The art of receiving feedback

“But you don’t understand,” I wanted to say. “You don’t have all the information, so how can you be making a judgment like that?” I thought to myself as the other person continued to criticize my keynote address. Fortunately, I said none of those things. Instead, I kept my mouth shut and began to draw out the poison. And the acronym LEAD helped me remember how to do it. 

When harsh criticism comes our way, our natural instinct is to reject it and defend our position. Unfortunately, no matter how correct we may be in our own defense, it only looks like defensiveness to the other person. In end, you appear unwilling to accept “helpful” feedback and may even be shutting yourself off from feedback you really do need to hear. After all, there may be a grain (or a bushel) of important truth underneath someone’s comments that we can’t afford to discard.  

But if you’re like most people, you’re going to need a mental strategy at the ready the next time you feel wronged by harsh or angry words. I like to think of it as drawing out the poison. The strategy is called LEAD. It stands for: 

  • Listen
  • Empathize
  • Apologize
  • Do something
I ran across this acronym in several effective customer service training programs being used in hospitals. You may be able to use it in your own customer service training or simply as a guide to use yourself, the next time you are under attack.  

The only way you can effectively deal with criticism is by knowing what it is. If you’re too quick to defend your actions, you will never know the full message. The old saying, “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know,” must have come from someone who was a master strategist. Only by forcing yourself to hear the other person out will you know whether the feedback has any merit. Then you can decide what to do about it. 

One of the best defenses is a well executed offense, so start asking questions to draw out the poison. “What makes you say that?” “Can you give me an example of what you are talking about?” “Why do you feel that way?” “Why is that a problem for you?” Keep at it until you think you’ve heard it all. If the person really doesn’t have sound logic on which to base the criticism, it becomes painfully obvious and begins to drain the venom from the attack. But if the specific examples do point to a problem, at least it’s out in the open where you can choose to act on it or not. 


Once the person starts pouring out examples without defensiveness from you, his or her stress starts to diminish. The person will calm down even faster if you empathize with their situation or perspective. Even if you don’t necessarily agree with their position, you can always find something to empathize with. For example, “It must have been very frustrating for you.”  

The person will begin to think and speak more rationally, once he or she feels heard and understood. 


This simple step would resolve so many problems, if we only remembered to do it. If someone feels offended by something you (or the company) did, it’s a common courtesy that costs you nothing but is a solid investment in the future relationship. Sometimes a simple, “I’m sorry this happened to you,” or even, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” is enough to start working toward a positive conclusion. In the end, it’s often all we really wanted after all. 

Do something

Once you have heard everything the person has to say, finish with, “Do you have any advice about how I could have done it differently?” This little gem of a question puts the person into a constructive mode.  

But you aren’t out of the woods yet… If the other person’s advice is flawed because he or she doesn’t have all the information you have, you run the risk of sounding defensive again when you disagree with their suggestions.  

Instead of disagreeing, start using questions again. Questions that guide can be illuminating without sounding defensive. For instance, in my situation an audience member was unhappy that I hadn’t covered more components of leadership in my two hour keynote address. Instead, I chose to concentrate my remarks on only one area (which is what the client wanted).  

After Listening to his criticism, I Empathized with his frustration, Apologized that the session didn’t meet his needs and then asked for his advice about what I could Do differently. Rather than disagree with his suggestions, I asked questions such as, “Since I only had two hours, do you have ideas about how I could have used that time to cover all the components of leadership?”  “Since the client wanted me to limit my remarks to one area, can you think of a way I could have done what you’re suggesting without taking too much time?” By the time our conversation was done, he thanked me for listening and walked away satisfied. In the end, I wouldn’t have changed anything, but I was able to make that determination after hearing and weighing a dissenting person’s view.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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