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Taking a Constructive View of Negative Feedback

It’s key to take an undesirable critique professionally and graciously, and, most of all, to learn from it

By Lisa van de Geyn

There aren’t a whole lot of guarantees in life, but this sure is one of them: At some point in your career, you’ll encounter a client who isn’t totally over-the-moon with an event or meeting you’ve spearheaded. “In fact, the bigger your commitment is to create something new and exciting, the more likely you are to turn a few people off,” says Heather Petherick, a career and performance specialist in Calgary. While no one enjoys receiving negative feedback, it’s key to take an undesirable critique professionally and graciously, and, most of all, learn from it.

“It is cliché to say, but my biggest lessons have come from times when things did not go as planned,” says Anh Nguyen, principal of Spark Event Management in Calgary. “If you can keep your emotions in check, it is amazing what you can do with negative feedback.” Here’s how to make the most out of a less-than-glowing review.

It’s not easy to do, but following this advice will put you in a professional frame of mind to deal with unhappy clients. “It is very important to take nega­tive feedback seriously, but not personally,” says Julie Connolly, the CEO of Carte Blanche Events in Vancouver.

According to Petherick, criticism usually com­municates disappointment in one of three areas: emotional (an ego has been hurt), logistical (the venue, timing or technology wasn’t up to par) or content-based (the speakers, exhibitors or swag was a letdown). Figuring out the problem area cre­ates “a curious mindset and takes the focus away from what we ‘did wrong,’” she says. It will also show the client that you care about his feedback.

“A conversation is usually better than an email, so talk about the problem during the event if it comes up. Afterward, do your event recap in person with the client,” Connolly suggests. In which case, Nguyen recommends taking a deep breath and listening to everything before responding. “If it is over written communication, sleep on it before you send a reply.”

You don’t want to be caught off-guard and end up saying something you’ll regret. Instead of try­ing to defend yourself, try “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Then, Petherick suggests letting the client vent. “Try, ‘Help me understand exactly what you’re disappointed with. How would you like to have seen it handled?’” You can end with something like, “I appreciate your candid feedback, and it’s my goal that the event be the best it can. Your input has identified an important way we can improve.”

Perhaps the most crucial thing to remember is not to lose it. “Save the crying, venting, name-calling and yelling for when you are behind closed doors,” says Nguyen. “Remember that you’re representing your company’s brand.” Nguyen has her own trick: “I’ll ask myself if my mom would have been proud of how I handled myself. It’s a good gut check.”

After a shoddy review, ask yourself these questions, says Petherick: Why did you make the decisions you did? Was this a one-off criticism? Would you still make the same call? “No matter how skilled or experienced we are, stuff happens. Instead of being defeated, recognize critiques are often the fastest way to improvement,” she adds. “A wise entrepreneur once said, ‘If you’re not offending someone on a regular basis, you’re probably not making any fans, either.’”

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