Credit: Henry E. Winkler Collection

How to take criticism on the chin

Figure out what you want from feedback and don't get defensive, says psychologist Claire Bremner.

by Clare Bremner
Last Updated: 29 May 2019

A lot has been written about giving feedback, yet very little time and space has been devoted to receiving it. This is surprising, considering that taking on board praise or constructive criticism is arguably harder than doling it out well. Even the most effectively delivered feedback still relies on the willingness of the receiver to engage with it.

But then again, maybe it isn’t all that shocking that we don’t want to think about how to deal with other people’s opinions of us. We go through an internal struggle when receiving feedback – the desire to feel we’re learning and improving constantly at war with the need to be appreciated. Even perfectly relayed feedback can’t meet both these needs at once and, if not managed effectively by both parties, can even cause tension and discord within teams and working relationships.

Listening to feedback doesn't always mean having to accept it. But instead of trying to spot the flaws in others’ assessments of us we should look for clarity, and try to understand where the other person is coming from. Their interpretation of your strengths and weaknesses is always useful to know - even if they’ve got their facts all mixed up.
Here are a few pointers on how to make the most of feedback you receive:

1. Go on the front foot

Be proactive about seeking feedback. This enables you to introduce an element of control into the process and means that the other person will feel more confident being frank and honest about any issues.

 If there are any points that you are particularly worried about, it doesn’t harm to ask about these specifically. By showing you are aware of potential issues you will reduce any hesitancy that your appraiser may have about raising them. But remember to give your colleague time to think about what you’ve asked them so that they don’t feel ‘put on the spot’.

2. Prioritise

How often have you received a barrage of supposedly helpful feedback and then thought, ‘Where on earth do I start?’ When receiving feedback, acknowledge that your appraiser may have a number of things they want to share, but find a way to focus on the single most important issue. To make it easy, just ask them.

It may be that one aspect of your behaviour or style is affecting various aspects of your work, so spend time trying to identify what this is. Then focus on simple changes you can make to improve your behaviour, small steps at a time. It can help to reframe the question you are asking yourself - ‘why don’t I try doing this differently for a week and see how it goes?’ feels much more achievable than ‘should I do this differently for the rest of my life?’

3. Find your triggers

Identify your personal triggers that could act as blockers. Your reaction to particular feedback might be related to the content of the feedback itself, your relationship with the person offering the feedback or set off by something more fundamental related to your insecurities and how you see yourself.

If you’re feeling defensive about a particular piece of feedback, try not to jump to conclusions. Thank the other person and take a moment to analyse why you feel the way you do. Perhaps discuss the feedback with a trusted colleague to see if they can help you figure out the reason for your response. Once you’ve got it clear in your mind, you can decide upon the right course of action.

4. Work out what you want    

Differentiate between appreciation, coaching and evaluation - work out whether you’re after a thank you for your effort and/or contribution, an evaluation of how well you’ve done or some guidance on what you could do differently or better.

Understanding your own motivations and reasoning will help you phrase your question correctly and ensure you are prepared for the response. Don’t be afraid to ask for the kind of feedback that will be most helpful – the other person is not a mind reader and will most likely feel flattered that you value their opinion.

5. Check if it matches up

Find out whether others agree. Once you receive feedback, particularly if it’s something you feel defensive or unsure about, ask two or three other colleagues whether they think the same. This will help you to understand whether it is a personality or behaviour clash between you and the other person, or something which could be impacting your relationships and performance across the board.

If your other colleagues agree, then it might be worth you taking steps to change this aspect of your behaviour. If not, it may be a case of simply tempering your behaviour with the particular colleague, or having a further discussion about the best ways to work together more effectively.

Clare Bremner is principal consultant at the Myers-Briggs Company.

This article was originally published in October 2014.

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