Preparing yourself to get hard feedback

I’m guessing that you have had the experience of proclaiming how important real feedback is to you as a professional or a partner and how you can only grow if you really know your blind spots, and then in short order you get some actual feedback and you want to crawl in a hole and never come out. Yeah, me too.

I do really love feedback, but maybe I prefer the positive kind?

Learning to hear, accept, and incorporate feedback is truly a practice, and one that doesn’t come as naturally as we might hope it would. In fact, the process of receiving feedback involves a series of skills, and until we’ve cultivated them, feedback can be experienced as painful, demoralizing, or even destructive.

We’ll start today by talking about how we can better prepare ourselves to receive feedback, which is the first step in the process. Later we can discuss how we can actually make sense of, respond to, and incorporate (or not) that feedback, all of which are unique skill sets.

Evaluate if you are ready to receive feedback. 

The reality is that we won’t always be able to engage in preparation for feedback because sometimes it’s hurled at us without warning. But I think that we underestimate how often we do have the chance to decide when and how we receive it.

If we have influence over the culture of our teams or how our relationships work, we can help shape the timing by establishing particular times for feedback to be offered. This does mean making sure those times exist and then inviting the feedback to happen. But when others know that you are regularly asking for feedback, they will feel less compelled to give it at times you’re not able to be open to it. I find that most people want to know you’re in a position to be receptive before they offer this to you.

Checking your readiness means considering if you are physically, emotionally, and cognitively prepared. For example, ask yourself:

  • Am I in major sleep deficit right now and so my reactivity is way up?
  • Have I just had several hard conversations where my sense of self is feeling shaky already?
  • Is my mind racing with the deadlines I have later today?

You might not choose to invite feedback if you know you’re not in a space to receive it well. To be fair to the other person and the process, it’s helpful to acknowledge that and set up a specific alternate time to talk, especially if they’ve indicated they need to share feedback with you.

Commit to your plan of responding. 

I think one of the most powerful gifts we can give to our relationships is the power of the pause. It’s the realization that urgency doesn’t have to exist, even when our nervous systems are telling us it does.

The vast majority of the time, committing to pausing after hearing feedback is going to improve the outcome. Our brains might be fast processers, but they are flooded with emotions, thoughts, and sensations in that moment, and we need time to sort through the three inputs.

I highly recommend that if you know you are going to be receiving hard feedback that you let the other person know ahead of time that you might hold off on responding for a day or so to make sure you are really reflecting on what they’ve shared. That helps them know you aren’t dismissing the feedback, but truly wanting to process it effectively.

Prepare your body to hear and receive the feedback. 

This may be the most important tool of all in receiving feedback. Our bodies are the vessels receiving, and so before our thinking or feeling responses can even happen, our body is gathering that data.

Preparing our bodies for feedback means creating an calm, safe, open stance. That’s not always easy when we’re in a state of chronic overwhelm and stress, or if we are anxious about the feedback we are receiving.

As many of us know well by now, our breath is one of the magic keys to our nervous system regulation, and so starting with simple becoming aware of and trying to slow the breath is an excellent place to start.

Consider our body posture and language, which will not only have an impact on how the other person perceives us, but how we feel taking in the information. Having our arms crossed and shoulders tense, for instance, signals to our body that it needs to be on guard. Research actually shows that when we have more tense body posture, our hearing — literally hearing — actually declines. We can’t take in as much when we are in self-protection mode in our body stance.

Request the feedback be offered differently if needed. 

Feedback conversations can easily go off the rails, as many of us know too well. Sometimes the delivery overwhelms our emotional processing capabilities. Sometimes it’s too much too fast. Sometimes it’s not a time we’re able to receive it.

If you notice yourself getting flooded or defensive, consider if there is a request you can make to adjust how the feedback’s being given. Here are a few examples:

  • I’m noticing it’s hard for me to really take in what you’re saying when you’re talking that loudly and fast. Could we slow this down a bit?
  • There’s a lot of different things that you’re sharing with me right now. Could we take them one by one? Where would you like to start?
  • I’m realizing that with this headache I’ve had for a few days, I’m not really able to hear you as well as I want to. Could we find a time this weekend to talk? It’s really important to me.

The other person may or may not respond positively to our request, but that’s data for us and we can always use our boundaries if needed to actually stop and leave the situation.

In the end, feedback is a gift. It can feel like an ugly sweater that’s two sizes too small and we plan to return it, but it’s a gift. If we can view it as an opportunity to deepen our connection with someone else, we can receive it in a way that has the possibility of transformation.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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