How to handle constructive feedback (without taking it personally)


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As the founder of Ladies Get Paid, Claire Wasserman is a dynamic advocate for working women. Here, the Well+Good Council member tackles a tricky (but *so* valuable) subject: constructive feedback. Here’s how to be open to it (without taking it personally) and how to use it to make you even better at what you do.

After every Ladies Get Paid event, we send out a feedback survey. When we first started doing it, I couldn’t look at the responses for weeks. When I finally mustered the courage to open the survey, I was thrilled to find rave reviews. But then, there it was: a 2 out of 5 rating. My heart dropped.

Despite the amount of glowing feedback I had received, that one comment instantly negated all of it. It’s wild how something negative can cause instant memory loss, and now all that plays on repeat in your brain is that you f**ked up. That you are a f**k up.

How quickly I transferred feedback on a thing I did to who I am. What the hell was going on here?! Sadly, I’m not alone in this. The Ladies Get Paid community is 20,000 strong and I’ve heard countless stories from women who also struggle with receiving feedback.

Let’s break down why constructive criticism is so hard to hear—and how we can listen better.

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Why we react to negative feedback

When I focus on the negative, it’s biology kicking in. According to Roy F. Baumeister, a professor of social psychology at Florida State University, being attuned to bad things would have increased our ancient ancestors’ chance of surviving threats (and thus, passing along our genes). Also, negative emotions require more thinking than positive ones, so we spend more time processing them. Which maybe explains why I replay what went wrong, rather than what went right.

On the nurture side of things, women tend to be people pleasers. As girls, we’re socialized to accommodate others and to never rock the boat. Therefore, it can be painful to discover that we’ve seemingly disappointed someone. Plus, getting negative feedback might bring up painful memories if you had an overly critical parent. (Hello, therapy!)

We’re hard on ourselves. Lots of women are perfectionists, and we put immense pressure on ourselves to live up to some unachievable standard. When we mess up (or perceive that we’ve messed up), we tend to berate ourselves. Somehow I can’t imagine as many men doing this.

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What you can do about it

Give yourself time. Accept that your knee-jerk reaction may always be to get defensive or to be hurt, so take some time to reflect and find the useful kernels of feedback. If you receive the criticism in person, don’t immediately start thinking of how you’ll respond. Instead, try to deeply listen; you can also ask for time to reflect and explain that you’ll get back to them about their requests.

Ask for details and suggest solutions. The only way you’re going to learn is if you get the nitty-gritty on what, exactly, “went wrong.” Ask for specific things you can do to be better. What are some solutions, not just the problems?

Admit you don’t have all the information. Sometimes it’s not you, it’s them. Your boss might be having a bad day or maybe they’re just negative in general. So before you take on all the responsibility, take that into consideration.

Get perspective. Whenever you get critical feedback, look at it as an opportunity to learn and to grow. Remind yourself that over and over again.

Keep a brag folder. Whenever you receive positive feedback or have something awesome happen, keep a record of it. Whether it’s a screenshot of an email or a diary, have a place you can refer back to when you’re feeling less than fabulous.

Have a coffee or cocktail with a friend. Find a trusted friend whose opinion you value and spend some time with them to get perspective. (Just make sure this doesn’t devolve into a bitch fest where you end up completely dismissing the feedback. There’s always something to learn.)

I know that all this is easier said than done. Learning to receive critical feedback is a process and will take time. I promise it gets better, though! Now wish me luck—I’m going to open that feedback survey.

The founder of Ladies Get Paid, Claire Wasserman is an educator, coach, and podcaster, who helps women navigate their professional options to find fulfilling career paths.

What should Claire write about next? Send your questions and suggestions to experts@wellandgood.com

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