Let me start off by saying that I am notorious for not handling negative feedback very well. I’m the classic Type A perfectionist who hates making mistakes. My usual response is to get defensive and completely shut down any less-than-stellar comments about my performance. Over the last year, though, I have learned that dealing with constructive criticism is essential to being a good professional. Thus, I have slowly started improving my “receiving feedback” game and here’s what I’ve learned:
The best coping method that has worked for me is to ask myself the following questions:
Is the feedback accurate or true?
Sometimes, depending on who the feedback is coming from and the context in which it is given, it can be inaccurate. Perhaps it is said in anger, frustration or out of retaliation. Maybe the feedback is coming from a disgruntled student or resentful coworker. Either way, before I process the feedback, I have to ask myself if there is any truth to what I am being told. For example, if a student leaves a comment that they feel that I suck as an advisor, then I may ask myself:
Is there truth to this statement? Do I actually suck at being an advisor? Or did this meeting perhaps not go the way the student had hoped, for one reason or another? Maybe I told them something that was difficult to hear. Or perhaps I encouraged them to find their own answer rather than telling them out right what to do.
By going through this internal dialogue, I can avoid taking certain comments too personally and refocus on the actual issue. Perhaps the next time we meet, we can go over their expectations for an advising appointment.
However, if I’m being told that I am being too direct or harsh in my approach, even in the same context as above, I am more likely to receive that as truthful (and yes, I’ve been told that I can be too direct – the result of 26 years of tough love). Now, my internal dialogue might look like this:
Is there truth to this statement? Was I being too harsh in how I delivered certain information? Even if I have used this approach before, perhaps it doesn’t work for everyone. I should find a different method of responding to the student’s concern next time.
While I am using student feedback in this instance, it applies to most other situations as well.
Is the criticism helpful?
Again, this largely depends on the who and the why of the feedback. Is the feedback being given by someone who knows you well enough to do so and is critiquing you in good faith? For example, if my supervisor is providing me with feedback with the intention of helping me grow as a professional, then that is helpful. My internal dialogue might look something like this:
Okay, so I have been told that I should seek out more opportunities to work with those from other offices in order to diversify my experiences and my knowledge. If anything, it definitely couldn’t hurt to meet new people!
Now, if a colleague who I see only during one-off campus events tells me that I seem to be bad at collaborating with others, then my internal dialogue might go something like this:
First off, I’m getting defensive/angry/upset about being told I’m bad at something. Second of all, who are they to tell me I’m bad at something if they have only observed me in this one particular context? Perhaps, in this very moment, I am bad at collaborating but it’s because I don’t know anyone or feel intimidated. They also did not provide me with any ways to help, so the criticism doesn’t help me any.
Can I or do I want to do something about it?
Some aspects of ourselves are simply out of our control or not something that is easily changed. Some parts of us we don’t want to, nor should we have to, change. I can definitely alter my blunt approach and be softer and more understanding with those who I feel would benefit from that approach. However, I will not change my overall advising philosophy to accommodate every single student I meet with. For example, I’m a firm believer in using equal parts challenge & support. I’m also a huge fan of Baxter Magolda’s Self-Authorship Theory. I believe in helping students grow into independent, confident students with a strong sense of self-efficacy. I don’t believe that they can get there if we always provide them with the answers or fail to challenge some of their preconceived notions. Has this led to some students being less than happy with me? Sure. But at the end of the day, I feel like I did the right thing because it’s not my job to make sure that they always feel comfortable. Sometimes discomfort is the only way to grow.
The same principle applies when I interact with fellow colleagues. I have been told that I am very blunt by former coworkers. I used to be insecure about this. Now I embrace it and it’s one of my most favorite aspects of myself!
Lastly, if my initial reaction is defensive, why is that?
For me personally, I react defensively if someone’s critique is hitting too close to home. There are some things about myself that I’m already sensitive or insecure about and having that insecurity confirmed can be triggering. However, my insecurities are not the problem of those critiquing me. They probably don’t even know that I am sensitive about it. Therefore, if my initial reaction is to get angry and defensive, I have to ask myself where those emotions are coming from. If they’re born out of preexisting insecurities, then that is something I need to reflect on first before responding to the feedback. Maybe what they said isn’t even meant as a critique but I’m simply perceiving it that way because of those insecurities. For example, being told that I am very blunt may not have been a critique at all. Perhaps it was just an observation. But because I felt insecure about it at the time, I took it to mean something negative. That is an emotion I already held towards my bluntness and thus an attribute I in turn placed upon the statement being made.
Overall, receiving negative feedback is definitely challenging but learning how to receive it and then what to do with it is crucial to growing as a professional.
How do you cope with negative feedback? I’m curious to know, so please leave your thoughts in the comments!