Many people face the challenge of how to hear hard feedback. Whether we think we’re being labeled, have something pointed out that we don’t want to see about ourselves, or think we somehow messed up, receiving hard feedback can bring up feelings of shame, anger, or fear.

For better or worse, being able to hear hard feedback is essential for strengthening our leadership. Fortunately, with practice, we can learn to develop this skill and use it to our advantage.

The Impact of Not Hearing Feedback

Not being able to hear hard feedback can have severe consequences. Whether or not the feedback is accurate, both how we’re able to use the feedback and how we respond to the messenger have an impact. Some consequences include:

  • Harming others, often unintentionally
  • Missing crucial information
  • Missing opportunities
  • Becoming stagnant
  • Breaking trust
  • Isolating yourself
  • Alienating others

Sometimes, the feedback that is hardest to hear is the feedback that we most need to grow ourselves, our people, or our organization.

Recognizing Your Personal Response to Hard Feedback

We each react differently to hard feedback, typically in one of three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. Although some people have developed this muscle to some degree, every person I’ve worked with has moments of not being able to receive feedback. The first step is recognizing your style:

Fight may look like attacking, arguing, or pointing out the other person’s flaws.

Flight may look like agreeing too easily, exaggerating what the person is really saying, beating yourself up, justifying, or minimizing.

Freeze may look like shutting down, ignoring, taking the feedback personally, denying, or becoming defensive.

These aren’t cut and dried categories. Some may overlap, and you might have several styles. What’s most important is identifying your personal reaction to hard feedback, however that may look.

Putting Hard Feedback in Perspective

One of the things that makes feedback hard to hear is when we make it define who we. When this happens, thoughts pop up like, “I’m a bad person,” “I’m not good enough,” “I’m too ____ (insert judgment here),” “I’m going to get in trouble,” “There’s something wrong with me,” and so on.

These thoughts are usually unconscious, but the feelings are obvious if you pause and notice them. For example, you might feel angry, upset, tense, or hurt. You might notice the urge to retaliate, hide, or become tongue-tied. These are some signs that you are likely experiencing some form of shame, which is ultimately what makes the feedback hard to hear.

Instead, if you can see the feedback as pointing to a behavior rather than defining who you are, you can respond differently.

For example, let’s say someone calls you a racist, says you’re a terrible speaker, or thinks you’re too nosy. Instead of taking it personally and using the feedback to define who you are (regardless of what the other person thinks), you can explore the behavior that gives this impression.

There is a difference between being a racist versus unknowingly making a racist comment, being a terrible speaker versus talking too fast, or being a nosy person versus asking a lot of questions. Most of us are probably guilty of these kinds of behaviors at some point. When you can separate the behavior from the judgment, you can use the feedback to your advantage. However, because some people are unskilled at delivering feedback, we need to do this “internal translation” ourselves in order to make use of it (I’ll cover how to deliver hard feedback in a future post).

Of course, this is more easily said than done. However, as you practice not letting the feedback define you and focus on the underlying behaviors, you can learn to take the feedback less personally and proactively make use of it. To make this practice easier, there are two questions that can help you.

Two Questions to Ask Yourself When Receiving Hard Feedback

Not all feedback is accurate. Often, however, there is a grain of truth or perception that points to a deeper truth. To tease this out, here are two questions you can ask yourself when receiving hard feedback:

  1. What if the feedback were actually true?
  2. What do you take the feedback to mean about you?

Our initial response to hard feedback is to resist it. The first question allows you to embrace it, if only for a moment. This doesn’t mean accepting it as truth – it means imagining what it would be like if it were true. Just like playing a game of “let’s pretend,” pretend the feedback is true and notice where it takes you.

The second question then helps explore your reaction to the feedback and what makes it so hard for you to hear. When asking this question, you can explore your resistance, self-judgments, or defensiveness. Instead of going into fight, flight, or freeze, you can begin to separate your behaviors from what you think the feedback means about you.

Going back to the previous examples, what if you really were using racist language, talking too fast, or asking a lot of questions? Asking these two questions helps identify these behaviors and change them. Ultimately, would you rather continue behavior that has a negative impact, or address and change it?

One leader I coached consistently received feedback that he was abrasive, a micromanager, and didn’t listen. When I first started coaching him he justified ways that these things weren’t true. He turned it back on his co-workers by saying that they were too sensitive and unable to get their work done unless he was constantly following up with them. Needless to say, his response wasn’t helping anyone.

As we worked together, he began to realize that he was taking the feedback to mean that he was a bad leader. He thus felt the need to prove he was a good leader by denying negative feedback. When he began to realize that his negative behavior didn’t negate his good behavior, and when he realized that he could instead see himself as a good leader with some negative behaviors, he was more able to change those behaviors. This made it easier for him to see the impact he was having on others because he stopped focusing on defending himself. Of course, this made work more pleasant and productive for everyone, including the leader.

Steps to Get the Most Out of Hard Feedback

These practices are hard for most people. They take time, practice, and persistence. To help, here are some additional tools you can use to hear hard feedback:

  • Breathe. Whether we go to fight, flight, or freeze, we either constrict our breathing or pant. Therefore, simply taking some deep breaths will help you move into the fourth option, free. When you can respond instead of react, you have the freedom to both better hear what’s really being said and be more curious about the feedback.
  • Ask Questions: We often take feedback at face value and immediately react. Instead, you can ask questions to dig deeper, get more information, and hopefully identify the behaviors you’re demonstrating. “What am I doing that makes you think that?”, “How does that impact you?”,” or “What do you mean by that?” are a few questions that can help provide concrete information for you to act upon.
  • Acknowledge: Showing that you have heard the feedback and are considering it helps build trust and open the door for future communication. This doesn’t mean agreeing with the feedback – it means you being willing to explore it.

Additionally, consider the following questions:

  • What counter-productive strategies do you use when you hear hard feedback (attacking, arguing, defending, etc.)?
  • What makes the feedback hard to hear?
  • What might be true about the feedback?
  • What skills help you hear hard feedback?
  • What feedback have you recently received that you could revisit and potentially learn from?

The Line Between Hard Feedback and Abuse

Lastly, hearing hard feedback is different than tolerating abuse, violence, or cruelty. This is especially true if you belong to a group that is typically subjected to attack, such as racial or gender groups, or those who aren’t in a position of power. If this occurs in the workplace, seek help from HR or someone you trust. If this occurs in a personal relationship, do what is necessary to take care of yourself, whether it’s getting support, setting a boundary, or removing yourself from the situation.

This can sometimes be a hard line to discern. In such cases, asking the person a question such as “What is your intention for telling me this?” can help clarify where they are coming from and help you clarify that line.