The Art of Tact

Providing Constructive Criticism to Your Peers Without Insulting Their Intelligence

criticize (9738237_blog)Susie sits behind the counter at her photography studio, editing pictures from the latest session, and waiting on her next appointment. In walks an older gentleman. Susie’s immediate expectation is that he’ll be scheduling a session for his grandchildren.

She couldn’t be more wrong.

To her surprise, the man walks up to her and proclaims, “I’ve been a photographer for 16 years. Your work is, quite simply, sub-par. You need to clean up your composition, perfect your lighting technique and just take better pictures overall if you think you’re going to make it in this industry.”

Okay, so no one would really do that, right? Who has the gumption to insult someone they’ve never met with such arrogance? Truth is, it happens every day; social media opens up the opportunity to say things to our peers we would never dream of conveying in person.

The world of freelance is very competitive – there are a lot of writers, photographers and graphic designers out there. However, peer-to-peer, we’re a group of individuals willing to help each other grow and excel in our chosen fields by sharing and mentoring.

However, this better-than-you approach is not the way to make an impact on someone and help that person grow in his or her chosen field. Someone who took a similar approach once said to me, “There is no room for tact in constructive criticism.”

I completely disagree.

Would You Say it to Their Face?

Internet and social media have given people a bolder approach to each other. However, the truth of the matter is, if you wouldn’t say it to someone’s face, then you shouldn’t say it in a message.

The fictional tale above likely gave you an exasperated reaction as you read it, and an inner monologue likened to “no way!” While it seems outlandish that someone would do that to our friend Susie, what if I told you she received that criticism in a message online? Why do we believe it’s okay to insult our freelance peers via the Internet?

Just because you don’t have to look in someone’s eyes, doesn’t mean you’re free to say anything you want and expect a good reaction. And you certainly can’t expect someone to learn from you if you choose to insult him right from the start.

Start With an Introduction

Before you take the time to provide constructive criticism to one of your peers, introduce yourself. Whether it’s via social media message, email, telephone, or even face-to-face, make initial contact to show that you’re someone that seeks to help others succeed, and that you’re worth listening to. An adequate approach in Susie’s situation may have been:

“Hi, Susie. I’m Bob and, as photographer for the past 16 years, I know how important it is to learn from others so that I can continue to better my skills. I would love to give you some feedback on your work if you’re open to it.”

Don’t Tear Others Down

If your peer is receptive to feedback after a kind introduction, that doesn’t mean you should dive right in and tear her work apart. Bob’s next message shouldn’t be the one Susie received initially, just because she said okay to his review.

Liz Strauss, one of the more successful freelance writers around, says that one little negative, even one hidden away through passive aggression, cancels a positive comment every time. So, if you approach your peer with a list of negatives and don’t pepper your comments with what areas he excels or shows promise in, then there is nothing productive about your feedback at all. Your peer will immediately get defensive and learn nothing.

The golden rule always applies: treat others the way you want to be treated. No one wants to be torn down. Building up is important, too.

Be Specific

Bob gave Susie no examples of how her work needed improvement, just “clean up… perfect… do better.” Comments like these do not lend to teaching or mentoring someone. Instead, you need to be specific about what areas can use more work and provide examples. Alternatively, you need to be specific about what areas are strong and successful.

Check Your Own Work First

Before you decide that you have the skills that make you an expert on what works in your particular industry, seek feedback on your own work from someone you admire. You may find that you have things you need to improve on, too.

Most certainly, don’t send feedback to a fellow writer without first checking for spelling and grammatical errors in the comments you’re sending, such as “someting” or a comma-splice. Just as you wouldn’t send an example of your work to a fellow photographer saying “see how it’s done” when referencing white balance, but the subject of the image is out of focus.

Doing so voids your comments. If you can’t show you’re worth listening to through your own work, others will choose to ignore what you have to say.

It’s Still Worth Sharing

I don’t want to give the wrong impression here; I think that sharing our thoughts with others within our industry is crucial to helping each other succeed. However, insulting your peers’ ability or intelligence will only result in conflict (or, if no direct conflict, your message will be deleted and ignored completely).

Whether your thoughts are accepted as a learning tool is all in the way that you approach someone. If you reach out with tact, grace and respect, then your peer will receive your comments in the same way. And Susie may just become a better photographer because of it.

(originally posted on Ink’d Content)


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