When given criticism, many of us get defensive or distracted. Here’s how to face feedback like a pro, says negotiation expert Sheila Heen.
Getting an annual review is like going in for a dental cleaning: it’s routine and necessary, but it will probably include a few moments of discomfort. If you’re praised, it’s embarrassing to sit there while someone tells you in person; and if you’re criticized, it stings even when it’s justified.
You may also feel powerless, like you have to humbly swallow any feedback that your boss dispenses. However, you’re actually the one in the driver’s seat. “In any exchange of feedback between giver and receiver, it’s the receiver who’s in charge,” says Sheila Heen, a consultant, lecturer at Harvard University Law School, researcher at the Harvard Negotiation Project, and co-author of Thanks for the Feedback (TEDxAmoskeagMillyardWomen Talk: How to use others’ feedback to learn and grow). “It’s the receiver who decides what they’re going to let in, what sense they’re going to make of it, and whether and how they choose to change.” Here, she shares 6 tips for receiving and responding to feedback.
1. Start your meeting on a positive note.
Many of us trudge our performance reviews with all the enthusiasm of facing a firing squad. While we’re not advocating fake smiles, Heen says, “One thing we suggest that you do when you walk in is say, ‘Hey, I’m looking forward to this conversation. I want to understand as best I can how you’re thinking about my year and what you want me to work on. After we finish, I’d like to go away and think about your comments, so I may have additional questions and thoughts if that’s OK.” By doing so, you’ll come across as upbeat and proactive — and you’ll be giving your boss a heads-up that you may request a follow-up meeting.
2. Concentrate on clarity.
When someone tells you how you could improve, your first response may be to think about all the reasons why they’re wrong. This impulse is normal, Heen says; it’s only harmful if you cling to it and dismiss everything your boss says. In your review, let go of your defensiveness and focus on getting clarity from what’s being said. “In the conversation, your purpose is to understand what your boss is saying as clearly and specifically as possible and to ask a ton of questions,” she says. In fact, she adds, not asking enough questions is one of the biggest mistakes that people make.
Some bosses pepper their review with vague statements like “We want to see more leadership from you” or “I’d love to see you get more proactive.” It’s up to you to find out what they mean. Heen suggests asking, “If I were to follow your advice and be more proactive, what would that look like? What would I change?”
3. If you need a time-out, take it.
So your review is moving along — and then your boss says something that you think is totally wrong or unfair. Suddenly, you feel like you’re on the verge of crying or snapping at them. If you know you tend to get emotional, plan a few preemptive steps before you start the conversation. One helpful strategy: Take notes on paper. Note-taking can give you something to focus on and allows you to step into a more neutral mindset. “It can give you a little distance,” Heen says.
But if you end up losing it mid-review, request a break. Otherwise, she says, “the danger is you’re going to do or say something that will damage the relationship or your reputation.” Take some time to regain your calm, think about what set you off, and return to the conversation, ready to ask specific questions.
4. Ask for feedback — the right way.
You may work for the kind of boss (or company) that piles on the praise and avoids any hint of negativity. But we could all stand to raise our game. As you near the end of your review, you’ll be tempted to ask, “Do you have any feedback for me?” That’s a bad question, says Heen, because it’s not clear what type of feedback you want. Instead, she suggests asking about one thing you can do to improve. For example, you might ask, “What’s one thing I can change about how I run meetings that you think would help?”
The reason this question can be more effective is it’s clear you’re asking for coaching — feedback designed to help you — rather than just criticism. Heen also likes the fact that “it’s not a big conversation. It takes two minutes to answer.” You might consider periodically asking your boss this question, or posing it to the coworkers you work most closely with. As Heen says, “If you do this with some regularity, you’re less likely to be surprised by something in your end-of-year review.”
5. Enlist a friend to evaluate any criticism.
You’ve taken notes and asked questions during the review, but you’re troubled by some of your boss’s comments about your performance. What now? “Go to a friend you trust, and ask them to help you sort through it,” Heen says. “One mistake, issue or judgement can feel like everything, so you need friends to get some perspective.”
After they offer you support, she adds, “You need to ask them a second question: ‘What might be right about this criticism?’” She calls this inviting someone to be an “honest mirror.” She explains, “The honest mirror is like that hand mirror your hairstylist or barber hands you to show you the back of your head — they’re showing you something you can’t see by yourself.”
6. Stop yourself from snowballing.
For some people, feedback can become super-sized, snowballing until it takes up all their mental space. One thing that can help you see it at actual size is by making what Heen calls a containment chart. On a piece of paper, create two columns: in one column, write down what the feedback is about; in the other column, write down what is it not about. Perhaps you’ve been told you need to speak up more in meetings; your boss is not telling you that your contributions at meetings are incoherent or ill-informed. Creating a chart can enable you to have a more balanced view, and it can push you to come up with the best ways to address your boss’s comments.