How to Choose Acceptance as an Effective Way to Take Feedback

Most of us have trouble accepting feedback and criticism without behaving at least a little pridefully or defensively, or actually going on the attack. And even though I write and coach about it, I’m only able to accept criticism with full equanimity from a handful of people myself. With most other people, I have to manage myself to stay relatively calm, and with a few I always find myself getting reactive and upset, and then I get annoyed with myself for losing control. 

But I recently worked with someone who seems to experience almost no stress whatsoever when he receives feedback. I asked him how he’s come to such a place of graceful acceptance. Here’s a lightly edited excerpt of our conversation:

Me: How does this work for you? You don’t appear tense, your voice doesn’t change, your face doesn’t change. Many of us commit to taking the feedback, but we still give off all the animal signals of resentment, resistance, and struggle.

Him: It’s practice. I remember being in situations where I gave off an emotional response, a natural reaction in the moment. And it caused the other person—who I needed to get on my side—to stop and ask, “What was that about?” My emotional response, whether natural and acceptable because of the situation or not, caused that person to react to me in a direction I didn’t want them to go. It’s the practice of being aware of how people will react to you and what that may mean, combined with the practice of recognizing that my reactions will cause reactions. It’s a mental shift—it’s no longer an emotional reaction I have to prevent, but the feedback is just part of the process and I will deal with the emotional part when I am not with this person.

Me: But you’re not pretending and you’re not suppressing—you’re in full acceptance. It’s like the equivalent of the wolf showing his neck—it’s full acceptance. You’re demonstrating that, “This is fine with me,” and that’s how you’re establishing the hope that the two of you can go forward together.

Him: I like to believe that I am bigger and better—that I am able to overcome this. It’s a level-up moment of self-realization. I can handle tough stuff. I can overcome this, so I don’t need to be emotionally reactive. I don’t need to feel scared. It takes the awareness to say that things will actually be better if I accept right away.

Me: Yes, it’s that process of just getting over yourself because you see that you will not be able to progress otherwise.

The Advantages of Acceptance

I see the calm acceptance of feedback as a commitment to the future of a collaboration. It’s like a lightning-fast mental calculation that in this moment, in this relationship or situation, we will be more successful together—and I will be more successful as part of this relationship—if I can accept right now and figure out everything else later. 

You might choose this course of action out of love, to satisfy your boss, or not to make a problem for yourself. My client and I discussed some of the different ways that people can have an experience in which they learn that the relationship payoff of acceptance is greater than the momentary payoff of resistance, and he explained that he learned this when he was young, dealing with teachers that he didn’t like very much but whose approval and good grading he needed.

I only learned how to accept feedback fully much later in life when my daughter was growing up. During difficult conversations, it would become clear to me that if I was not completely willing to give way and accept her feedback—her criticism—that there were many times when she would not be able or willing to continue the conversation. Figuring out what would support our relationship was much more important to me than being right or expressing any of my reasons, concerns, or rationalizations. My preference—my commitment—was that we would be able to move forward together, no matter what. My total acceptance created the space for her to stay in the dialog, and therefore, in the relationship.

Of course there will be times when you might decide, consciously and intentionally, that it’s important to disagree, to stand your ground, even to fight. And that’s always a choice. But the possibility of acceptance—which allows the other person not to have to fight you or try to overcome your resistance—is always there. And the advantage of acceptance—as long as you’re not dealing with a bully—is that the other person feels accepted and understood, and therefore holds no continuing resistance against you.

Onward and upward—


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