How to Accept Difficult Feedback

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. How then can we learn to accept difficult feedback? Why do we naturally avoid or deflect the very feedback that we may need to achieve our own aspirations?

Negative Feedback Hurts

Man Accepting Difficult Feedback

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. This means that the thoughtful, rational consideration the feedback deserves is often nowhere to be found.

6 Steps to Make Difficult Feedback Work for You

How can you overcome the impulse to push the difficult feedback to the side or fight it directly? How can you learn from it so you can use it to your benefit?

1. 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. As advised in, The Right Way to Respond to Negative Feedback, “don’t rush to react”. Were you ever told to count to 10 before responding to something that upset you? As mentioned above, your brain reacts to perceived threats as if they were physical, imminent threats. Time allows you to calm down and think more clearly. Fight the impulse to respond in the moment. An immediate response is not required.

2. 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. As I already mentioned, 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. However, keep it about understanding the feedback, not evaluating it, or defending yourself in any way. By focusing on listening, you can buy yourself time allowing you to both better understand the feedback and avoid responding in a way that you’d later regret.

Read More: Listen, Listen, Listen

3. Say thank you and smile if you can

Difficulty feedback by definition is difficult to receive; however, as stated above, it really helps to buy yourself time. If you’ve listened, listened, listened, you can now smile and say something like, “Thank you. I appreciate your taking the time to share that with me. You’ve given me a lot to think about. Do you mind if I take some time to process this and get back to you?”

This kind of phrasing helps in a few ways.

  • It buys you time.
  • It indicates to them that you are taking the feedback seriously and not just brushing it off.
That latter point will help keep the feedback channel open. When you directly challenge the giver, they are likely to stop giving you feedback. Who knows what you could learn in the future? You don’t have to communicate “agreed”, just that the feedback was welcomed and received. As Troy Blaser states in the article, Why Should You Follow Up with Feedback Providers?, “Experience has shown that following up with the people who gave you feedback in a 360-degree survey leads to improvement in leadership effectiveness.” You want to keep that feedback channel open, so you have future opportunities to learn more.

Experience has shown that following up with the people who gave you feedback in a 360-degree survey leads to improvement in leadership effectiveness.

- Troy Blaser - "Why Should You Follow Up with Feedback Providers?"

4. 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?

Read More: How to Reflect on Feedback

5. 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. Rather than refusing to even try it out, you can remind yourself that you don’t have to own the feedback. You can rent it and just check it out first. As you incorporate step 4 and reflect on the feedback and also move toward step 6 of finding the kernel, approaching the feedback with a rent-to-own attitude can help you feel more open and recognize that you have options. You don’t have to accept the feedback outright. You have a choice. Try it out and decide if you think you’ll own it and move forward with it.

6. Find the kernel and act accordingly

If the feedback 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. I explain this on Simply Feedback Podcast in episode, 3 Steps to Make Use of Any Feedback. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to grow even if the feedback was off the mark or not given well.

Sometimes folks will receive feedback from someone. And what they're hearing is the intention that the individual has for them on where they need to be. That's the wrong mindset. Generative feedback says, “I'm going to take that feedback. I'm going to find what value is in it that will propel me towards where I want to go.” And that that's generative: When you remain in control and use it to power you forward to achieve your ends, your aspiration for your professional life.

- Glade Holman - "3 Steps to Make Use of Any Feedback"


I recognize that sometimes you receive difficult feedback, and it’s hard to accept. Know that you don’t have accept it all; however, the more you can demonstrate that you are open to feedback and people see you acting on it, the better it will be for your career. The next time you face a difficult feedback situation, remember these 6 points.

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