Feedback Can Be Upsetting. Here’s How to Handle It.

Feedback goes by many names—criticism, notes, advice, suggestions, to cite just a few. It can be positive or negative, expected or unexpected, formal and well-thought-out or… not. It can even be something that you pursue. 

Many years ago, my friend DK Dyson—an extraordinary blues, jazz, and rock singer who also teaches yoga and advocates for battered women—called me the day after her performance at New York’s famed Joe’s Pub and said,

I’m calling for my feedback.

As someone who, at that point in my life, was asking for feedback maybe never, I was metaphorically knocked out. My already great respect for DK soared, and I told her something I probably wouldn’t have said otherwise: For my taste, the show was too heavy on art songs; I wanted to hear her rock out!

She thanked me, and took my critique to heart.

So yes, there are people who seek out and welcome feedback. But if you’re not one of them, the chances are good that feedback is going to find you anyway.

A friend told me that, after a difficult meeting,

The second I got back to my desk, my boss read me the riot act. She said that I’d sounded sarcastic, that she’d apologized to the client, and that she wanted me to do the same. I was mortified!”

This might happen at work, it might happen at home (“is there a reason why you left the milk out?”), or at your place of worship, or at a club you belong to.

You can’t please all of the people all of the time—and sometimes, you’re going to hear about it.

Fight, Flight, Freeze and Feedback

Of course, feedback can land particularly hard if you’re afraid of hearing it!

So why do some of us fear criticism?

There are many possible reasons, including that (a) we’re already anxious about our performance in the area being discussed; (b) we’re getting particularly negative or cruel feedback; (c) we were harshly or carelessly criticized as children, so this is still a sore spot; and more.

One reason is almost universal, though:

Deep in our brains, there’s something called the amygdala, which activates our fight, flight or freeze response.

This reaction gives us the strength (or stillness) to deal with the kinds of physical dangers that early humans faced. But those aren’t the only dangers that trigger the amygdala; it’s also on guard against social danger, because—in the earliest days of human existence—being thrown out of your social group or clan was literally a death sentence. Nobody could survive on their own.

Even today, when we have many possible ways to survive, feedback and the social anxiety it triggers, can make us want to:

  • Lash out at the person who’s critiquing us (fight)
  • Run screaming from the room (flight), or
  • Lose all powers of thought and speech (freeze).

And sadly, whether the feedback you’re receiving is useful or not, fair or not, timely or not…a fight, flight or freeze reaction is not going to help you respond well!

That’s why you need…

A “Responding to Feedback” Playbook

Responding to feedback is very similar to another public speaking challenge, apologizing, in that both of these skills best when you do things in a certain order!

For example: Don’t explain why you made the mistake at issue (Step 4, below) right after you’ve heard a critique. Doing that puts you three emotional steps ahead of whoever is giving you feedback, and makes it very likely that they’ll think you’re being defensive.

Here are the steps in their recommended order:

STEP 1: Manage your reaction

if you’re not in a receptive frame of mind, get your reaction under control before you respond to what the other person has said. This may be a minor process, like breathing out while thinking a positive thought; or it may involve stepping away so that you can handle a more extreme reaction privately.

Don’t however, leave the room until you…

STEP 2: Acknowledge and thank

As with an apology, you don’t have to agree with the other person’s point of view to acknowledge it.

In this case, the person who’s giving you feedback has taken a risk (they don’t know how you’re going to react) and given you the benefit of the doubt (they hope that you’ll respond reasonably).

So give credit where it’s due. Even if you completely disagree with their feedback, you can probably say something like,

I appreciate you sharing that with me


Thank you for telling me what you think.

If these phrases seem inauthentic and you can’t come up with any alternatives, it’s better to skip this step than to say something you clearly don’t mean.

But if you skip Step 2, that makes Step 3 all the more important. Don’t go straight to Step 4!

STEP 3: Promise to think about it

No matter the situation, it serves you to tell the other person that you’ll consider what they’re saying.

In the best case—their feedback is valuable and you really will give it serious thought—it’s respectful to let them know that.

And in the worst case—the feedback is useless, or just plain wrong—your best choices are to:

  • Say the same words (notice that you don’t have to tell them what you’re going to think about their advice! :-)), or
  • Skip this step and end the exchange after you’ve thanked them for the trouble they went to (Step 2).

STEP 4: Explain what happened (maybe!)

If you’ve gotten this far, and the other person seems relaxed and open, ask if it’s OK for you to give them a little more information about what happened.

Why should you ask this?

Because if they’ve agreed to hear more, they’re much less likely to think that you’re being defensive, making excuses, or trying to wriggle out of your responsibility for whatever went wrong.

But wait! What if you actually are feeling defensive, or want to deflect responsibility or blame?

In that case, DON’T EXPLAIN anything—at least not right away! Your “explanation” will just make things worse, and put you in a negative light.

Instead, work the steps: Offer thanks or acknowledgement…state that you’ll think about what you’ve been told…and walk away until you understand what really happened, and aren’t just making an excuse.

At that point, if you have insights to share, come back and say, “Do you mind if I tell you a little more about what happened with XYZ last week?”

And if you’ve handled the first conversation well, the person who gave you feedback will probably be ready to hear your side of the story now.

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