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The best way to handle negative feedback

1. Don’t Get Defensive

During a feedback conversation, chances are you’re feeling somewhere between mildly to extremely defensive. This is a totally natural reaction, but it can also come off as immature, so it’s best to try to control it as much as possible.

Try to avoid accusatory or subjective language like “it’s not fair” or “it always seems like,” and instead, focus on making “I” statements that show you take responsibility for your actions and their outcomes. For example, say you owed your boss a final version of a report by noon. You had asked the intern to print and bind it, but he misunderstood your instructions and was late delivering the hard copy. Your boss does not care that the intern messed up; all she knows is that you were late in delivering her the final version. Claim responsibility for that, and consider how you can improve for the future (e.g., “I know the report was late, and I will make sure to set up the proper systems and guidelines to make sure it doesn’t happen in the future”).

2. Don’t Over-Apologize

On the flip side, don’t go overboard. If the feedback is based on a specific mistake, misunderstanding, or behavior, apologize once, and that’s it. Make it count—your apology should be sincere, concise, and show that you understand the problem and how avoid it in the future. Your boss will appreciate this and most likely want to move on—she has no interest in telling you “it’s OK” five times a day as you beg for forgiveness or promise to improve upon things in the future.

3. Don’t React on Impulse

Received a piece of really tough—or even truly unwarranted—feedback? Although it’s tempting to react immediately, your emotions are at their peak in the heat of the moment. So, it’s essential that you take a deep breath and give yourself some physical space to absorb the comments and clear your head before responding one way or another. The person giving you the feedback may want to discuss it then and there, but you’re usually better off respectfully saying something like, “I really appreciate hearing your concerns. I’d like to take some time to collect my thoughts so that I can better respond to what I’ve heard.” Then, remove yourself physically from the space—a walk outside is always a good idea—to allow yourself some space to calm your mind.

4. Don’t Miss the Chance to Clarify

After you’ve had the opportunity to clear your head, go back and think about the main points your boss conveyed. Do they pretty much make sense, or is there anything that came totally out of left field? If so, can you go back and revisit the surprising feedback with your boss in the name of getting a better understanding of what you need to work on?

It’s never a bad idea to circle back with him or her after a few days or weeks and say something like, “Based on my evaluation, here are the three major points I understand I need to improve on, and here is what I understand that I do well and should continue to do. There is one point you mentioned that concerns me a bit, and here’s why.” The person giving you the feedback will appreciate that you’ve taken the time to analyze it and that you are crystal clear on the steps you should take to improve in the future.

5. Don’t Dwell on It

Particularly if the negative feedback caught you by surprise, pointed to a flaw that makes you self-conscious, or was of a personal nature (your tendency to use filler words in presentations, for example), chances are you’re going to feel bad about it. That’s totally normal. But while you should allow yourself a period of time to work through the feelings it stirs up, you should also commit to letting them go.

Try to remember that you are not your job, and your colleagues’ assessment of your professional performance does not correlate to your value as a human being. Oh, and while it may be tempting to text your closest co-worker saying, “I need some stiff drinks, stat,” engaging in destructive behavior will get you nowhere. Listen to music, exercise, cuddle your cat—whatever you need to do to feel better without leaving yourself worse off in the long run.

As you look to the future and work to incorporate feedback in the name of professional development, focus on the positive. Look to the joint progress you, your colleagues, and clients are making toward achieving your mutual goals rather than things that went wrong in the past. Less-than-glowing feedback is a fact of life, but it can still really bring you down. By knowing some ways not to react, both outwardly and for yourself, you’ll be able to recover more quickly and shine like the competent professional you are.

Finally, remember that you’re not alone. Everyone out there has been there, too.

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