No matter what we do or how well we do it, there’s no escaping the fact that some criticism is virtually guaranteed to come our way. And those moments are often some of the toughest we all face in work and life.
The problem is that no one thinks they have a problem with receiving feedback, and almost everyone will insist they desire it. But truth be told, most people could use some help with how to receive feedback with grace and modesty.
Take the lesson below to learn what goes into receiving feedback like a pro. And please take the accompanying quiz at the end. Good luck and Happy Learning!
Myra – a highly regarded creative director in the digital media industry – was three months into a new job and was having a particularly good day before her CEO called her into his cabin.
He smiled warmly, waved her into a chair, and said,
CEO – “Hey Myra. Nothing really, I’ve noticed you around at work, and I just wanted to share an observation about you.
Myra sat up in her chair, beamed a winning smile, and leaned forward attentively, notes at the ready.
“Yess! Just three months in and the CEO already noticed me. Well done, Myra”
CEO – “I need you to be more creative.”
“Ridiculous! You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I am thcce creative director of this company. Cre-a-tive is in my job title! And I’m very very good at it.
“This is contrary to every piece of feedback I’ve received my entire career.”
Quieting her thoughts, Myra was relieved she still had a smile on – albeit a tight-lipped one. The CEO quickly said something friendly, but Myra didn’t really register it.
Myra – “I think I’m fairly good at being creative. But sure, I’ll look into it. Thanks so much”, she nodded and rose to leave.
“You wouldn’t know creative if it popped up and slapped you in the face. Don’t you dare lecture me on creative.”
Myra walked out the door, searching her phone for her head-hunter friend’s number.
Can you relate to Myra’s situation? Of course, you have. For no matter what we do or how well we do it, there’s no escaping the fact that some criticism is virtually guaranteed to come our way. And those moments are often some of the toughest we all face in work and life.
And for the record, Myra’s reaction was natural.
No one thinks they have a problem with receiving feedback, and almost everyone will insist they desire it.
What everyone truly wants though is to be adored and have everyone think they’re awesome – and to be told that.
And criticism, by definition, is an indication that there are some flaws in our perceived, picture perfect self -images that need work. And that can make receiving feedback particularly painful at times. As it turns out, there’s a psychological basis for this discomfort.
Let’s face it. It’s not reflexive for us to feel like we’re wrong, and it’s even harder for us to hear that from others. That’s because
1. Our brains view criticism as a threat to our survival
Because our brains are protective of us, neuroscientists say they go out of their way to make sure we always feel like we’re in the right–even when we’re not.
And when we receive criticism, our brain tries to protect us from the threat it perceives to our place in the social order of things.
“Threats to our standing in the eyes of others are remarkably potent biologically, almost as those to our very survival,” says psychologist Daniel Goleman. In other words, what people think of us matters deeply to us, leaving us feeling very vulnerable if our good reputation is threatened. No wonder feedback is tough for us -not just to hear, but also to offer.
2. We remember criticism strongly but inaccurately
Sometimes feedback doesn’t feel “true” to us because we’re simply unaware of it. It sits squarely in a blind spot. And that plays out in a very interesting way.
Charles Jacobs, author of Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work, says that when we hear information that conflicts with our self-image, our instinct is to first change the information, rather than ourselves.
But although criticism is more likely to be remembered incorrectly, we don’t often forget it.
Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University, says “almost everyone remembers negative things more strongly and in more detail.”
It’s called a negativity bias. Our brains have evolved separate, more sensitive brain circuits to handle negative information and events, and they process the bad stuff more thoroughly than positive things. That means receiving criticism will always have a greater impact than receiving praise.
Receiving feedback well doesn’t mean you have to take the feedback. Being good at receiving feedback means just that: that you receive it.
Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment, many of us react with defensiveness or—even worse—attack the person giving feedback. And once they are rebuffed, argued with, or subjected to your defensive behavior, coworkers and bosses are less likely to approach you again with helpful feedback. That is a gigantic setback – for one’s own growth and development.
So how do you tame the typical defensive reactions that erupt in the face of criticism?
The next time you receive constructive criticism from your manager or a peer, use these steps to handle the encounter with tact and grace.
1. Stop Your First Reaction
At the first sign of criticism, before you do anything—stop. Try not to react at all! You’ll have at least a couple of seconds to stop your reaction. While a few seconds seems insignificant in real life, it’s ample time for your brain to process a situation. And in that moment, you can halt a dismissive facial expression or reactive quip and remind yourself to stay calm.
2. Listen for Understanding
As the person shares feedback with you, listen closely without interruption. When they’re done, repeat back what you heard. For example, “I hear you saying that you want me to provide more detailed weekly reports, is that right?”
At this point, avoid analyzing or questioning the person’s assessment; instead, just focus on understanding his or her comments and perspective. Recognise that it’s as difficult to give feedback as it to receive it, and that the person giving you feedback may be nervous or may not express their ideas perfectly.
3. Say Thank You
Look the person in the eye and thank them for sharing feedback with you deliberately and as sincerely as you can. Say something like, “I really appreciate you taking the time to talk about this with me.”
Expressing appreciation doesn’t have to mean you’re agreeing with the assessment, but it does show that you’re acknowledging the effort your colleague took to evaluate you and share his or her thoughts.
4. Ask Questions to Deconstruct the Feedback
Now it’s time to process the feedback—you’ll probably want to get more clarity at this point and share your perspective. Even the most seasoned executives can appear a bit heartless when providing feedback. If there is a point made that doesn’t sit right with you, avoid engaging in a debate; instead, ask questions to get to the root of the actual issues being raised and possible solutions for addressing them.
For example, if a colleague tells you that you lost your temper in a meeting, here are a few ways to deconstruct the feedback:
5. Request Time to Follow Up
Hopefully, by this point in the conversation, you can agree on the issues that were raised. Once you articulate what you will do going forward, and thank the person again for the feedback, you can close the conversation and move on.
Know that as the receiver of feedback, you are very much on the controlling end of how the follow-up goes. You take it into consideration and make changes you see fit later.
If however, if the issue is a serious or urgent one, you may want to ask for a follow-up meeting to ask more questions and get agreement on next steps. And that’s fine—it’ll give you time to process the feedback, seek advice from others, and think about solutions.
Whatever you decide, circle back to your feedback giver to share your thinking. If you don’t, they will think you didn’t hear them, or didn’t care. Letting them know you took their input seriously will strengthen the relationship even if you ultimately go in a different direction.
Bottom line: If people think you’ll appreciatively consider their feedback, you’ll get lots more. And, that is a good thing, really. Thoughtful feedback helps you grow both personally and professionally. It’s a gift that people who care about your personal and professional success can provide.
Here’s how that conversation with Myra might have turned out if she chose to receive the feedback with grace:
CEO: I need you to be more creative
Myra: (Says nothing, but demonstrates she’s pondering the CEO’s remark)
Myra: (After a few seconds) I hear you. You’re saying you need me to be more creative.
Myra: Thanks for sharing your observation with me. And if you have taken the time to talk to me about this, it’s definitely something I want to take a closer look at
Myra: Just so I’m on the same page as you, when you say “creative,” could you talk to me some more about what you mean?
CEO: It’s do with your team meetings. Is there any way you get more creative with the way you conduct them?
Myra: Thinks to herself “Hmm. And I thought this had something to do with my visual design work”
Myra: Okay. I could use some advice. Where do you think I can make improvements?
CEO: I observed that you do a lot of the talking. There’s never space for your team to add any inputs. And some of them are positively gifted – I know their work.
Myra: (Genuinely surprised and enlightened) That’s so helpful. It never occurred to me that I was stifling the teams voice.
Myra: I will definitely take your suggestion under consideration. Let me think this over for a while. Could I run my ideas by you later?
CEO: Of course. I’ll email some content links across to you. Have a look at them, you might find them helpful.
Myra: Thanks so much again. It’s very thoughtful of you to have shared that feedback with me. I think I’m better off for it. And I’ll keep an eye out for your email with those links.
Constructive criticism is often the only way we learn about our weaknesses—without which improvement would just not be possible. When we’re defensive, instead of accepting and gracious, we run the risk of missing out on this important insight. Remember, feedback’s not easy to give – so it pays to appreciate someone who’s willing to brave it just to give you some thoughtful insights. And it’s certainly not easy to receive, but it’ll pays bigtime – both now and in the long run. It’s a gift that people who care about your personal and professional success give you – and it’s only right to learn to accept it with grace.