How not to take feedback personally


As a leader, how you respond to feedback is critical – being over-defensive or upset can, at best, be tricky and, at worst, career-limiting. 

Once you are known to be sensitive to critique others will tip-toe around you.  But you want to hear what others think – we know the feedback loop is a critical part of the learning cycle; but what if it does upset you?  There are things you can do to ‘unpick’ these reactions and strategies for dealing with feedback that can ensure you grow from such input and that you end up feeling OK.

Have you ever had someone important give you some so-called “feedback” that cut you to the core?  Once a boyfriend of mine told me on the phone that he didn’t like a particular aspect of me.  I don’t remember what he said now (shows how useful it was!?) but I do recall how this feedback reached the pit of my gut before my brain could even start to process what he’d said.  These things can really get to us.  In fact, functional MRI analysis shows us that the neural reactions are literally akin to being in real physical danger so it’s no real surprise.

Others’ opinions truly matter; and so they should as we live in a fulsome community where expectations and trust are critical phenomena.  But the conundrum is that if you care too much about what people think, it will work against you and result in less respect than if you didn’t care so much.  The key is knowing how to ‘care’ without taking it personally.  Ensuring an opinion does not translate into a decision or conclusion about you is the way to do this.  Sounds easy?  Here’s what to do:

Firstly; breathe!  Secondly, sleep on it.  Be with your emotions for two nights’ sleep before you try to process it. Only then should you try to make sense of it.  Here are five steps you can then take to turn it around:

Look at your expectations

No-one minds being told they’re disorganised when they know this about themselves already.  Our disappointments only arise when we realise that reality does not match our expectations.  We don’t like to get things wrong.  So, the first thing to look at if you’re upset from feedback is to be clear about what you were expecting.  It is useful to remind yourself that you made up this expectation in the first place – it was never actually true, but just a hope or a thought.

Put the view into perspective

It may only be one person’s opinion – or is it?  Check this out with other people if you don’t know.  It may be a trivial issue – or it may have consequences.  Usually, if you describe the bare facts objectively, the significance disappears.  If you struggle to lessen the significance, try writing the story of what happened and read it out to someone who just listens to you reading it over and over again.  Eventually both of you will get so bored you will see it differently.

Step away from the feedback

Try looking at the facts from a distance.  For example, turn “Linda accused me of being a mean person” to “a woman at the office was heard saying I was a mean person” and see this as occurring in the dynamics of this particular relationship and the particular context you’re in.  You might start to see why this woman would inevitably say this.  Has she been upset or disappointed?  Have you not heard her needs?  Is she jealous?

Get support to build your self-confidence

Find an empowering friend/buddy/coach to help guide you to feeling OK about this.  It is possible to reach this position however upset you feel but sometimes it takes someone independent to help you see things differently.

Get clear what you now want to say

Tough feedback might leave you feeling angry or frustrated and there may be things you now want to say.  Write a message or draft an email to the appointed person but make sure you don’t send it for some time (at least “two sleeps” again!) and ideally only send it if someone you respect has vetted it!  Plan to delete it and your communication will likely get out in an appropriate way at the appropriate time.

Does the feedback make you smile now?  You know you have got to a constructive position when you can see the funny side of things.  Then you will start to get more feedback and can act on it constructively.

About the author

Elva Ainsworth is the founder and CEO at Talent Innovations.  She is also a leading author and expert in feedback and supports organisations in introducing continuous and 360 feedback processes.  She is a published author of several books on the subject including ‘Reboot your Reputation’ which has just been published

Related Posts