics: Handling Negative Feedback

Originally published on The Pastry Box October 16, 2014

It’s easy to say “don’t take it personally” when it comes to our work. It’s harder to do. “Don’t take it personally” is a skill to build, just like wireframing, presenting, writing solid code, digging ditches, woodworking, baking, or guinea pig farming.

If you work as an “innie” in a company that sells non-design products, your organization already has a department of bona fide professionals that would be glad to take you under their wing for a few hours a month. They’re called Customer Service Representatives.

CSRs are the folks that talk to your end-users and customers. They know what doesn’t work on your site or in your product, because they hear about it all day long. A CSR can be your best friend for usability reviews or heuristics when you can’t get access directly to your client. A CSR can save your bacon for gathering direct user feedback through recorded calls and logs.

A CSR can also be your number one mentor in learning how not to take things personally.

“Don’t take it personally” really means “Don’t assume it’s about you.” That assumption can happen for a few reasons. We need to short-circuit those thought patterns, when they occur, so that we can do the real work at hand.

You are not your company

To a customer, a company is a Borg-like hive mind whose CSRs are a tendril of the whole. When we serve as CSRs, people speak to us as if they’re speaking to our parent company. “You people suck,” some of them say, as if they had spoken to the entire population of us for more than fifteen seconds and know whether we are in fact the vilest human beings. “You screwed this up.” “Your website is broken.” “You can’t even build a login form right.”

When we talk to customers, we play a role like an actor in a show. We know we are are not the “you” in question any more than the guy in the big mouse suit in Orlando is a real talking mouse. “You” is the company. We speak and act for the company. When the customer says “you suck”, they’re talking to the suit.

The same is true of a design review. A reviewer may say, “Why did you build this navigation?” or “You ignored this research” or “You should be moving faster”. They don’t generally mean you-the-person. They’re talking to the suit.

Imagine if a little kid told the Big Mouse he sucked, and he took the mouse head off and berated the kid. Everyone would be shocked – the kid, the parents, other observers. No one will remember the kid’s actions, no matter how rude or immature. They will remember the mouse broke character, and lashed out on top of it.

When you’re in a design review, wear the suit. Take advantage of its properties: it presents the professional designer you want others to see, and it shields your “inner” self from the professional designer.

Everyone comes with baggage

CSRs talk to people all day, so when we go home and we have a problem, it’s not hard for us to call someone and deal with it. We speak the language. We understand the system. We also know how to be in the right environment to make a customer service call. (We do still think it’s a pain in the ass, but it’s not frightening.)

Our experience sets us apart from our customers. They may not know how to navigate a phone menu system, or when to elevate a call. They may be socially anxious. Asking for help or voicing an opinion to a stranger is a scary prospect, even over the phone. They may be trying to call in a loud mess of an office, or a car on the freeway. They may be in physical or emotional pain.

Then there are the “kick the dog” moments when we’re quite sure if we weren’t bring raked over the coals because of some minor problem, the caller would be taking their frustrations – whatever they might be – out on someone else. We were the pooch being punted.

We couldn’t take it seriously. It was clear that the anger wasn’t *really* aimed at us. They were just an opportunity to vent steam before addressing the very real problems the customers had called about.

What kind of conversation can we anticipate from this CSR environment? They accidentally hang up on us. They don’t follow instructions. They try to anticipate our questions, usually incorrectly. They waste our time discussing irrelevant things. They jump to conclusions that align with some agenda we’re not even aware of. And just when we’ve given up hope that anything useful will come of the conversation, something suddenly clicks and we’re communicating at a level that can get things done.

The same is true of reviewers. They may be inexperienced. They may be anxious. They may be mentally, physically, or emotionally unprepared or distracted. They may be furious at someone else. They may be embarrassed or hurt by feedback someone else had just given them. None of these things will stop them from giving feedback to you.

CSRs will generally assume a customer calling is not trying to piss them off. When we work with a team every day, it seems to be easier for us to attribute to malice what can be explained by lack of experience or misunderstandings. Don’t fall into this trap. Assume the best in people, even if they’re showing you their worst.

Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.~Miller Williams, “The Ways We Touch”

When we assume the best in people, we find that most of the things we used to react defensively to puff into smoke and disappear. The feedback we thought was negative becomes a pile of information to sift through and decode.

You are the only one who can listen

The most important skill a CSR has is active listening. Because our customers don’t always know how to tell us what’s wrong, we have to collect everything they’re saying and sort the relevant and irrelevant feedback so that we can ask the right questions or provide the right answers. Something they throw out that’s meaningless to them becomes a Eureka Moment for the active listener.

It’s our jobs to get people to open up. It’s our jobs to allow them to talk past their baggage and their frustrations and, when they give us just enough of the picture to make sense of it, to help them with their problem.

If you’re already separating “you” from “the company” and you’re separating your baggage (and your reviewers’ baggage) from the actual story, then you’ve got the environment you need to listen to the facts. When that happens, you need to be listening to the facts. Make notes. Capture relevant items. Capture semi-relevant items. Doodle in the margins during the irrelevant stuff, but keep listening.

Active listening is more than keeping your ears open and your mouth closed. It’s also about repeating back to the speaker what they said, so that you know you got it right. (If you don’t, they’ll tell you!)

Sometimes things get ugly. Don’t jump into the fray

Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, misunderstandings happen, people get snippy, and Attitude arrives. these are the moments we fear when we present. “What will I do if someone gets rude or antagonistic or sexist or something else? What happens if someone causes a scene?

Attitudes are like puppies at the dog park. Every one has one. But if someone else’s is gnawing on your leg, maybe don’t let yours off the leash.

As CSRs, we were thoroughly trained on how to handle the worst of the worst. Here are the instructions for a bomb scare. Here are the instructions for a verbally abusive client. Here’s how to reach a supervisor. Here’s what to never say.

As designers, yeah, not so much. There is no expectation that we will attract verbal abuse during a presentation, because we’re all professionals here. It’s understandable that we may feel woefully unprepared for the worst-case presentation.

First, a reality check: this doesn’t happen nearly as often as we fear, or believe. The majority of us can present or attend dozens of peer reviews or executive reviewed before there is a genuine bona fide scene. Most employers have Consequences-with-a-capital-Pink-Slip for bad behavior, and most people want to keep their jobs. Negativity bias and pessimism biascan lead us to believe before a presentation that this will be the worst. The odds are stacked against it.

That being said, yes, I have received some rough feedback on occasion. (I’ve given some too. Stupid happens to everyone.) The most effective defense I’ve found is to make a plan, shut up, and make a plan.

If you are not presenting at reviews because you think there’s going to be a scene, check yourself: are you planning to cause a scene? Do you know someone who has such plans? Chances are the answer is no on both counts. Problem solved.

If you do know someone who is planning to cause a scene, talk through the issues with someone you trust (preferably an authority) before the review. Make a plan. Maybe it means not presenting. Maybe it means having an advocate in the room. Maybe it means wearing your lucky underpants. Do what works.

Assuming that no scene is expected, what is your emergency plan for the worst case feedback?

I suggest you shut up. (Wow that looks wrong in print.)

Let the other person say their rude and stupid and uncalled for and horrible things. Let them get all that bile and garbage out onto the table where everyone in the room has to look at it. Stay quiet, even once they finish, until everyone including you and including the speaker has had a chance to not only hear it, but to process it, and most importantly, decide how to react.

You do not have to attend every argument you’re invited to. ~Anonymous

Often you’ll find you don’t have to say anything at all. Someone else in the room will take that person down so smoothly that you, who has skin in the game, literally could not do it better.

What if no one says anything? First, assume the rest of the room is not “on their side” or “assholes” Sometimes no one else will say anything because they’re embarrassed to be there. They’re embarrassed to be a witness, or they’re embarrassed that you were exposed to the vitriol, or they’re embarrassed that the speaker provided it.

Make a decision. Follow your plan.

  • Was the feedback so poor or ridiculous that everyone in the room just sprained their rolling eyes? Take a deep breath and say, “Okay, noted.” Move on to the next thing.
  • Was the feedback something you could tolerate (but shouldn’t have to)? Say, “We can discuss that offline. I’ll arrange a meeting.” Then ensure your supervisor or similar advocate attends the meeting.
  • Was the feedback so out of line that you no longer feel safe? End the meeting. Thank the whole group for their feedback. Leave.

Regardless of your choice, if you’re polite about it – if you never take off the suit – there will be little that your adversary can take back to your supervisor.

After any of these instances, check in with a trusted advocate. Do it after you’ve recovered from the adrenaline rush of confrontation. Do it before you get called to their office. Work with that person to determine whether your approach was good, or whether you need to change it for the next time. Keep your notes with you. Stick to the facts. Adjust your plan according to their feedback.

The hands-down best book I know for handling these situations is Crucial Conversations. If you know these are skills you need to strengthen, this is the book I recommend.

When all is said and done

Learn to deal with upset people. It’s part of the job. You can learn how from a mechanic. ~Mike Monteiro

At the end of the day as a designer, you log the feedback you received in a spreadsheet, stripping it out of its emotional shell and reporting like an anthropologist studying the locals. These are the facts. These are the concerns. This is the feedback. This person has a good point. This person carries weight.

You close the spreadsheet, log out of the system, put away your sketch pad and your whiteboard markers and your sticky notes. You go home. Maybe you think, “I can’t do this forever.” You decide to get better. Maybe you do that by improving your design skills, because that feedback, while harsh, was right on the money. Maybe you improve your soft skills because even the CSRs go to regular trainings to improve their soft skills. Maybe you plan your next career move. Maybe you start building a guinea pig farm.

When all is said and done, negative feedback will still come, but you will be able to find the gems inside of it because you listened to your reviewers. You kept the suit on. You ignored the baggage. You shut up and followed the plan.

At the end of the day as a CSR, you log out of the system, put away your headset, and go home. You think to yourself, “I can’t do this forever.” You decide to get better at your non-customer-service skills. Maybe you pick a new career, like web design, where you can be at the front of the design process instead of the back, and maybe make things better.

And there’s a lot less yelling.