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Getting feedback? Handle it like a pro with these tips

It’s likely that you have at least one criticism horror story, whether it was your boss berating you at work or poor feedback on an assignment. It can feel pretty terrible. When you think back on that situation, how did you immediately react?

Did you take it to heart – dwelling on it for weeks, wondering why the person hates you so much?

Did you get angry – immediately jumping to your own defence, passing off the critique as nothing other than a malicious insult?

If you take a second to depersonalise the situation, and only think about the feedback you received, do you think there was something to be learned from it? Dr Melissa O’Shea, an Associate Professor of clinical psychology in Deakin’s Faculty of Health, says in most cases there is.

‘In order to learn and develop, our capacity to hear feedback is really important. If we can adapt our perspective to see feedback in a positive light, I think it definitely allows us to take it on board and be less defensive when receiving it,’ she explains.

Receiving feedback typically goes hand-in-hand with both work and study, so being able to handle it well is an important skill to possess. Of course, it’s often something many of us struggle with, and if you know yourself to be a bit more sensitive when it comes to being critiqued (who isn’t, really?), then Dr O’Shea’s tips on how to handle criticism will help set you on the right track.

Reframing your mindset

The first thing to recognise is – despite how it feels – the person giving you feedback isn’t out to get you.

‘It’s easy for feedback to feel really personal, but it rarely is,’ Dr O’Shea says. ‘Often yes, it’s about you, but it’s about your behaviour or something you’ve done – not about you directly. So, separating that from who you are is really important.’

More often than not, peoples’ motivations are positive, Dr O’Shea explains. ‘Mostly, teachers, managers and others want the best for us and offer feedback to support our development. The more we can hear feedback through this lens, the more likely it is that we will respond to it in a way that is positive.’

It’s good to realise that some people you cross paths with might be naturally blunt, for example, and their delivery of feedback may seem insensitive despite having good intentions.

If they’re offering a key takeaway or two, you can be pretty certain they have your best interests at heart. Because, if someone has taken the time to offer you constructive feedback, what they’re actually giving you is a pathway to improve.

‘If you can adopt that mindset of feedback being something positive, then it definitely helps you accept it, and it also means it’s a potentially less stressful experience,’ Dr O’Shea says.

Taking feedback on board

When it comes to handling feedback well, Dr O’Shea has a few tips:

  1. ‘Making sure you understand the feedback. It’s important to clarify as much as possible to make sure that you’ve understood it correctly, presuming the person giving the feedback is open to do that.
  2. ‘Asking [the person offering feedback] to recommend what might be helpful in terms of improving. Rather than just listening to the feedback, you could ask, “What support can be offered to me in that regard?”
  3. ‘Taking a minute to reflect if you can. Often when we sleep on something it can feel quite different. And if you’re in a state of mind where you’re not receiving it as intended, for whatever reason, that allows you to gain a broader perspective of the situation.
  4. ‘Reframing your approach to feedback to try to see it positively can be really helpful.’
'If you can adopt that mindset of feedback being something positive, then it definitely helps you accept it, and it also means it’s a potentially less stressful experience.'

Dr Melissa O'Shea,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Overcoming sensitivity

Sometimes, even with some tips under your belt, receiving feedback can still be a really stressful and overwhelming experience.

‘If you feel that being sensitive to feedback is an ongoing issue for you, then I’d really suggest to get some support around that,’ Dr O’Shea advises.

‘When people come to me with issues around receiving feedback, what I might encourage them to do is actively seek it out,’ she explains. ‘In that way, you’ll potentially feel like you’re in control of accessing the feedback.

‘And just the sheer process of being on the front-foot when seeking feedback could also send the message: “I want to develop and I want to learn.” That’s a positive thing for an employer.’

Ignoring or dodging feedback because it’s scary or stressful can be more harmful in the long term, because you’re actually avoiding valuable learning opportunities.

‘Particularly when we’re early in a job, or when we’re just starting out in a new course, there’s lots of things we don’t know, so feedback is important in helping us develop ourselves,’ Dr O’Shea says.

‘Being able to find ways to lean into feedback is a really important task for all of us.’

Knowing when to let go and when to reject feedback

‘Of course, there are situations where you feel the feedback is unreasonable and perhaps unfair or inaccurate in some way,’ Dr O’Shea says. Before jumping on the defence (or offence), start by referring back to her tips for taking feedback on board: ‘Taking a moment, clarifying what the feedback is, asking for time to think about it.’

If you feel you want to reject the feedback offered, make a time to meet with that person and prepare some notes, ‘so you can communicate in a way that’s less emotional,’ Dr O’Shea advises.

‘You might begin with, “I really welcome feedback,” making sure the person knows that you want to learn and develop, but that you wanted to clarify some aspects of it because you feel that there may be things that have been missed.

‘At other times I would say, sometimes we need to just let situations go. A person may have a particular perspective, and you need to think, “Is there value in me going in to bat around this particular issue, or is it something that I’m just going to let go?”’

Remember: we’re all human

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that the person critiquing you is human too, and they’re capable of making mistakes just like anybody else.

‘People giving feedback have bad days: they get things wrong, they have other things going on for them,’ Dr O’Shea says. ‘They may not even necessarily remember what they said or didn’t say and the moment has passed.’

Remember, providing feedback can actually be equally as difficult as being the one on the receiving end.

‘Sometimes, they might not have been trained well in being able to provide feedback, and may not necessarily do it in a way that’s particularly helpful. So understanding these things can help to depersonalise the feedback a little bit.’

As long as you find something useful to take away from it, and approach the situation in a calm and positive way, you’re giving yourself the best chance to learn and succeed.

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Dr Melissa O'Shea
Dr Melissa O'Shea

Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

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