When Should You Take No For An Answer

How to Prepare for Critical Feedback

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

“I’m totally terrified,” said a colleague. Was she skydiving or going for a big job interview? Nope. She was preparing to receive feedback—in this case from an interdisciplinary group of experts who were reviewing a draft of her book—and she was afraid of being pummeled by their critique, even though she was also excited for the opportunity. It felt a little like facing a firing squad.

The fear of receiving criticism is not unique to her. Many of my clients enter their 360 feedback sessions with trepidation about what they will hear and how they will handle it. Like my friend, they may be bracing themselves for an attack on their performance or they may be concerned about how they will handle the criticism. Fear of your own reaction is especially acute when you are facing your reviewers in person, as my friend was. Preparation is key. Here are some suggestions to help you face your critics with equanimity and curiosity:

1. Cultivate a “bring it on” attitude. Instead of seeing critique as an attack, think of it as needed ammunition to make you better. Invite others to poke holes in your argument so that you can improve it. Ask what you could do better. Find the coaching in criticism.

2. Pre-review yourself. Take time to evaluate yourself before receiving feedback. What are the strengths and weaknesses of your performance? It can take some of the sting out of criticism if you anticipate what may be coming. Recognize that you have blind spots and envision that you may hear something unexpected. Remember that the things you don’t already know are often the most valuable part of the experience.

3. You don’t have to do anything. You can’t and shouldn’t try to fix anything right away. Focus on listening and learning. Feedback is data, and your job is to mine it for all its gems of insight. If something is unclear, ask for clarification. If something is vague, ask for specifics.

4. Resist the urge to defend or explain. Just receive and inquire. If some of the feedback hurts or makes you angry, observe your own emotions and notice what triggers them. This is also good information for you. Breathe. As much as you can, cultivate a detached curiosity so that you can respond rather than react.

5. Expect that there may be contradictions. If you are receiving feedback from multiple sources, it may be conflicting. One person will advise you to zig while another tells you to zag. Some folks may value the very thing that irritates others. It can be hard to parse, so remember that feedback often says as much about the giver—their priorities, preferences, and experiences—as the receiver, and draw your own conclusions.

6. Let it sink in before taking any action. Especially if you are receiving feedback from half a dozen or more people, it can be overwhelming to hear all those voices and all of their advice and needs. Sit with it before making any decisions. Sift through and reflect: What resonates? What matters most to you?

7. You are in the driver’s seat. It is for you to decide what action, if any, to take. As Harvard Business Review’s Tasha Eurich advises in a recent article about receiving feedback, “change is just one option.” You may choose to make changes in response to some criticisms and not others. Ultimately, it is up to you.

These tips are particularly important for in-person feedback, but regardless whether you are facing a group of critics, reading a 360 report or having a 1:1 review with your boss, all of the above advice will help put you in a receptive frame of mind so you can handle yourself with equanimity and curiosity to get the most out of a critique.