How To Rise To The Occasion After Negative Feedback

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It’s hard to take criticism well. When we’re receiving negative feedback, it’s common to flash back to past experiences of being found wanting from times as early as childhood. And some experts say our reaction to being criticized is related to the feelings of being physically assaultedUnfortunately, it’s hard to implement even the most well-meaning feedback if we can’t bear to hear it, or try to push it away and deny its merits. To do a more effective job of absorbing feedback and putting it to use, try working your way through these three stages.

Stage I Acceptance

Sit tight. Rather than following the natural human instinct to protest, rationalize and explain—or run away—try to actually encourage the giver by directly asking for the feedback. First, an explicit request can make the giver feel more comfortable, helping them to be more clear and more constructive. Also, by asking explicitly, you’ll feel more in charge of what’s happening and are therefore more likely to accept the feedback rather than instinctively resisting it.

Repeat back or paraphrase the feedback as accurately as possible to demonstrate your understanding. Take notes if you can, to make sure you’re getting it, and to counteract the likelihood of forgetting under pressure. You’ll preserve more of the content to review later, and you’ll also have a clearer idea of how to counter the content if you decide to do so—but now is not the time. Just keep breathing and saying back what you hear, and taking notes.

Express appreciation. This shows both respect and commitment to improvement. You can make it quick and to the point. “Thank you for telling me this. I’m going to go think about it now. Perhaps we can discuss more of the specifics in a couple of days.”

Stage II Planning

Go away and process.  It’s normal to want to be comforted after a tough critique, but to be effective and improve, we need to hear the truth. So instead of commiserating with people who will make you feel better by confirming your distressed or hostile view, find a “loving critic.”  This person can help you work through the feedback’s meaning and plan how best to respond, while simultaneously affirming you as a person.

For example, when one senior director I coached received harsh feedback from her vice president, she wanted me to support her perception that the VP was not a good boss and her desire to leave the VP’s team. I agreed that she deserved to be spoken to with respect and concern, acknowledged that she was unhappy, and affirmed that she had skills and attributes that any leader would want. I also noted that she had been slacking a little for a while and that she was completely capable of doing even more than the VP had asked. I suggested that she step up and give her very best so that if she did look for another job, she could leave with pride in her work and make the VP sorry to see her go. She rose to the challenge, went on to do a bang-up job, and then landed a much better position.

Be curious about what the giver is trying to accomplish. I asked another director to focus on how different his perception was from what his leader actually wanted. The director got interested in differentiating between the reasons for the leader’s requirements and the actions that were necessary to implement them. That enabled us to prep for a conversation in which he could express his intention to deliver, his desire to understand more fully what the senior leader wanted and to inquire about how he could best fulfill those needs.

Stage III Delivery

Commit and question. Once you’ve gotten curious about what the other is trying to accomplish and how they want you to accomplish it, it’s easier to commit to both their goals and their plans (at least, their plans for what you will do differently). Now you can verify the particulars: “Is this what you’re looking for? I think you’re asking me to take a more exploratory approach, and to work toward an outcome that looks like X. Is that right?” Marshal your data if you need to negotiate any specifics: “Did you happen to see the market statistics on the Xerxes account? I’m concerned that they’re not as high as we need them to be before I go forward with the new approach you’ve specified.” Propose small additions or alternatives: “I’m getting ready to hold the team meeting about the shift in focus. Did you want all the adjustments made by mid-month, or can we sequence things to have the less crucial ones handled by the end of the month?”

Stay close to the source of feedback. It’s natural to want to withdraw and even avoid the person who’s given you feedback. You might react this way even if you know you need to change. But the feedback giver can read that response as opposition or noncompliance. They may write you off, or critique you even more negatively. At one of my clients, I recommended that a c-level executive treat a challenging colleague in another office as his best customer rather than any kind of problem. The exec started visiting the challenging colleague more frequently. Their increased contact helped build the relationship through a combination of lighter and more serious interactions and the amount of negative feedback dropped significantly.

Accepting and applying feedback may never seem completely fair or reasonable. It’s not easy to change what you’re doing when you thought it was working fine. Plus, it takes real effort and positive intention to tolerate personal reactions of failure and disappointment. But by following this three-stage model of acceptance, planning and delivery, you’re more likely to extract the maximum value from the feedback and improve both your performance and your relationship with the person who critiqued you.

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