How to Accept Difficult Feedback

Worried man in business conversation
We all know we need feedback to grow and improve, but when negative feedback is on its way, we are likely to duck and cover or worse, stand and fight. So why do we avoid the very feedback that we may need to achieve our own aspirations?

The simple answer is, negative feedback hurts. The same regions in the brain that light up when we have physical pain also light up when we receive negative feedback. The “pain” primes us for an immediate instinctive fight or flight response. The thoughtful, rational consideration the feedback deserves is nowhere to be found.

So, what can we do?

First, know that negative feedback does not require a quick response or any response at all. Unlike physical pain, your hand is not really burning so you don’t need to remove it from the flame.

Second, listen, listen, listen. Let the feedback come out until it has run out. Resist the temptation to formulate a response or judge the validity of the feedback. Your mind is not in the best state to do this. You need time to let the pain response subside, then you will have access to your higher brain where reasoning and judgment reside. Of course, if you have the skills, active listening where you restate and seek clarity is encouraged. Keep it about understanding the feedback, not evaluating it or defending yourself in any way.

Third, say thank you and smile if you can. Try saying something like “Thank you, you’ve given me a lot to think about. I appreciate your taking the time to share that with me.” This will keep the feedback channel open. Who knows what you could learn in the future.

Fourth, step back and reflect. This is where the real work begins. To unpack the meaning buried in the words, you will need to use your higher brain functions. Metaphorically step back and away from yourself. From your higher, more objective vantage point, can you see the perspective of the individual who gave you the feedback? Assume for a moment that what they say is true or at least true for them from their viewpoint. Now consider what you would do if it were true. Would those actions be helpful to you even if the feedback was off the mark?

Fifth, take a “rent to own” approach with the feedback. Try it on and walk outside the shop for a day or two. Most of us dismiss the feedback before we even take a look in the mirror.

If it really doesn’t fit after a few days, feel free to chalk it up to a misunderstanding or just an off day for you or the feedback giver. But more likely you will find that while the whole message may not resonate, at least a kernel does; that kernel may just be the piece of feedback you need to grow and develop to achieve your aspirations.

So the next time a rough piece of feedback comes your way, remember:

  • No immediate response required
  • Listen, listen, listen (no judging nor defending)
  • Say “thank you” to keep the feedback channel open
  • Step back and away, then reflect – engage your higher brain
  • Take a “rent to own” approach – don’t dismiss it too early
  • Find the kernel and act accordingly