Tips to help you hear feedback and use it to your advantage

 “I can’t believe she criticized my writing style. I worked on that report for a week!” Nothing bruises the old ego like a dose of negative feedback. Whether you are a na├»ve newbie or a seasoned vet, the sting of criticism can still leave a mark. 

Career experts will tell you that being perceived as “coachable” is one of the hallmarks of the upwardly mobile, which means being able to take feedback well. But how do you do that when what you really want to do is reach out and throttle the messenger, or defend and justify yourself until the person throws up his hands in surrender? 

There are a few smart moves you can make that will buy you some time to react appropriately and absorb the feedback, so you can use it to your advantage. The next time you take a shot, remember these: 

Fake it ‘till you get it:
Paraphrase what you hear. It will buy you some time to think and it will make you look like you are absorbing the feedback—even if you feel as though you’ve been whacked by a brick. Mirroring back what the person says doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with what they say…it merely means you are trying to understand what they say. There is an important difference. So, if your boss says, “You need to do a better job of communicating with me. I don’t know what you are working on—I want you to be more accountable,” respond with, “So, you want to be updated more regularly on what I’m working on.” If your first reaction is to jump to your own defense, or justify your behavior, your boss will only push back harder because she doesn’t think you are taking in the feedback.

Suck out the poison:
This may sound masochistic, but you need to suck out the details of the criticism and get it out on the table, where you can examine it from all angles and decide if you are going to do anything about it. If you only get the tip of it, or a hint about what is really wrong, you run the risk of missing the real problem.  

To suck out the poison, you must appear calm, even if there is a tsunami going on in your head, and draw out more details by asking questions. “What concerns you about how I communicate now?”  “What would you like more details about?” “What would it look like if I were doing it very well?” Only then will you know what the problem is, how big it is, and if you’re willing and able to fix it. If you slip up and start getting defensive or angry, the flow of information is likely to stop, or the discussion will morph into an argument. You can’t afford that. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know,” is an old proverb that works here. 

Observe the 48 hour lick your wounds rule:
Usually criticism takes awhile to sink in. First we want to get angry with the person who had the gall to tell us, then we want to justify our position, then we want to find a reason why that person’s opinion has no credibility, and then we want to seek out someone who will agree with our own rationale. The problem is, if you do any of this publicly—as in, out loud at work—it will not be pretty. You will be labeled “defensive” or “unwilling to change.” Not only can this cut you off from future feedback, it can destroy your career growth and progression. 

Instead, thank the person and tell her that you need to think about what she said. Then don’t go blabbing about it to anyone else—except perhaps your spouse or best friend. Ask yourself: 

  • What part of their message have I heard before?
  • Are there elements of truth to what he is saying?
  • How is his perception different from my intentions, and how could he have reached this conclusion? 

Get past how it was delivered and focus on the message:
Unfortunately, the person giving us the bad news often doesn’t do it very well. “Why do you always…?” “You’re never willing to…” In addition to the poor choice of words, like always and never, there is often the implied threat of some nasty consequence. If your boss is dishing it out, you worry that it will hurt your chances at a promotion. If it is coming from a peer, with whom you’ve had conflicts in the past, you may find yourself reacting to the bitter residue from old battles. 

Sometimes a trusted friend can help you out of this blind alley. Talking it over with someone who can help you sort out the message from the messenger, will enable you to get some emotional distance from the person and gain some honest perspective about what he or she was really trying to tell you. 

Why is it worth all this work? Because once you really understand what the gap is between what you are doing and the desired results you want, you will see the gift: the opportunity to grow yourself and your career in ways you may have never seen had you not been criticized.

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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