As a career coach, I am all too familiar with the emotional history we carry into our professional lives. Many of my clients come to me with self-imposed, often limiting, ideas about what they are capable of in their careers. As we discuss all of the career avenues available to them, without fail, they offer me a wide variety of unfounded reasons to explain why certain career paths aren’t an option for them. It’s as though they’re expecting to fail and protecting themselves from even having to try in the first place.
I get it. I’ve been there. Even as an entrepreneur, I see it in my world—the same article can invoke a “you’re amazing” response from one person, and “you’re a nightmare” response from another.
So how do we get ahead in such a critical world when taking risks and being vulnerable can feel so raw?
Aristotle says it best: “There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing.”
These are a few of the key tips I give my clients to help them push past their fear of feedback:
1. Accept the feedback graciously. First and foremost, listen to the person delivering the feedback. It’s gold, truly. People often think they’re listening when in fact they are anticipating their own response or explanation to the criticism. If the feedback is given in person, take a notepad along and jot some notes down. Hold yourself with confidence and grace and take the feedback like a boss, even if the feedback-giver is less than gentle in its wording. Above all, do not react defensively, and don’t feel obligated to respond. Thank the deliverer for the feedback, express appreciation for their candor, and let them know you will consider their comments and follow up if you need any clarification. This lets them know they’ve been heard, and it leaves the door open for you to follow up with questions, or – if absolutely necessary – an explanation or apology.
2. Look for the lessons. You are probably familiar with the old saying: “there’s no such thing as a bad experience.” I’ve found this to be true when it comes to professional development… There’s also no such thing as a true “mistake.” Every interaction you have with your colleagues, clients, and peers provides you with an opportunity to learn something about them – their communication styles, body language, word choices, and tone. Most importantly, there’s so much to learn about yourself… What do you notice within yourself when you experience criticism? Do you feel offended? Do you feel less confidence? Your response to criticism is a direct pathway for insight on how you’re doing with your own personal self-esteem. Plus, if you spend the entire feedback session feeling self-conscious or defensive, you miss the chance to be observant and learn. How a person delivers criticism speaks volumes about who they are as a person, and while it could have value for you, separate the energy they’re speaking from away from the actual content they’re sharing. This leads us to No. 3.
3. Check your ego at the door. Occasionally, feedback will be 100% valid and also 100% painful. The ego has a tendency to get very loud in these situations, especially when the delivery was aggressive or hurtful. It’s easy to dismiss the feedback by blaming the messenger: “I would be more willing to consider his opinion if he hadn’t yelled at me while he said it.” While a cruel delivery can be embarrassing, the humiliation we feel is usually just masking a deeper sense of shame that comes from feeling powerless to change. Our ego fights those feelings with arguments like “that’s just who I am,” “he knew this about me when he hired me,” and “he’s too uptight” or “he’s the only one who feels this way.” At the end of the day, letting the ego win – and dismissing all feedback as unjustified – is a complete bar to growth and professional satisfaction. Instead, ask how you can use the experience to grow. How can you use it as a tool to rise and succeed even more? As an entrepreneur, I’m susceptible to harsh feedback—I see it with gratitude… It’s a mechanism and venue for me to grow and better serve my clients… This is how successful people think.
4. Give yourself some processing time to sort through the feedback. After you receive the feedback, take some notes about it. How does it make you feel? Some of it may feel expected and non-painful. But if you have a strong reaction, such as feeling outraged and misunderstood, or completely worthless and beat up, try to identify the sensitivity and any past triggers, meaning times in your life where you felt this familiar pain. This is much more powerful than dismissing the feedback just because it stirs up uncomfortable and confusing emotions. Once you understand whether your pain roots back from any other similar life experiences, you’ll have a better frame of reference to accept the meaningful feedback and dismiss the parts of it that feel inherently off-the-mark or valueless. The ability to have those honest internal conversations with yourself will help you stay humble and strong – as opposed to defensive or weak – in these potentially painful situations.
5. Empower your professional relationships. If you can approach every feedback situation from the mental standpoint that the speaker is coming from a place of good intention, you will be able to emotionally withstand the criticism with dignity. You will learn to use hardship as a platform to build—not burn—bridges. In fact, the way in which you receive feedback is a direct path to how your colleagues respect you moving forward… Surprise them! Having a professional and gracious attitude is empowering to your relationship with the critic. They will remember your grace and feel grateful to you for making it more bearable.
I’ve seen many different reactions to tough feedback in my practice as a career coach. Some clients take on the “I’ll show them” mentality and, without really tapping into their emotions, go overboard trying to prove their superiors wrong. While the approach is less combative than outright defensiveness, it’s no less hostile and counterproductive.
As Roosevelt brilliantly said: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because this is no effort without error and shortcoming …”
In closing, remember: It’s not the critique that counts – it’s what you do with it that has the power to change your life and inspire the people around you.
If you can let that dust sit on your face with grace, you are a true professional.