By Kara Mason

How to Receive Feedback Without Taking It (Too) Personally


Don’t let criticism throw you for a loop. Let it make you better.

A lot of growth and positivity can come from criticism. 

But that still doesn’t mean it’s easy to hear.

We all know the feeling: that little wince you get when you receive feedback. Even if it’s criticism you know in your heart is true or is delivered with compassion, it still hurts to hear. Especially when you’re your own worst critic (and many of us are)

As a result, some of us go way out of our way to avoid criticism or negative feedback on the job, but this is to your detriment. A performance review or informal feedback session really can make us better at our jobs and help us grow. The discomfort is worth it.

So how do you do it? 

First, a little about the psychology of receiving feedback. 

The shaky, sweaty, anxious feeling you get before you anticipate some negative criticism is very normal. TED Podcast “Worklife with Adam Grant” investigates why receiving feedback can be so crushing and how you can learn to love it. He recalls a study from a few decades ago that found in these scenarios our ego becomes so defensive that it takes on its own little “totalitarianism regime.” 

“It starts to control the flow of information to our brains… think about that. Your own brain is censoring what you hear,” he says. 

But, he adds, “If we never hear criticism, we will never improve.” 

So while hearing criticism might always feel hard, learning how to receive feedback with grace and seeing it for the positive opportunity that it is, will always be worth it.

With a few tips and some practice, you can make the experience of receiving feedback with an open mind one that is more helpful than it is harrowing, and who knows - you may even start to look forward to your reviews. 

Manage your emotions with breath

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, defeated, or even angry when you receive feedback. You may feel that it’s not fair, that some facts have been overlooked, or that you did the best you could with the resources available. 

Becoming defensive is a normal reaction to criticism. It is our fight or flight response going into effect. Our brains are trying to calculate the best possible way to keep us safe from the pain of critique.

Remember, though, that this is your ego responding, and not necessarily your best self. So it is within your power to keep calm, open, and friendly while receiving feedback. You are still in control, and can make the decision to learn from the experience.

First, know that this feedback is probably not a criticism of you as a person. Most likely, it’s just about the work. Your work is separate from you, and it is something you can change. You are here to learn how you can do it better.

Take a few deep breaths before and throughout the meeting. Breathing exercises have been shown to alleviate stress significantly. Staying calm will help keep you open to the critiques and making the most of the meeting.

The 4-7-8 breathing exercise is a good way to calm down. Dr. Andrew Weil, who coined the technique, calls it a “natural tranquilizer for the nervous system.”

Practice active listening 

Perhaps the most important part of receiving feedback is how much of it actually registers with you. It’s easy to let the mini totalitarian regime inside your head set in and let you hear only what you want to hear. But to make the most out of these situations, aim for really active listening. 

Why? It’ll help you process the information critically. Instead of immediately jumping into a defense mode, you’ll be able to take in the feedback and react accordingly and professionally.

A good way to do that is to take notes throughout the meeting, or immediately do a recap afterwards. This gives you something to do with your hands while you’re listening (helpful!), and also increases your odds that you’ll capture more information.

It’s hard to take in a lot of information all at once, especially while you’re potentially having an emotional reaction. Your notes are a resource to refer to later, when you’re in a less emotional state, to draw your most valuable lessons and growth from.

The Ink+Volt Feedback Pad was designed with getting the most out of those dreaded feedback meetings and making them more useful! You’ll probably also find that they can be a really handy tool for active listening in these situations, too. With the pad, you can record observations, positive notes your manager has touched on, and the things you need to work on. Finally, it helps you create a plan of action.

Other ways to practice active listening include: 

  • Make eye contact. This helps you form a connection with the person speaking to you; you are showing them that you are listening. If it’s hard for you to maintain consistent eye contact, try to check in for a few seconds at a time while you are listening to show that you aren’t tuning them out.
  • Ask questions. You want to make sure you and your manager or colleague are on the same page about things. If you don’t understand something, speak up. This is their opportunity to help you.
  • Refrain from interrupting. This is crucial when receiving feedback that may be less than favorable. Not only will this help you appear more calm, but letting the other person complete their thoughts will help you fully understand what they are saying. 

Respond thoughtfully in the moment and after

Ideally, feedback is constructive and helpful. You’re able to walk away from the meeting knowing what improvements need to be made, what you did well, and that you still have a good working relationship with the person. 

But that isn’t always the case.

Sometimes feedback is somebody simply wanting to be heard. Maybe they’re frustrated with an aspect of their job or performance, and they’re expressing that anxiety to you through harsh critique. Maybe they’re feeling uncomfortable about delivering feedback, and not doing as thoughtful a job as they should. It’s easy for these kinds of situations to escalate quickly and leave both of you feeling bad. 

It’s okay to acknowledge that your feedback-giver might be bringing their own personal baggage to the conversation. But don’t use that as an excuse not to listen. Instead, be open to what they have to say and use your critical thinking skills to parse what is most important -- and be prepared to move forward.

Take this golden opportunity for what it is -- a moment to create a plan and do better work.

If you can, try to iron out your next steps in the meeting. Thank the person for their feedback, and ask if they are open to helping you outline a plan to improve. Talk about ways to keep the communication loop open as you continue to work; getting their feedback all along the way will help you avoid a big surprise later.

If you’re feeling too emotional or stressed in the moment, thank the person for their feedback and let them know you would like to take some time to process it all. Ask if you can schedule a followup conversation to figure out next steps. Bonus points if you show up to that meeting with a proposed plan yourself -- and again, be open to their feedback and tips for improving on your proposed ideas.

Move on and know that this is part of the process

The final thing to keep in mind about receiving feedback like a pro is to not let it define you or ruin your day.

Receiving feedback is a natural part of the job. Sometimes it goes well, sometimes it’s not helpful, and sometimes it can provide a path to a better work product. 

Learn from it, ask questions, make adjustments as necessary and keep on moving forward. You will always be learning and growing. You are not a failure; you are simply taking another step forward on your path to success.