Reacting To Client Feedback: Saying Less

Receiving feedback is easy, the way in which we react to that feedback is a whole different story which tells a lot about you and can vary greatly between the people you’re working with. The primary way—at least the most typical way—of reacting to feedback is defensively, however, I want to shed light on an alternative approach that provides you time to think, leaves the individual providing the feedback on the edge of their seat, elevates your authority, and is seldom used.

Two things: First, it’s natural and okay to want to be right, and second, it’s also okay to actually be right. With that being said, everyone starts with this inherent desire to be right, and the opposite is also true, we never like to be wrong and we, in turn, have difficulty dealing with it. Critique and feedback are polite means to suggesting that what we’ve done is wrong.

Whether we’re willing to admit it or not, receiving feedback feels like an attack against us and our work, at least on a subconscious level because it goes against our primitive instincts of avoiding risk and being wrong. Even when we tell ourselves we’re looking for feedback or critique, we experience difficulty in receiving and reacting to it. We want to be right, that’s natural.

This natural desire to be right causes us to become defensive when we receive the inclination that we might be wrong. The most common way of reacting to feedback is by initially defending your decisions. By explaining your reasoning, showing the process, presenting data, or whatever means you have, you are putting yourself in a position of being the defender and allowing the other to call the shots. This isn’t to say this approach is incorrect, it’s perfectly fine and often expected that you’re able to defend your decisions, however, let’s explore another approach that can turn the tables.

In 1502, the mayor of Florence, Piero Soderini was deciding whether or not the massive block of marble which sat in the halls of the church of Santa Maria del Fiore was worth salvaging. A sculptor was previously commissioned to make something of it but seemingly ruined the block by gouging a hole where a figure’s legs were anticipated to stand.

The block of marble collected dust for a while until some friends were able to convince Michelangelo to take on the challenge of saving this seemingly unsalvageable block. Still, Soderini remained doubtful that that block could truly be saved. To his opposition, Michelangelo would go on to sculpt the statue of David we all know and praise.

As Michelangelo was putting the final touches on the piece, Soderini came to investigate. As Soderini stood there looking at the figure, the only flaw he was able to notice was that the nose was too big. Michelangelo could see that Soderini was standing directly beneath the figure which gave him a skewed perspective.

Rather than arguing with Soderini or telling him he was wrong, he motioned Soderini to follow him up the scaffolding and never said a word. Michelangelo picked up his chisel and stealthily filled the other hand with dust from the marble. Michelangelo then began to lightly tap on the chisel as if he were slimming down the nose and slowly let the dust in his hand fall little by little as Soderini watched from a few feet below. After a few minutes, Michelangelo stepped away and asked for Soderini’s opinion. Despite having done nothing to the statue, Soderini gave his approval and explained how it looked better and more alive.

This story with Michelangelo is extremely interesting because it’s a display of how perspective and mindset skews our opinions. From the beginning, Soderini was doubtful that the block of marble could be saved regardless if a master such as Michelangelo was working on it. It was inevitable that he would have something to nitpick as the sculpture was being finished.

Michelangelo recognized that arguments are rarely won, even if the opposer creates the appearance of being won over (because we don’t like being wrong). Michelangelo, as the master sculptor, knew Soderini was wrong, but rather than allowing his words to potentially upset Soderini, he subconsciously changed his perspective through his actions. He knew an argument with Soderini couldn’t have been won and would also put his career at risk, so he created the illusion of change. Although sneaky, it was a calculated and intelligent way of remaining right without jeopardizing his own work.

“Oysters open completely when the moon is full; and when the crab sees one it throws a piece of stone or seaweed into it and the oyster cannot close again so it serves the crab for meat. Such is the fate of him who opens his mouth too much and thereby puts himself at the mercy of the listener.” —Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519

When you’re too willing to open up with words such as defense or reasoning, you’re creating vulnerability, you’re playing into the hands of the listener. This isn’t to say they’re intending or inclined to take advantage of you, however, the more you have to say when receiving feedback, the more feedback will be delivered—not because there necessarily is more feedback to give but because they will feel a natural need to give more response. While you’re providing defenses and answers, they’ll suspect that they should be delivering additional feedback and questions.

In the case of Michelangelo above with Soderini, had Michelangelo placed himself in the defensive mode of explaining how he was right and Soderini was, in fact, wrong, it’s incredibly likely that Soderini would have found more to nitpick and critique. Not because there potentially was more to critique, but because we feel the need to have a rebuttal or reach a conclusion, and rarely do we wish to conclude with being on the losing end.

When we’re given feedback or even any kind of response, we feel the need to react and resolve the issue. Most commonly, when we’re given feedback, the quick fix is to simply do as we’re told—to satisfy the other person. This, I would argue, is a larger sign of incompetence for you’re acting without proper context or appropriate reason. The following story involving Henry Kissinger is a great example of how we act impulsively when called upon—a dangerous game to play.

“One oft-told tale about Kissinger . . . involved a report that Winston Lord had worked on for days. After giving it to Kissinger, he got it back with the notation, ‘Is this the best you can do?’ Lord rewrote and polished and finally resubmitted it; back it came with the same curt question. After redrafting it one more time—and once again getting the same question from Kissinger—Lord snapped, ‘Damn it, yes, it’s the best I can do.’ To which Kissinger replied: ‘Fine, then I guess I’ll read it this time.’ —Kissinger, Walter Isaacson, 1992

It’s easy to utilize one’s insecurities to push results to the edge. We’re all full of insecurities, especially as designers, but showing these when you’re working with a client can prove lethal as they’ll put you in the position to go to the edge. An innate insecurity in us all is fear of being wrong, and the easiest way to expose your insecurities is through being defensive or through a self-conscious review.

Often times, when we say less and refrain from reacting defensively to critique or feedback, we save ourselves from coming off as insecure or desperate for approval. In saying less, in being less defensive, you’re allowing yourself time to properly think and assess the situation because very rarely will it be required that you need an immediate response. Furthermore, in having the client wait on your response, subconscious roles are being developed in which they’re looking to you for words of wisdom and expertise rather than innately putting yourself on the spot as the jester when you immediately become defensive at the face of feedback.

Robert Greene features an example of King Louis XIV in his book The 48 Laws of Power. During his rule, nobles and ministers spent days determining how to pitch issues and potential solutions to Louis. Not only were they concerned with what they’d say and how they’d deliver it, but they also contemplated where they’d ideally like to be when they addressed the King.

The court went to such measures because they knew not to expect an answer from the King. “Louis would listen in silence, a most enigmatic look on his face. Finally, when each had finished his presentation and had asked for the king’s opinion, he would look at them both and say, ‘I shall see.’ Then he would walk away.”

“The ministers and courtiers would never hear another word on the subject from the king—they would simply see the result, weeks later, when he would come to a decision and act. He would never bother to consult them on the matter again.”

Why wouldn’t the King deliver his answers immediately? Because rather than making impulsive and uneducated decisions, Louis preferred to reflect at length upon potential plans of action. In doing so, he prevented himself from making hasty decisions but more importantly, he maintained the reputation of not only putting extreme thought into his decisions, but that he was the authority figure in the situation most capable of making these decisions. You should be that person—the one most appropriate for making decisions and putting an extreme amount of thought into your actions.

It’s important to note that, if the client you’re working with doesn’t wholeheartedly believe in you or views you more as an expense, unnecessary feedback and comments are inevitable and using the approach of making note and nodding your head isn’t the best idea. When the client doesn’t wholeheartedly believe in you, they’re immediately placing themselves above you and so your silence is seen as incompetence rather than of an authoritative act or one of prophetic wisdom.

It’s also important to note that the above isn’t to suggest that as designers we should uphold ourselves as kings—as almighty designers—but instead, it recognizes that within healthy relationships power exists and there is absolutely nothing wrong with recognizing yourself as an authoritative figure in your discipline or field. In fact, failing to recognize your own authority as a design professional is a disservice to the client you are working with. The client deserves to feel confident in the professional(s) they’re working with.

Keep in mind, we don’t like being wrong. Clients should be asking questions and delivering feedback, that’s the nature of a project, especially within a collaborative process, however, that doesn’t mean you must tend to their every question and comment immediately. Give yourself time to think, give them time to think, be less defensive about your work and your decisions, and be confident in returning to them with definitive comments and decisions once you have given them deep thought.