by Niall Doherty

I’ve been thinking about how most of us (myself included) deliver feedback. We often feel we have to preface or pad our feedback with a bunch of niceties and qualifiers so the recipient doesn’t take our constructive criticism personally. We have to beat around the bush for a minute so as not to dent the receiving ego.

As such, we use phrases like these:

  • This is just my opinion…
  • Now you don’t have to make any of these changes I suggest…
  • That’s just my two cents on it…
  • Of course, I could be wrong about that…
  • I have to be honest here…
  • I don’t want you to take this the wrong way…
  • I hope you don’t take offense to this…
  • If I were you…

I’m thinking that all of those phrases are such a colossal waste of time. Instead of regurgitating all that fluff whenever we’re giving feedback, wouldn’t it be great if we had some kind of disclaimer we could point people to? Something that gets all of that soft tip-toe shite out of the way so we can just cut to the chase and say what we really think?

Yeah, methinks such a thing would be handy, so here’s a crack at it…

Dear whoever,

Thanks for asking me to review your work and provide feedback. I take that request very seriously.

Please note however that I’m not one to offer up cheap praise. If you came for me looking for validation under the guise of feedback, then you came to the wrong person. I’m not just going to nod and smile and tell you you’re great. I believe you’re stronger than that. You don’t need a mom cheering from the sideline and gushing at everything you do. You need a tough-love dad who takes you aside and tells you after the game, “You did good, and here’s how you can do even better next time.”

So don’t take any of my feedback personally, no matter how harsh it might be. It all comes attached with good intentions. My feedback is intended to serve you, to help you take what you’ve done and make it even better. Stand apart from your work. Look at the feedback objectively. How can it help you improve?

Keep in mind that I’m not an expert (nobody is). I’m only one person. I have my own preferences and biases. What I recommend may not be the best course of action. Know the difference between advice and opinion and judge for yourself which one I’m giving you. I’m not going to spend time differentiating.

When reviewing feedback, always remember the words of Bruce Lee: “Absorb what is useful and discard the rest.” You do not have to make any of the changes I suggest. Do not surrender your own responsibility and judgment to me. At the end of the day, this is your work we’re talking about, and you will take all the credit and/or blame when it goes live to the world. So make sure you stand behind whatever changes you make. Know why you’re making them. If one of my recommendations violates your values or goes against your gut, don’t follow it. Trust yourself.

You don’t have to explain to me or justify whatever recommended changes you don’t implement. Once I make those recommendations, I release them to the ether. My work is done. You can completely disregard my words if you like.

That said, if I suggest a whole bunch of changes and you don’t make any of them and don’t offer me any good explanation as to why and then you come back later and ask for feedback on something else, I’m going to assume you’re wasting both your time and mine. Don’t do that. It’s fine if my feedback isn’t useful to you. Move on and find somebody who can help. I won’t be offended.

For example, a friend used to ask me for feedback on his website designs. I noticed a pattern, that he always had poor color contrast. I suggested that he get tested for color blindness. He never asked me for feedback again. No worries. I was honest and told him what I believed he needed to hear. My job was done. We’re still friends.

So you should have some guts before you submit your work to me for feedback. I’m not always going to tell you what you want to hear. A pat on the back and a few kudos might make you feel warm and fuzzy for a minute, but none of that helps you improve in the long run. I’ll try to tell you what you most need to hear, even if it stings a little.

Don’t worry if my feedback lacks compliments. That doesn’t mean I dislike your work. I try to stand apart from it and judge objectively. To me your work is neither good nor bad. It just is how it is, and I’ll try to help you make it better with my recommendations. So don’t get caught up in the red ink. It’s likely that there are plenty of things I really love about your work but I probably won’t say much about those things. If I make no mention of a particular part of your work, just assume that I believe it to be perfect as is, no room for improvement.

Lastly, give thanks. Like I said, you don’t need to act on any of my recommendations, but if I’ve spent time reviewing your work and offering feedback, a quick note of appreciation would be nice. If you want to go further, the best thank you is to actually sit down and go through the feedback, then send me feedback on my feedback. I have strengths and weaknesses as an evaluator. I can improve, too. Let me know how I can do that. Which bits of feedback did you find especially helpful? Which could you have done without?

Tell it to me straight. I promise not to take it personally 😉