How to Respond to Feedback

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I don’t know anyone who likes this topic – it generates an almost universal “ick” response. And although most of us receive feedback at our jobs on a regular basis, it is often a challenge for our minds to distinguish between criticism of our work and criticism of our self. This is why, I believe, we dread, or feel the need to “steel ourselves,” before these conversations.

This post offers a few practical suggestions on how to re-frame the moment of receiving feedback to make it seem more useful and less threatening.

1. Focus on Work

Remember that the feedback is an assessment of your work, not of you as a person. If you typically experience feelings of shame or self-judgement when receiving feedback, the two may have become linked in your mind. I know it used to be that way for me, and it took some effort to untangle them! 

One trick is to visualize a large sphere that represents your entire self, then place another smaller sphere inside it, to represent your work. Choose different colors for the large and small spheres. Mentally “sit” in the larger sphere of yourself, and look more objectively at your work sphere to assess how the feedback can best support its growth and well-being.

2. Depersonalize

I know the idea of depersonalizing direct feedback may sound illogical because, of course, the feedback is being given to you, and is based on your work. However, the feedback is also, always, about the person giving it. Both the content and the delivery of the feedback is as much a reflection of the speaker’s background, expertise, priorities, and attitude as it is about you or your work. That is why different people often offer different feedback, or might say the same thing in very different ways.

Depersonalizing does not mean that you disregard the feedback. Rather, it is a way for you understand it more accurately and from the speaker’s own perspective. Ask yourself, “What’s important to this person, that they are giving me this feedback?” or “If I were sitting on their side of the table, what might concern them the most about my work and why?”

3. Get Specific

The more clearly you understand the feedback, the better able you will be to determine how (or if) you will be able to act on it. Asking clarifying questions about the specific events or tasks in question also demonstrates to the speaker that you are listening, that you value the feedback, and that you are committed to your own growth.

4. Defensive or Accountable?

This is a tough but essential question to ask yourself when you start feeling uncomfortable around feedback. Defensiveness is a common survival reflex, but wholly counterproductive in contemporary work environments, and it’s often triggered by old patterns of shame and insecurity. If you are thinking negatively about the speaker, feeling angry or agitated, making excuses, or attempting to prove the feedback wrong, you may have accidentally slipped into defensiveness. It’s ok. We all trip that wire from time to time. The antidote is to flip the accountability switch as soon as possible, because it’s nearly impossible to do both at once.

You’ll know you’ve switched from being defensive to being accountable when you’re taking a genuine interest in the speaker’s feedback and caring about improving your work so that you can be more helpful and supportive. Embracing accountability is not simply about doing what you’re asked for the sake of obedience, but rather about understanding that your work matters because it directly impacts the work and well-being of others. Mistakes happen. If you’re in defensive mode, you’ll tend to ignore and likely repeat them. If you commit to staying accountable, on the other hand, you can own your mistakes and correct them in the future.

5. Take Action

Even if you feel terrible about the feedback, choose at least one thing to do immediately that will help you learn something new or strengthen a skill. This is a moment for the Nike “Just do it” mantra. Move the thinking mind out of the way and get something done that is relevant to the feedback. The act of doing often persuades your nervous system that you are safe and that it is therefore ok to relax, and your behavior also sends a message to your boss that you are engaged and committed to improvement. Win-win.

If you found this article useful and would like to learn more about improving your professional communication skills or cultivating more productive work relationships, please reach out to schedule a free coach consultation with me. No obligation, just a focused conversation about your personal challenges and how the coaching process might be able to help.