How to Hear and Process Difficult Feedback in a productive way can be a very challenging thing.
Let’s be honest: none of us really enjoy hearing difficult feedback.
I’m not talking about feedback that is filled with praise and compliments at a job well done. We all like knowing that we’re doing good, and that’s the feedback we love to get.
No, I’m talking about the “hard” kind to hear, the feedback that is filled with critiques (positive) or criticism (negative), along with suggestions of how things could be done better.
We all know that this kind of feedback is vital to our careers and can make us better at our jobs, but that doesn’t make it any more pleasant. Even experts agree that “getting feedback can also be among some of our most painful experiences at work.”
But, as leaders, it’s our job to hear the feedback and make the most of it. That doesn’t mean sitting and grimacing your way through it all, then shutting it down and going on with business as usual. Instead, it means actually taking it to heart, processing it, and putting it into action as best you can.
Easier said than done, sometimes, but it can be done! Here is some advice on how you can hear and process even the most critical feedback in a positive way:
Change your mindset before it begins
Most of us have a hard time with feedback because we immediately see it as a criticism or critique of what we’re doing. Basically, it comes across as someone else telling us that what we’re doing is wrong, insufficient, or imperfect.
But if you can stop seeing feedback—even negative feedback—as a negative thing, you’ll have a much easier time being open-minded and actually hearing what is being said. Change that mindset before you go into the meeting or sit down for the conversation. Make the switch to stop seeing it as something negative, and instead treat it as a chance to do better and be more effective at your job.
Fight the urge to be defensive
When you hear someone criticizing your work, your team, or your process, there’s a pretty immediate tendency to get defensive. We can be prickly about things that we feel personally invested in, and hearing negative feedback about those things is never easy.
However, you need to fight the urge to get defensive! Repeat over and over in your mind that you are trying to be open to the feedback, and that you can’t shut it down internally. Instead, you’re there to listen and to get as much good as you can from it, no matter how hard it is to hear.
And yes, it will often be hard to hear. There will be times when the critique crosses the line into criticism, and you’ll have to try to separate what is being communicated from what is being said. There is a distinction between the two, but you’ll only be able to see it if you are going into the feedback with an open-mindedness and fighting the urge to get defensive.
Sit with it. Whatever you do, don’t immediately respond. No matter how hard you try to remain open-minded and positive about it, you’re probably going to be feeling a bit more sensitive than you realize and your response will show it.
So whenever possible, take a few minutes (or hours, even) to sit with the feedback you’ve been given. Be silent, contemplate what was said, and let your brain mull over it. Resist the urge to obsess or focus on the negative, but instead try to pay attention to everything that was said. Give yourself time to process before you respond or react!
Approach the feedback objectively
This is probably the hardest thing you can do, but it’s absolutely vital for processing hard-to-hear feedback. You need to step back from the emotions of it all—the way you feel about the project or team being criticized, or the person giving you the feedback—and focus on the information only. Pure, objective reason untainted by emotions or feelings.
While you’re sitting with the feedback, work on disconnecting your thoughts from your feelings, and try to bring only cold, hard logic to what was said. Think about whether or not the feedback was right, how it could be implemented, what could be done better, and how you can actually learn something from the experience.
The more objective you are, the easier it will be for you to process what was said and give it a chance to really sink home.
Get more data on the feedback
If there is something you don’t understand, aren’t certain about, or feel might be wrong, it’s time to step outside your own head and get more data. Ask other objective third-parties for feedback on the situation, and get their perspective as untainted by their relationship to you or your team. The more data you have, the easier it is to come to a rational conclusion.
Show Appreciation for the feedback
Always make sure to show your appreciation to the person who is giving you feedback. This is done for two reasons:
First, it encourages people to give you more feedback in the future. As painful as it can sometimes be, it’s also vital for growth and forward progress. You want people to be comfortable coming to you with their feedback. The only way to do that is to prove that you have the maturity and professionalism to accept the feedback with dignity, grace, and appreciation.
And second, it starts your mind down the right path. Thanking someone sincerely for their feedback immediately shifts it in your mind from “all negative” to “a lot of hard-to-hear information that I’m grateful for”. It’s a small mental switch, but it can do wonders to get you in the right headspace for processing the information.