Receiving Feedback: Absorbing What Helps and Tossing Aside What Doesn’t

This is the second of a two-part series on giving and receiving feedback in the workplace. This series came about because of a reader’s request; if there are workplace topics you want to hear about, you can always let us know!

Receiving feedback positively is all about studying and appreciating your inner self.
Receiving feedback positively is all about studying and appreciating your inner self.

Receiving critical feedback is hard for many of us because it can reinforce the painful stories we tell ourselves. If you have a dialogue in your head that goes something like “I’m not smart enough to lead this project team,” then it can really sting when your boss tells you she doesn’t think you’re ready to lead a project team right now. Even if that’s true and you know it, unfortunately, your brain drops that piece of feedback right into the irrational “I’m not smart enough” bucket even though it should go into the more realistic “I still have more to learn, but I can lead a project team one day” bucket.

Not only is it hard to receive feedback because of what’s going on inside of us, but then we have to discern whether or not the person giving the feedback has the right motivations, is correct, et cetera. It can be a lot to manage, but by getting real with yourself first, it becomes easier to absorb what you actually do need to hear and discard anything that’s just noise. It’s incredibly helpful to learn how to receive critical feedback, because it can be transformative and support your personal and professional growth.

Here are 5 ideas for how to absorb feedback that helps and toss aside what doesn’t:

1. Know your stories. One of my stories – the things I tell myself are true – is that I’m not charismatic or interesting enough. At its worst, I didn’t like talking about myself with strangers because I was convinced they’d walk away mid-sentence out of sheer boredom. So a few years ago, it really, really stung when someone at work told me that a presentation I did was flat and monotone and that I needed to “pump myself up” more before I did another one. That was probably useful feedback, but it would have helped to know back then that it hurt more because it reinforced something I told myself was true about me. Just by being aware of your stories, you can begin to notice which types of feedback affect you differently, which leads me to point #2…

2. Notice what you feel defensive about. When that person told me that my presentation was flat, I politely accepted his feedback and then proceeded to imagine chewing him out with the most creative combination of swear words I could think of. I felt defensive. I wanted to protect myself. Now, this person may not have had the best intentions when he gave me feedback, but the only thing I can manage is what happens inside of me. When you get feedback that causes your heart rate to increase or your face to feel hot, pause and notice that. Notice what you feel defensive about, because I bet it has more to do with the stories you tell yourself than the person giving the feedback.

3. Ask for clarification and a container. Like we talked about in my last post on giving feedback, most people aren’t very good at it. It’s tough to do. So if you’re on the receiving end of someone who is trying but not succeeding, ask for clarification. You have every right to ask for concrete examples of what s/he is talking about so that you can better understand what’s there for you to learn. You can also ask for a container: limits around when and how you receive feedback. I used to work with a woman who would run up to me as soon as I got to my desk in the morning with questions or tasks she needed done, and that was not okay with me. I asked her (in nicer words) to let me put my bag down, get some coffee and have 15 minutes to settle in before she came to talk to me about work. You have the right to ask for what you need, especially from the person who is there to support you: your boss.

4. Ask for time to digest if you need it. Here’s another story in my head that I bet most of you can relate to: I feel the need to be agreeable. Sometimes I’ll find myself nodding in a conversation with someone I actually disagree with. Or I’ll walk away from a conversation thinking “that was nice,” only to realize a day or two later that the person was being totally patronizing. If that’s ever happened to you, it might make sense to receive the feedback, not say anything, and ask for some time to mull it over before meeting with the person again. In our turbo-paced society, it might feel awkward to ask for a day or two to think, but it will create the space you need to digest it and allow you to move on to step #5.

5. Toss aside anything that isn’t helpful or is just about them. If you take the time to notice how feedback affects you and tease out the pieces that you actually need to hear, you’ll be able to discern what to toss aside. By being aware of your own stories and how they impact your actions, you’ll be able to see when others are acting out of their own stories and giving feedback that’s really just about them. Even if the feedback is coming from your boss, it may not all be true and valuable, because it’s still passing through the lens of your boss’s experiences and stories. There’s not a lot of objective data out there with which to give feedback, so take a close look at what resonates with you, be grateful for it, and absorb what’s going to help you grow. Imagine crumpling up the feedback that isn’t helpful and tossing it into your garbage can.

It’s important to learn how to do your job well, but it’s so much more important to learn about your inner landscape: the stories you tell about yourself, what resonates with you, and how you want to be in the world. If you’re firmly grounded in who you are, you can turn any feedback — even if it’s delivered poorly — into a catalyst for growth.

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