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power points

Few people accept feedback serenely. Well-intentioned feedback is a gift, someone who likes us trying to give us tips for improving. But most of us view it, instinctively, as a threat.

“The idea of receiving feedback – particularly the constructive kind – is a potential threat to our view-of-self. We see ourselves in one way, and lo and behold, someone comes along and attempts to burst our bubble,” emerging leader and executive coach Art Petty notes on his blog.

We retreat into defence mode – fight, flee or freeze. It’s primal, as if we’re on an African savannah, suddenly confronted by a lion. In fact, our distaste for feedback is so strong we don’t even like having the upper hand and giving it. And we don’t like the people who give it to us. Research shows we move away from people who give us negative feedback, forging new networks.

Success coach Jezra Kaye says a reason for our defensive reaction to feedback can be that we’re already anxious about our performance in the area being discussed. It might also trigger reminders from our childhood when we were criticized. And, of course, the feedback may not be kind-hearted; it can be ham-handed or cruel.

Her playbook for handling feedback starts with managing your immediate reaction. “If you’re not in a receptive frame of mind, get your reaction under control before you respond to what the other person has said. This may be a minor process, like breathing out while thinking a positive thought; or it may involve stepping away so that you can handle a more extreme reaction privately,” she writes on her blog.

But don’t leave the room until you acknowledge and thank the feedback giver. As with an apology, you don’t have to agree with the other person’s point of view to acknowledge it. “In this case, the person who’s giving you feedback has taken a risk (they don’t know how you’re going to react) and given you the benefit of the doubt (they hope that you’ll respond reasonably). So give credit where it’s due,” she says. Even if you completely disagree with their feedback, you can probably say something like, “I appreciate your sharing that with me” or “Thank you for telling me what you think.”

If you find uttering such words impossible – it feels inauthentic – she says you can skip that step. But doing so makes the next one more important: Promising to think about the feedback. That promise will serve you well, maintaining the relationship. In the best case scenario, you’ll find the feedback, or at least part of it, valuable. And if you are sure the feedback will forever seem wrong-headed, you are only promising to think about it, not do anything. Again, she says this step is skippable, but only if you had managed to acknowledge and thank the feedback giver in the previous step. Somehow, you must bolster the relationship.

If the feedback is about a specific situation and the other person seems relaxed and open, she says you might ask if it’s okay if you give more information about what happened. If they agree to hear more, she says “they’re much less likely to think that you’re being defensive, making excuses, or trying to wriggle out of your responsibility for whatever went wrong.”

At the same time, this won’t work if you are feeling defensive, inclined to deflect blame. Look inside yourself to be sure and if you’re in a negative frame of mind, don’t explain anything – at least now. Your explanation will only make things worse. “Walk away until you understand what really happened, and aren’t just making an excuse,” she advises.

Maybe the feedback is a gift, maybe it’s useless. But following her four-step approach can keep you from harming the relationship with your colleague or boss.

Quick hits

  • Define yourself by your effort, not your suffering, says Atomic Habits author James Clear.
  • Ease back into travelling for work rather than diving in full force, advises time management coach Elizabeth Grace Saunders. You may have lost your conditioning for trip preparation and gruelling travel. Many of her clients who plunged in quickly are feeling burned out.
  • Cate Luzio, chief executive officer of Luminary, a global women’s networking business, suggests women seeking advancement focus on results, reputation, resume and relationships. “You have to make a business case around why I deserve more money,” she says. “Men say I deserve X. Women say I need X.”
  • Three questions to ask experienced colleagues or mentors, courtesy of skills coach Kate Nasser: What do you know now that you wish you had known years before (and why)? How have you dealt with the bad times? What activities outside of work have helped you the most at work?

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and CanCom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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