Navigating the Five Stages of Grief (of Project Feedback)

Written by Lukas Treu

We’ve all been there.
You thought you #nailedit on that last copy draft. You got the assignment, you took care of it, and you moved on. In fact, you haven’t even thought about it since you forwarded it along and crossed it off your to-do list. It’s done, and you’ve got new projects to focus on.
Or at least you thought so… until the email comes from your team of reviewers.

“This was a good start, but it could use some work.”
The dreaded “good start.” The tactful way to say, “I hate it.”

“It didn’t quite hit the mark; here’s some feedback to consider.”
-And by “mark,” we mean “our bar of competency.”

“See attached for comments.”
Oooooh boy.
You feel a pang of dread, and you open the attachment warily. It’s not an attachment; it’s Pandora’s Box! Your fears are confirmed as you’re greeted by a wall of tracked changes, comment boxes and, well, sadness.
You hadn’t seen this coming, but here you are once again: working your way through the Five Stages of Grief (of Project Feedback).
Know the feeling?
It starts with…


“This can’t be right,” you think, as you look incredulously at the project markups. There must have been a mistake.
Did they review an old draft?
Did someone misunderstand the project?
How could this have happened?
You’re overcome by disbelief, yet you’re staring at the hard evidence that something went wrong. And now you’re forced to do something about it.

…tends to follow.
You start responding to the comment boxes.
Ugh. You know deep down that your responses will never make it to the rest of the team, but you’re not thinking clearly yet. Someone messed up, but it can’t be you! You followed the directions. The readers must have misunderstood. It’s not you… it’s them. What you wrote made perfect sense. How did they not see it? We are wasting time here!
Yeah, you’re annoyed.
Yet… you start to reread your replies to the comments and realize they’re not going to change things. Not really. You can’t just send it back without making edits. Anger isn’t going to get the job done.
You resort to…
“Well, maybe if I make some of the edits, that will be good enough. I guess I see where they’re coming from here… maybe I can just change that? Or I can accept the tracked changes, but do I really have to move this whole section? It’s going to mess up my flow if I do… Can I just reason with them on that part?”
At this point, you’ve started making some of the changes, but you haven’t quite come to terms with the fact that maybe you hadn’t #nailedit after all with that first draft. The misunderstanding still feels like it’s on the behalf of the message recipient, not the sender. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink, right?
But that’s not what they taught you in school. “The responsibility for the message’s clarity is always on the sender, not the recipient.” Wasn’t that the mantra in those communication classes? You believed it then. Why don’t you now?
Maybe… maybe this is kind of on you after all.
Come to terms with this, and you’re ready for what’s next.
You delete the rest of your comment responses written in the heat of the moment as you accept the fact that you’ll need to make the changes. Maybe you’re not that great a writer after all.
OK… “bad writer” is a little harsh. You tell yourself not to “be like that.” But is it fair to say that maybe you weren’t as clear on the directions as you thought? These are smart team members reviewing your materials, and if they didn’t “get it” on the first pass, who’s to say that others will?
As you reread the comments and markups, you realize that perhaps there’s some validity to what they are saying after all. They aren’t saying that you suck; they’re just saying there could be a better way to get the message across while hitting on all the key points.
You take a deep breath.
It’s going to be OK.
You’ve made it. You’ve reached…

As you get your emotions in check, you begin to recognize that the edits aren’t actually that bad. Maybe you don’t agree with every single one, but honestly, you can see where they are coming from. This piece could be better, and in some cases, you just hadn’t thought about a section here or there from the same perspective as your reviewers.
You get to work making updates, and as you find yourself deleting comments as you address them, you feel a sense of peace return. Maybe we’re going to get through this after all.
If this sounds all too familiar, don’t feel bad. Like I said, we’ve all been there.
The Five Stages of Grief (of Project Feedback) is a natural cycle we all must work through when we receive edits on copy we’ve written, projects we’ve designed or plans we’ve crafted. It doesn’t make you a bad employee or teammate for feeling some emotions connected to your work. We are emotional beings, after all, and sometimes those emotions get the best of us.

What’s important is recognizing that the Five Stages of Grief (of Project Feedback) exist, and it’s best to process your way through the full cycle before responding. You’ll be glad that you did.
In fact, if you recognize the Five Stages of Grief (of Project Feedback) in the moment, you may even be able to skip a few steps, stay positive and more quickly create better results for your organization.
Which gets me to the bonus section of this blog post.

While Elisabeth Kübler-Ross originally covered five “stages of grief” in her landmark psychology book “On Grief and Grieving,” her co-author, David Kessler, went on to author an additional book called “Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief.”
In the book, Kessler talks about the importance of not merely seeking closure after navigating the five stages of grief, but “transforming grief into a more peaceful and hopeful experience” by finding meaning in the experience. This is a principle we can apply to the project feedback process too.
The next time you find yourself having moved through the Five Stages of Grief (of Project Feedback), take a moment to look back and say, “What can I learn from this?”
What you learn will be situational, and there’s little point in speculating on what it may be. You’ll know when you get there… just ask the question.
If there is one takeaway to remember the next time you emerge from the project feedback process, it is this: “We’re all in this together.”
We may not all interpret things the same way and we may not always agree, but that’s not a bad thing. Just recognize that your colleagues are working toward the same business goals as you, and we all just want what’s best for the organization.
Stay positive, stay cool, and maybe even give a little smile the next time you find yourself slipping into the Five Stages of Grief (of Project Feedback). When it comes to navigating that process, we’re all in that together too.
Feel like you know this process all too well? We’d love to hear your stories about navigating the Five Stages of Grief (of Project Feedback). Leave us a comment about your experiences!