“Whenever someone asked me about what had been vital in my career, I always replied that tough, but constructive feedback made the difference."

- Carlos Brito, CEO at AB InBev

Constructive feedback is an extremely powerful tool for personal and professional development, since it allows us to better handle the "blind spots" in our behavior, including actions we’ve taken that have had impacts that we did not foresee. It also helps us reflect on these blind spots and achieve a higher level of self-knowledge. In addition to that, it also serves as inspiration for our development plans, since our path to being better versions of ourselves becomes clearer.

However, receiving harsh feedback or criticism can be very difficult to handle. In this article, we’ll explore some of the reasons why receiving constructive feedback can be so uncomfortable, as well as some tips on how you can prepare yourself to become better at receiving feedback and, most importantly, improve yourself through them.

The biological aspects

The human brain features some extremely sensible defense mechanisms. They are the result of centuries of evolution, specially back wen our human ancestors who lived in jungles and savannas had to defend themselves against the most diverse threats. Back then, our most "committed" ancestors had a competitive advantage, and survived through the natural selection process.

Let’s take a second to let that sink in and think about it: if two hominids came face to face with a lion in a jungle, who would survive? The one who instinctively ran away without looking back, or the one who wondered if that lion was actually a threat? See how easy it is to tell the difference? That is one of the reasons we are conditioned to respond to threats automatically.

What happens when it comes to feedbacks is that our brain interprets criticism as a “threat to our survival”. It happens because criticism undermines our self-esteem and thus we fear that we are not good enough to be part of our social environment. Then we enter this ancient state of alertness: the heart starts racing and we notice shortness of breath.

The scientific basis for this is solid: in “Your Brain at Work”, a book by David Rock, the author exposes one of his research findings, which is the fact that the same neural connections used to process social needs are used to process survival needs as well. In other words: whether we feel hungry or rejected by our "tribe", we experience the same sense of threat.

The psychological aspect

We all want to belong, to be loved, to be looked up to. However, receiving constructive feedback intuitively means the opposite of that. Analogously to the biological aspects, we feel psychologically attacked when we notice some sort of "criticism".

  • We mistake behavior with identity: our defensiveness is linked to the fact that our identity is then questioned when we receive feedback. We irrationally believe that "we are" what feedback says we are, not that we are “acting” according to that feedback.

  • We tend to believe that something is 100% true because of the way we feel at the moment (also known as "emotional reasoning"). That is, if we are having a bad day, we tend to think that we are bad persons.

  • We think in terms of "do or die": we tend to polarize situations to an extent in which we turn things into something entirely good or bad, with no in-betweens.

  • "Catastrophize": We tend to exaggerate the size, scope, magnitude, and importance of an event, thought or sensation affecting us.

That said, we have noticed that there is plenty if biological and psychological aspects to this issue that might affect the way we absorb and respond to constructive or negative feedbacks.

Now, the most important point of it all: how to improve this approach.

📚 Here are a few tips on how to take the most out of the feedbacks you received:

  • Listen actively: if you are receiving feedback, keep your body language relaxed (uncross your arms and legs), maintain eye contact, ask follow-up questions in order to clarify your understanding make sure that there is no misunderstanding, and summarize what you have understood. Just make sure you’re careful with clarifying questions, as they tend to seem as some sort of defensive mechanism. Even if the main message is neither fair nor true, your defensiveness can give away the impression that you are not receptive and block future feedbacks. You don't want to be seen as someone who can’t receive feedbacks, right?

  • Allow yourself to take some time and reflect on your feedback: just as you should not immediately reject, you also should not readily accept the feedback you are given. Take your time to reflect on it.

  • Embrace negative emotions: it is natural to feel upset when we receive negative feedback. Instead of repressing these emotions of anger, anxiety and hurt, let them calm down before moving on. A good strategy is to go for a walk and relax.

  • Take control of your development: Whenever you receive feedback, focus on opportunities to correct or improve a certain behavior or skill.

  • If you have become a better person both personally and professionally, embrace this cycle by returning to the feedback sender and let him know what you did and how that feedback helped you work on yourself.

  • Don't argue. Just thank the person who provided you with the feedback and work on it!

  • Always remain curious and open to dialogue, but never lose your common sense and personal perspective. It is important not to lean to either sides. Putting yourself in this position of being open to things is also the secret to receiving even better feedbacks. When you engage with the process, you can decide whether the feedback doesn't make sense, it's unfair, it doesn't match who you are or it's just not what you need at the moment.

  • Focus on your growth mindset: people who focus on their growth and development see feedback as an opportunity for improvement and take greater advantage of these talks.

  • And remember: only you have the power to decide what to do with the feedback.

Quick Tip

When you are having a hard time accepting feedback, try to take a piece of paper and divide its items into two columns. In the left column, list what is wrong with the feedback received, which may be: the message is not true; it is not fair; it was given at an inappropriate time; the reasons for such feedback are suspect; the person was emotionally biased at the time of the feedback; or issuer did not have any kind of care and skill.

In the right column, list everything you think is right in the feedback received.

This practice is important, as we tend to invalidate the whole message when we find something that we disagree with or something we dislike. Even if 99% of the message is wrong, there is a good chance that 1% is exactly what you needed to hear.

Final Comments

"Perception is all there is"

- Tom Peters

When we allow ourselves to see through the eyes of others, we understand how our actions are interpreted by the individuals and the environment around us. Not only does this only help us better know ourselves, it also brings us closer to the people we live with through empathy and compassion.

Learning to manage these exchanges allows us to expand our horizons and regain perspectives more quickly when whenever we feel overwhelmed with doubts and insecurities. By developing this resilience, we are able to receive constructive feedbacks with more perspective and less defensiveness, developing growth mindset and helping create a healthy environment of support and transparency. Like that, everybody wins!

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