how to process feedback

It’s never easy taking criticism. You spent so much time and poured in so much effort—only to have your hard work ripped apart.

Many of us are familiar with the saying, “no pain, no gain.” Generally speaking, I like to avoid or prevent things that can hurt me. When it comes to feedback, however, it pays off to be different! I (try to) embrace the discomfort.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s never painless. We all still feel anxious, scared, and worried when receiving feedback.

“Will they think less of me?”

“If something I wrote is bad, will they think I’m not smart?”

“Oh no, they figured out I flunked that history test in 7th grade.”

Don’t fret—this feeling is totally natural!

According to Kimberly Leitch, a licensed clinical social worker at Talkspace, receiving feedback triggers a stress response from the incoming judgment, which is often coming from someone in a position of authority.

So if this is a natural way our bodies respond to feedback or criticism, then we’re doomed, right? How do we overcome a natural gut reaction like this?

I won’t sugar coat it or lie to you—it’s difficult, but not impossible. You can still feel 100% in control as you face the looming terror of criticism. These five steps can encourage you to lay down your shield and welcome negative and positive feedback with open arms.

*Doorbell Rings* “Hi. It’s Feedback!”

Sometimes you know feedback is coming, such as before a performance review or if you happened to perform in the latest Broadway craze. Brace yourself! You know it’s coming, so you’ll need to mentally prepare.


In other cases, you may receive unsolicited feedback. I’ve found the best approach is to simply open yourself up to the possibility of feedback at all times. Accept that you’re not perfect, and that’s quite alright—remember, literally no one is perfect (unless it’s Taco because he’s adorable).

Go ahead and say it with me, “I’m not perfect and that doesn’t make me less of a person.”

Along with having an open mindset, assuming positive intent is critically important. Whoever is giving you feedback is likely on your team and is genuinely trying to identify ways to help make you and your work better. They see your potential and likely want it to shine even brighter!

Occasionally, these things may not be true. Most of the time, however, there are positive intentions at hand. So allow feedback into your life and consider how a new angle or perspective can change your work for the better.

Stop, Collaborate, And Listen

Your first reaction to something critical is most likely going to be negative. You may be anxious, stressed, or even defensive. Take a moment, breathe in deeply, and pause your first reaction.

Process what you’re hearing over a couple of seconds. There’s a good chance you’ll never be able to stop your initial reaction, but you can always attempt to stop your response to it.

As you’re processing what you’re hearing, focus on the trait or issue that’s getting feedback and not on yourself. Remember that your work always has room for improvement (because we’re not perfect). By focusing on the work, you can quell that negative reaction.

Even if the feedback is for you (for example, your performance on that last project), try and separate your traits and skills apart from yourself. It’s easier to process feedback about one small part of yourself, rather than believe it’s criticism targeted at your entire body, mind, and soul.

This can be hard and it’s definitely a skill to develop. Before you say or do anything after getting some feedback, stop, take a breath, and think about what you just heard before providing a response.

Seek To Understand

You’re calm. You’re actively listening. One could even say you’re experiencing tranquility.

That may not be the case, but the next step after stopping your initial reaction is to understand. Now is the time to process what’s being said and identifying areas to improve your work.  There’s nothing wrong with taking a walk or simply taking a short break to think after a feedback session.

Take time after the meeting with your boss or colleague to understand the feedback. If anything doesn’t make sense to you, know it’s always a good idea to ask clarifying questions. The key is to avoid debating points in the feedback or immediately dismissing it, instead, asking for examples or even suggestions on how to improve can prove useful.

Sometimes, that different perspective can be surprisingly impactful. By opening yourself up to new views on your work, you’ll expose yourself to more information and even better ways to approach future projects.

Be Thankful

This part may be counter-intuitive, but hear me out. You may be thinking, this person is shredding up my work like Bill Lumbergh and I have to thank them!? Let’s look at this differently:

criticism from the top

This person just took time out of their day to review your work. They’re probably on your team as well (or are at least interested in seeing your work succeed). Their underlying intent is positive, you should embrace it!

They’ve also spent time considering how your work could potentially be improved. Remember: This person cares and they’re trying to help you out. Sure, they see the world differently, have a different perspective, and often, that’s just what your work needs—constant growth and feedback.

Being thankful when receiving good (or bad) feedback takes time and your work deserves to reap the benefits from this insight.  

Implement And Make A Follow-Up Plan

Good feedback is, well, no good without actually implementing it. Depending on the length and scope of the work, this may vary a bit. Generally, you should work feedback into your projects and ask for a review to confirm you’re following the feedback as requested.

With that being said, you don’t have to use all of the feedback you get! At the end of the day, it’s your work and you reserve the right to leave out anything that doesn’t actually make it better.

A reasonable rule is you can ditch about 10% of the feedback without question. Beyond that, you’ll want to come up with good, logical reasons as to why you’re not using it.

Keep The Good, Trash The Bad

Sometimes, you get feedback that just isn’t useful. Maybe it’s coming from someone with negative intent or it just simply misses the mark. To top it off, this is the feedback that often hurts the most to get.

It’s a bummer and there’s not a clever psychological trick for dealing with it. But these three steps can help:

  1. Ignore the feedback (or criticism), if you can.

  2. Professionally talk to your manager about the feedback you received.

  3. Don’t let it get to you if you sense this person isn’t trying to truly help you.

Keep your spirits up and focus on your work. Unconstructive feedback will hurt, not help you. The sooner you can get past it, the better off you’ll be.

How To Process Feedback Without The Emotion

It’ll never be easy, but the whole feedback process will be less painful as long as you have a plan for processing it. The best part? This is all under your control! Let’s recap:

  1. Keep an open mind about receiving feedback. Focus on how your work can be improved with some extra perspective.

  2. Don’t respond right away, take a few seconds to really process the feedback. You can assess rationally and logically, without undue emotion.

  3. Make sure you understand the feedback. In cases where you don’t, ask questions! The feedback giver should be happy to discuss specific points deeper to help clarify their suggestions.

  4. Be humble and gracious! Let them know you appreciate that they gave their time and energy to help make you more successful.

  5. Don’t let constructive criticism go in one ear and out the other. Take what you hear, implement it, and follow-up.

Lastly, don’t let the haters (AKA un-constructive feedback givers) keep you down. You got this!

Next: How Constant, Always-On Collaboration Is Actually Holding You Back

5 ways to process feedback at work without triggering a stress response