A Template for Responding to Negative Feedback

Michael Beirut is one of the most influential graphic designers working today. I can guarantee that you have seen his work recently, whether you knew it or not, as he was on the team that developed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign logo.

And if you’re a sports fan, particularly in the upper mid-West and Northeast, you’re also familiar with his work on the Big 10 Conference logo.

As someone who dabbles in graphic and logo design, I can attest that, whether you’re designing for a presidential candidate or your buddy, logos can make a critic out of almost anyone.

In a recent episode of the amazing podcast 99% Invisible, Michael Beirut was asked about dealing with negative feedback, and he gave a really thoughtful response.

First, he differentiated between the criticism of something that is new versus response to a change. When you’re creating something completely new, you’re battling expectations. When you’re making a change, you also up against the passion people have for the status quo or current iteration. (All the ministry leaders just said “amen.”)

Using the Big 10 Conference logo as an example, he shared that shortly after it was unveiled, he started getting angry emails from fans. When he mentioned it to someone at the conference office, and they responded that this was just another expression of the passion that leads someone to sit in the stands and cheer on their team when it’s freezing outside. It is a blessing and a challenge.

The podcast host asked him about how he responded to these emails, and Beirut gave the following rough example:

“It’s always disappointing to have worked hard on something and to know that people don’t like it. I can only hope that you, over time, come to at least get used to it, ideally come to like it as much as we do, or at the very least not have it bother you quite as much. But I know that the team values the strong feelings you have about them, and as a fellow fan, that’s the thing we all really focus on.”

A response like this one, he said, led about two-thirds of the angry emailers to write back saying that they had perhaps gone a little overboard.

So, what makes this such a great response to negative feedback? Let’s break it down:

It acknowledges that the feedback has been heard.

An important first step is to let the other person know that their voice has been heard. For some, this is actually enough. They understand that decisions are complicated, but as a passionate supporter, they want to know their feelings have been considered. Beirut takes it a step further by expressing disappointment. This signals that the feedback has not just been heard, but it has had an impact, even if it doesn’t change the ultimate outcome.

It demonstrates that the change is not arbitrary.

In the first sentence, Beirut talks about how hard they worked on the new logo. This wasn’t something that was thrown together at the last minute. There was time, thought, and effort put into the change. This step is vital for those who don’t understand the “why” behind a change. You may not be able to get them to fully understand or agree, but you can at least dispel the thought that there was no why.

It is realistic about next steps.

In the second part of his response, Beirut expresses the hope that the critic’s feelings will change, even if only a little bit. This is a smart approach because, at the end of the day, Beirut has no ability or authority to make further changes or revert back to the old logo. Sometimes, we as ministry leaders dangle false hope to critics because we are people pleasers and/or conflict avoiders. It isn’t wise or kind to tell someone you’ll reconsider a decision or “see what I can do” if you know you can’t or ultimately won’t.

It reinforces the positive aspects of the critic’s behavior.

As noted in the introduction, the passion that fuels the criticism is the same passion that fuels their loyalty. Beirut subtly yet effectively reinforces that passion without necessarily approving of its specific expression. That same kind of passion and loyalty is often present in the criticism we get as ministry leaders. We need to learn how to reinforce and redirect the passion in a way that is helpful moving forward. We want people to care! It is also important to reinforce that feedback is welcome, even if it doesn’t make you change your decision this time.

It offers a space for unity.

Beirut closes by identifying common ground with the fan who emails in. He isn’t just some designer they have hired, but he is a fan too. He holds that same passion and loyalty, even if it has led to a different conclusion or expression. So much of church politics, and politics in general, devolves into “us versus them.” By offering space for unity, it can help strengthen the relationship, even if differences of opinion remain.

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