The art of receiving feedback: five steps to get through it unscathed


A few months ago I signed up for a grant-writing workshop where someone who had a lot of experience would read over your draft and give you feedback. I struggled and sweated over an application and sent it in. And then came the day when I sat in front of a live person to have it evaluated. I was so nervous. 

I don’t know about you, but I have a hard time receiving feedback. Anything negative tends to send me into a spiral of “I’m not good enough, why even try…” that can be hard to pull myself out of. 

But feedback from experts and from people we care about is essential if we want to live a life of integrity and growth. We can go through life blindly hoping that we’re presenting our best selves, or we can request feedback from people who really know. 

In this instance, the mentor assigned to my draft was incredibly kind and warm. She had great things to say about my work but she also delicately told me where I was falling short. Despite how gentle she was, I still felt vulnerable. I could feel myself tensing up and experiencing the urge to hide and some of the stuff she said brought up a lot of resistance. But I knew that this information could be enormously helpful so I resisted the urge to argue or shut down, and decided to work through the resistance on my own later. 

Earlier that week I also got some feedback from a friend about some behaviors she had observed in me that might be holding me back from getting what I wanted. Again, it was painful to hear since it touched on a subject that has always been a sore spot for me (hint, it had to do with the subjects of this blog post). But once my head cleared from the cloud of negativity, I was left feeling curious about what I could do to change things. 

Receiving feedback is hard. We need to open ourselves up to the potential of being hurt and of facing things we’d rather ignore. But I also think it’s essential. If you’re struggling with how to receive feedback without shutting down, lashing out, or feeling like a piece of garbage, here are my suggestions based on things I’ve read and my own experience: 

1. Decide how much you can trust the source. 

Not everyone is qualified to give us useful feedback. The guy you just met who tells you to smile more? Nope, not qualified. A friend who has a habit of understanding your behavior better than you do? Yes, definitely. Before you ask for feedback, think about your experiences with the person: if it’s someone who has a history of supporting your and loving you no matter what then you’ll definitely want to at least listen to what they have to say. 

If it’s in a professional or creative area, think about the experience the person has with the medium they’re critiquing. While it can be useful to get unbiased opinions from people who don’t know what goes into a project - like that friend who’s never held a paintbrush before telling you that something is off in your latest painting - be careful of letting these people convince you that you need to change everything. On the other hand, if the person really does know what they’re talking about - because they’ve been painting for years and have a really keen sense of colour and composition - be open to listening. 

2. Breathe and be mindful of how your body and mind are responding to the feedback.

This part can be hard. It’s so easy to either wholeheartedly accept the feedback and let it crush you or to wholeheartedly reject it and put up a wall. And both can happen in an instant. Instead, try to take some deep breaths and notice what is happening in your body: Are your palms sweating? Do you feel tension in your chest? Do you feel choked up, or teary like you might cry? 

What kinds of thoughts are swirling around in your head? Are you thinking: “They’ve figured me out, I’m a complete fraud and a waste of space,” or “Who is this person to tell me this? They don’t understand what I’m going through!” 

Try to observe the thoughts and sensations softly, without judgment. Just let them be whatever they are. Be kind to yourself. If you aren’t able to absorb the advice without a lot of pain, it’s okay to tell the person that this is too hard for you and that you’d rather talk about something else. 

3. Get curious. 

Once you’ve taken a moment to breathe, you can go deeper and start exploring why you’re reacting the way you are. Ask yourself: What about this feels true? What doesn’t feel true? If you feel upset about something, ask yourself why? Does it feed a story that you’ve been telling about yourself or about the world? Is that story true? Can you find instances where it might not be true?

When my friend gave me feedback, I felt crushed because it seemed to confirm the stories that I’ve been telling myself my whole life about how I’m hopeless at making connections with other people and I’ll never get anywhere because of my shyness and social anxiety. 

But after I had breathed and stepped back from it I could see all kinds of ways in which that story is not true. My friend was just pointing out a very particular behavior that I could continue to work on. She wasn’t telling me that I was hopeless. 

4. Ask questions. 

If you’ve achieved some success with the previous steps and aren’t feeling too devastated, ask the person for more information on what you can do better. Do they have specific, actionable recommendations? It’s not much help to be given a blanket statement like, “This doesn’t work” without being told what doesn’t work or what you can do to fix it. 

5. Think about how to implement advice and let go of the rest. 

Finally, spend some time sitting with the advice and determine what is helpful and what isn’t. You don’t have to accept everything the person tells you: some observations might be completely off the mark. 

Once you have decided to accept something, come up with some concrete ways that you can implement it. Write it down if you have to, and schedule activities as they occur to you. Don’t let it become a nebulous cloud that hangs over you for months. 

Most importantly, try not to let guilt or shame bully you into feeling like you need to fix everything all at once, or like you’re doomed before you’ve even started. Take small steps and find compassion for yourself no matter what. 

I want to live in a world where people help each other become our best selves and do our best work. And I think that with softness, generosity, and mindfulness it’s possible to get there. 

Have you ever received feedback that was hard to hear but ended up being really valuable? How did you deal with it? Leave a comment below!