How To Respectfully Give And Receive Feedback

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Speaking of giving and receiving… that reminds me of something.

Love languages: Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, and Physical Touch.

Are you familiar with yours? Your love language is how you give love to others, and how you receive love from others.

The concept of the ‘love language’ was developed by marriage counselor Gary Chapman, who built the entire concept on this one simple truth: our relationships grow better when we understand each other.

After 25 years of counseling couples, Chapman found that communication was more often than not the root of their issues, and diving into the deeper WHY of their miscommunications led him to the discovery of love languages. “Everyone gives and receives love differently,” Chapman says, “but with a little insight into these differences, we can be confidently equipped to communicate love well.”

This is true for every kind of relationship — not just romantic ones.

The idea of desiring a deeper level of connection with someone in order to foster the best possible relationship doesn’t only apply to love. What if we applied a similar idea to our working relationships, too?

Whether you’re a freelancer working with clients or a member of a team at a professional organization, you’re likely participating in a lot of collaborative efforts as a creative. And I’m sure you’ve realized that without positive communication, you’ll accomplish nothing.

Although the love languages may not be an exact fit — I strongly advise against delivering feedback with an element of Physical Touch — good old Gary was definitely onto something with this one. So, today, we’re taking a note from his book, and we’re talking about love languages, how they’ve inspired millions of people to further develop their communication styles, and how those communication styles relate to constructive criticism. To learn how to give feedback respectfully and how to receive feedback without taking it personally, keep reading!

There’s a reason Gary Chapman has sold more than 12 million copies of The 5 Love Languages. The dude’s been on the New York Times Best Sellers list since 2007!

When I was researching his story to write this blog post, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who thought the concept of love languages could be connected to working relationships. At the bottom of Gary’s website, I found a link to Appreciation At Work, a sister organization of his, developed on that exact premise. You can even watch a video of Gary himself talking about it here!

The 5 Languages of Appreciation: Words of Affirmation, Quality Time, Acts of Service, Tangible Gifts, and Physical Touch.

(Side note: if you just read that and are wondering “how the F did Physical Touch make it on the list of workplace environment appreciation recommendations?” — same. I looked it up. They refer to “appropriate elements of touch, like a pat on the back.” Not sure how I feel about that one. I think an awkward high-five would be my limit.)

These appreciation styles are believed to have as positive of an effect on workplace relationships as the 5 love languages do on marriages and romantic relationships. To learn more about appreciation and the workplace and to determine your appreciation language, click here.

Now, Gary’s fun and all — but I’m itching to get to the good stuff. Let’s talk about the right (and wrong) ways to give feedback!

How to provide helpful, constructive feedback:

  • Start a conversation. Begin with what was done well, and then bring up the areas they could improve. A lot of people like the feedback sandwich method: positive comment, area to improve on, positive comment. The positives are the bread, and the criticisms are the PB&J.

  • Channel your inner educator. In providing constructive criticism to an employee, client, colleague, or collaborator, your goal should always be to educate. The whole point of providing feedback is to allow the person to improve the next time they complete a task, isn’t it? Give them the tools they need in order to do that by thinking about the specifics of what they did wrong, and the exact HOW for getting it right the next time. Action items will be your feedback BFF. Educating and informing should be a top priority when delivering feedback. Which brings me to my next point…

  • Be specific about the why. It’s just as important to be specific about the how as it is to be clear about the why. Why is this project so important? Why do you care about giving them this feedback? Why do you want them to do better next time? Is it because you value them as an employee and you want to continue to produce great work together? Is it because you adore working with them and you want to make sure you continue moving forward on the same page? Tell them that! This will make them feel more comfortable working with you and more motivated to improve. Highlighting their value will give them the warm-and-fuzzies, and give you the correct-and-productives.

  • Use “I” language. This is the ONLY time I will everrr tell you to use “I” language (I’m a copywriter—it goes against everything I stand for). However, when you’re giving feedback, it’s much more helpful to say “I want you to delete this post from the to-do list once you’ve scheduled it” than “you never cross posts off the to-do list after you schedule them.”

  • Be respectful of their time. This is important for two reasons. The first: receiving feedback can be freaking awkward. If you have a long, drawn-out conversation with someone, they’ll likely become very uncomfortable and begin to shrink into their get-me-out-of-here shell. These convos can be short and sweet. Hi, feedback sandwich, bye. The second reason timing is important: implementation. If you don’t give them enough time to correct their mistakes or learn the necessary skills to complete the next task correctly and on time, you’re doing both parties a disservice.

How not to provide feedback:

  • Let your emotions get in the way. Feedback is never about emotions. If you’re truly offering constructive criticism, that has nothing to do with emotions or elements of a person’s character. Emotions make things personal, and professional feedback is NOT personal. Even though you may take your work very seriously, and you may feel personally offended by something, at the end of the day—work is work. I completely understand being frustrated or passionate about a project (hello, I’m a creative entrepreneur; we all feel that way) but letting your emotions get the best of you and responding in an unprofessional, hasty manner is never the way to go.

  • Begin with what was done wrong. This will make your feedback feel combative. By beginning the conversation with what was done wrong, you’re not starting off on a strong foot, and you may come across as aggressive and angry.

  • Call people insulting names. I’m praying this one is self-explanatory.

  • Avoid patronizing, condescending language, and unwanted elements of affection. Basically, don’t be a rude, pompous, gross A-hole. And remember: the only element of physical touch that’s actually safe in a work environment is this GIF.


And speaking of virtual hugs… some of you may feel like you need one after receiving constructive criticism. If you find yourself taking feedback personally — you’re not alone.

Whether you’re receiving feedback in a professional position, from a freelance client, from your partner, or from your friend… it can sometimes sting a little bit. I used to really struggle with accepting feedback.

Every element of constructive criticism used to feel like an attack on my skillset or my character. Huuuuge Capricorn energy. I like to know things. I like to be good at things. Immediately. No learning curve desired here.

But that isn’t reality. And once I realized that I (obviously) wasn’t going to be automatically amazing at every new thing I tried, I began to value learning. It took me a while, but I was finally able to shift my mindset, and change my entire outlook on the subject of constructive criticism.

I will be honest, though, I had a bit of help. In the form of scary corporate lawyers. Working as a legal executive assistant for 5+ years toughened me up.

If I did something wrong, I wouldn’t just get screamed at in front of the entire office, I’d also have to figure out how to correct my mistake on my own, because the attorneys were much too Busy and Important to give me any proper direction (which, thankfully, we learned at the beginning of this blog post is the very way not to provide feedback).

After a few years of skrrting around the Partners, doing my best to please the overworked Associates, and hiding my phone in my pocket with the Voice Memo feature turned on when I had the (rare) opportunity to ask questions (attorneys do not like to repeat themselves), I decided that it was time I mend my relationship with feedback.

The first step was determining the best way to communicate. At the time, I worked for 3 attorneys. Let’s call them Grumpy, Oldie, and Sparky. Feels fitting.

Oldie was always on the phone, so waltzing into his office with a question was a no-go. If I had anything to ask him, he preferred that I leave it on a sticky note atop his never-ending pile of mail at the edge of my desk. His average response time to this sticky note was 1-2 days, and he always emerged from his office (with several tasks for me) no more than 15 minutes before I was set to leave for the day.

I quickly learned that I needed to be proactive, set my sticky notes out much earlier than I’d need the responses to them, and have all of my questions ready to rapid fire at 4:45 when he made his way out of his lair.

Grumpy’s office was right across from mine, so I had the luxury of being able to visibly see when he had a lull in his work.

The issue with Grumpy, though, was that people were always looking for him, and he was ALWAYS escaping from them. As the resident tax expert of the 200-attorney office, he was in high demand. And he hated that. So, people would come by my desk and ask “have you seen Grumpy?” and “can you tell Grumpy to call me?” and “ugh, I swear I just saw Grumpy walk this way — I tried to chase him down.

Can you tell him to come see me?!” Poor Grumpy. But when he eventually did return to his office, he’d stop by my desk first to assign me his daily tasks. This is when I’d pounce with any questions, because I never knew when he was going to disappear again.

Sparky was the nice one. She never really had a problem answering my questions, and she loved to chat—thank God—but she suffered from the unfortunate condition that most attorneys do: writing in Chickenscratch.

Her case was a bit more severe, though, because in her particular dialect of Chickenscratch, all of the names and client numbers were always wrong, so I could never find anyone in the system. Sparky didn’t like this. But, I will say, she was great at delivering feedback, although sometimes she’d do that deep-sigh-pinch-eyebrow thing that you see parents on sitcoms do when their kids annoyed them.

Once I’d determined the best way to communicate with Oldie, Grumpy, and Sparky, I was able to ask them concise, easy-to-answer questions to limit the confusion on my end.

Although it may have taken a few minutes of their time that they weren’t previously willing to give me, they eventually realized that taking the time to explain things to me and answering my questions saved everybody a headache in the end.

The next step was more personal. I needed to learn to take their feedback, implement it, and get over it. I had to learn that receiving constructive criticism didn’t mean that I was a horrible idiot who didn’t know how to do anything. This is when I started to view criticism as classwork.

Every mistake was simply a lesson in a curriculum that hadn’t been covered yet, and I needed to do my homework, pass the test, and prepare for the next exam. Feedback was always about the project—never about me as a person. Internalizing that fact was essential to recovering my relationship with constructive criticism.

Here’s how to avoid taking feedback personally:

  • Determine the best way to communicate. Whether you’re working for a freelance client or a scary attorney like Grumpy, communication is EVERYTHING. If you don’t know them well enough yet to discover their communication style on your own, ask them! This is something I began to do a few years into my law firm life. When I was assigned to a new attorney, I would ask them how they preferred to communicate with me: email, in person before they went out for lunch, notes on their desk, carrier pigeon… whatever. No one is ever going to be annoyed with you for asking this—in fact, they’ll be pleased that you took the time to care about their communication style.

  • Be proactive. If you’re wary about negative feedback, simply do your best to avoid it. Make sure you have a complete understanding of the scope of the project, and consult coworkers or trusted colleagues who may have completed a similar project if there’s an element you’re confused about.

  • Ask questions!!! Yes, three exclamation points were necessary. Too many people are scared of asking questions. And for what?! What’s the worst someone can do? Say “no” or “I don’t know.” I’m willing to confidently say that 9 times out of 10, people will appreciate your questions, because they’ll recognize your dedication to providing them with the best possible end result.

  • View criticism as classwork. Once you take all emotion out of it, feedback is only meant to make you better, and help you learn how to complete a task correctly the next time you attempt it. And isn’t that basically what graded homework is? As soon as you begin to view constructive criticism as a learning experience, you’ll be able to accept it.

  • Realize that the feedback is about the PROJECT, and not about you as a PERSON. Remove the negative connotations like shame and insecurity from feedback, and all you get is instructions about how to do something. Take a moment to feel your feelings if you have to, then take the instructions and apply them to the next project, and you’ll find that you’ll likely receive less constructive criticism the next time. Repeat until you spend less energy feeling and more energy perfecting your craft.

  • Limit negative self talk. Especially when you’re verbally responding to feedback or discussing feedback with another person. Even a simple, seemingly lighthearted “ugh, I’m so stupid, I forgot to…” or a “oops, sorry, I suck” can be very taxing on your mental health. Again—remove emotion from the equation. You’re not stupid, you don’t suck. You did your best, you’ll use this feedback next time, and you’ll improve.

Important note: the above only applies to constructive criticism. You may have to deal with clients or bosses or colleagues who aren’t yet well versed in how to properly provide you with feedback, and your response to their poorly delivered criticism is completely valid.

Use your judgment (and the information from the beginning of this blog post) to determine whether you’ve been given feedback in a respectful manner. If you feel that someone may have crossed a line or disrespected you in the process of delivering their feedback, tell them how you feel. Or tell management if applicable.

Either way—if you’ve been treated poorly, you need to make whoever is responsible aware of the situation so they do not continue to mistreat you or others.

This post is a bit different than my typical digital marketing content, but the issue of giving and receiving feedback is often a touchy subject among freelancers. I wanted to share with you a bit of my story, and I hope that you found these tips helpful! If you did—ILY! Send me a DM on Instagram to continue the conversation, or SAVE this post to Pinterest to help someone in your community find it!

If we haven’t had the chance to *virtually* meet yet, hi! I’m Sara Noel—website copywriter and marketing mentor for creatives, copywriters, and all-around cool people. If you like my content and you want even more BTL in your life, here are a few ways you can connect with me:

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