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How to train yourself to deal with criticism

Seeking negative feedback gives you a chance to improve your career.

How to train yourself to deal with criticism
[Photo: Alex Iby/Unsplash]

Anyone who’s ever been on the receiving end of negative feedback can attest that it sucks. Aside from the emotional discomfort of being told your work isn’t good enough, the physical responses of a racing heart, tense muscles, and increasing blood pressure aren’t exactly pleasant.

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As we shift into fight-or-flight mode, it’s tempting to 1) heatedly defend ourselves–“It wasn’t my fault!”, 2) mentally check out of a conversation–“What does he know anyway?”, or 3) become frozen in a self-defeating loop of negative thoughts–“I’ll never be good enough.”

But, when it comes to work, the further I progress in my career, the more I’m convinced that pushing past those initial reactions and responding positively to negative feedback is a secret superpower.

If you’re a team member, the ability to respond gracefully to negative feedback pushes us to continue growing in our roles and builds strong relationships with coworkers. As a team leader, responding to criticism constructively drives us to be better managers and creates a team culture of openness and honesty.

Cultivating our capacity to respond with curiosity and consideration when confronted with flaws in our work can make all the difference in our careers. However, that’s much easier said than done.

How can we get over our fear of negative feedback and let it guide us toward our best work?

“If we really dislike someone, the last thing we would do is tell them how to improve”

When our jobs get all tangled up with our identities, professional evaluations can feel oddly personal. A critical critique of our design mockups sends us into a spiral of self-doubt. A negative review of our leadership style feels like a character indictment. As we battle with imposter syndrome, negative feedback is the kindling that fuels a continued insecurity about our abilities.

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Negative feedback is hard to hear. But, consider the alternative: No negative feedback. Ever. The absence of critical feedback can mean one of two things:

  1. Your work is good enough but you’re no longer developing your skills.
  2. Your work is subpar and no one’s telling you.

Neither of these scenarios is good when our aim is to advance our careers.

Respond to negative feedback in a way that ensures you’ll get more of it

Understanding on a base level that negative feedback can help us is one thing. Acting accordingly is something else entirely.

Approaching feedback from a neutral and objective standpoint can be the difference between fixating on our own shortcomings, real or imagined, and putting in the work to generate work that gets noticed. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible if we let the initial sting of criticism dictate our next moves.

In the moments when our knee-jerk reaction tells us to go on the defensive or switch to the offensive, there’s a third option: pause. There’s no shame in not knowing the answer to a question or needing time to process feedback. Taking the time to cool off and provide a thoughtful response allows us to truly hear the feedback and demonstrates to our managers and team members that we take their feedback seriously.

Here are a few lines that can be helpful when you feel you’re up against the wall:

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  • “Let me get back to you with an answer, after I’ve thought further about the issue.”
  • “Thanks for your message! Give me 24 hours to provide you with a full response.”
  • “I had a different viewpoint, but let me look into yours.”

Sometimes you’ll be a decision maker. Other times you’ll be a decision informer. When things don’t go your way, it’s important to disagree and commit to the final decision anyways.

Be bold and seek out negative feedback

Most things get easier with practice. Receiving negative feedback is no exception. The initial sting of criticism may never truly go away, but we can become less sensitive to it through more exposure.

Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, one of the world’s largest and most successful hedge funds, is a large proponent of creating environments where honest feedback can thrive.

I wanted to make an idea meritocracy. In other words, not an autocracy in which I would lead and others would follow, and not a democracy in which everybody’s points of view were equally valued, but I wanted to have an idea meritocracy in which the best ideas would win out. And in order to do that, I realized that we would need radical truthfulness and radical transparency.

This attitude has allowed Bridgewater Associates to soar. Dalio notes that he’s created an environment where, “Jen, who’s 24 years old and right out of college, can tell me, the CEO, that I’m approaching things terribly.”

In these kinds of environments, it’s easy to imagine that the bite of negative feedback hurts a lot less. When critique and constant evaluation is normalized, sensitivities tend to fade and we can develop a thicker skin.

But what if feedback is scarce at your company and annual performance reviews are the norm? What can you do to hone your craft through constructive feedback and move your team culture closer toward radical candor instead?

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Kim Scott, former director of Google and author of Radical Candor, encourages employees to regularly ask for feedback with these steps:

  1. Set up a 1-on-1 with your boss. If you’re seeking feedback on your performance, don’t wait for your boss to set up a 1-on-1. Ask them directly for a meeting and give them an agenda ahead of time. Scott also recommends a go-to question that yields a better answer than simply asking for feedback: “What can I do or stop doing to make it easier to work with me?”
  2. Embrace the discomfort. Getting negative feedback isn’t exactly a feel-good time. The impulse might be to verbally bulldoze through a conversation out of nervousness to speed things along. Resist the urge. Lean into the pauses and awkward silences where beneficial feedback lies.
  3. Listen with the intent to understand and not to respond. Be vigilant of your defense mechanisms surfacing at the first sign of something we don’t want to hear. As Scott says, “Don’t get mad, get curious.”
  4. Reward the candor. As emotionally charged as negative feedback is for a recipient, it can be similarly unpleasant to provide. If we don’t act on the feedback we’re given, someone may opt out of providing us with their honesty again. Demonstrate gratitude for the feedback you receive, whether that’s sending a follow-up or providing evidence you’ve followed through.

Asking for feedback can be intimidating and awkward and often puts the other person on the spot. A simple hack for making conversations around performance easier for everyone involved is to ask for “advice” instead of “feedback.” On the surface, these words sound like mere synonyms. However, on further inspection, the former is a word that unlocks a level of compassion and vulnerability.

Asking for advice automatically forces someone to put themselves in your shoes. It can yield richer feedback that is grounded in personal experience. Asking for advice might reveal a story from your boss’s early career days, or prompt a colleague to share an occasion when they encountered the same obstacle. This small change in wording can be the difference between not receiving any valuable feedback and obtaining feedback that’s warm and full of actionable insight.

It’s painful when the response to our work isn’t as positive as we’d hoped. The round of applause we anticipated actually turns out to be silence. The grins we expected actually resemble grimaces.

But what I’ve learned along the way is this: The most damaging thing we can do is allow our fear of negative feedback to stop us from playing big.

Sure, taking the safe route, following the rulebook, and keeping our heads down allows us to avoid critique. Thinking, “Let me just do what was done before,” is sure-fire protection from quizzical looks and audible sighs. It’s also a guaranteed way to be overlooked and stagnate in our professions.

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Letting go of our fear of negative feedback provides us with the freedom to experiment with new approaches, explore our curiosities, and attempt actions where the outcomes are unknown. Does this open us up to critique? Of course. But, it also opens us up to growth and honing our craft in ways we never thought possible.


A version of this article originally appeared on Doist and is adapted with permission. 

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