Criticism is an unavoidable part of life. Whether we want it or not, feedback will find us — at work, at home, and in our closest relationships. Some people avoid it at all costs, and wrestle with how to make sense of other people’s opinions about their work. Others embrace criticism, and use it to develop the insights they need to take their work to the next level.
In my recent piece on the art of giving feedback, I mentioned that I wasn’t exactly a natural when it comes to criticism. It was only when I began receiving emails from audiences and colleagues on a daily basis that I realized just how important the delivery of meaningful, thoughtful criticism really is. I also learned what a big role I had to play in how meaningful that feedback was. Processing criticism, I discovered, is as important a skill as delivering it.
Paradoxically, the more good work you produce, the more criticism you’ll encounter. As Roberto Bolaño writes, “If you’re going to say what you want to say, you’re going to hear what you don’t want to hear.” I’d go one step further: If you can learn to want to hear that criticism — and if you know what to do with it — then you dramatically multiply your chances of success in all areas of your life. I see it in the guests I interview on the podcast every week. The most successful entrepreneurs, executives, and artists have made it a priority to master this game-changing skill.
That’s what we’ll be talking about in this piece: our 10 principles of effectively processing feedback.
The 10 Principles of Processing Feedback
Articulate your feedback needs.
Sam, a Seattle-based designer with a couple of side hustles, recently sent me the splash page for a product he’s developing. In his email asking for my thoughts, he included the following request:
I’m especially interested in knowing:
- if this splash page makes you want to learn more about the product.
- if the website copy is easy to understand and fun to read.
Those are my main priorities right now, but I’m open to any and all thoughts you’d like to share!
With that simple request, he automatically set up my feedback to be as meaningful as possible. He also taught me something really important about the way we should ask for criticism.
By articulating his needs at that moment, he gave me two very clear aspects of his splash page to respond to. He could not have made it easier for me to give him the feedback he needed most, and he saved me from putting in additional work articulating criticism he just couldn’t use at that moment. A super smart way to solicit feedback, and also very respectful.
Processing meaningful feedback begins with seeking out the feedback you need. Most people will share a project or issue or decision and ask for “any feedback you might have.” That might work for some projects and relationships — say, screening a movie for a test audience, or testing a prototype with a potential customer — but in most cases, articulating the precise feedback you want at this particular stage will help you collect the data you really need.
Notice that seeking out specific types of feedback doesn’t dictate whether the feedback should be good or bad. Sam wasn’t saying, “Please only share good feedback; I’m not interested in criticism right now.” He said, “Be brutally honest about these aspects of my project that are most important to me right now.”
What he received as a result was pre-filtered, honest criticism that was targeted to the right stage of the development process. So as you seek out feedback, consider actively soliciting feedback that meets your needs at this moment. That’s the first step in making the most of it.
Seek feedback from the right people at the right time.
Articulating your feedback needs is important. So is seeking that feedback from the right people at the right time.
Whenever I’m ready to gather feedback on a project, I take a moment and think about all the people in my life who might be willing to share their thoughts, what unique perspective they have to offer, and how important their role and opinion are to the project. I then think carefully about what kind of feedback I’d like to ask them for — and in what order.
Soliciting feedback in phases from different groups can help you preserve those relationships, and will almost always help deepen them.
So as you seek our feedback, take a moment to decide the order in which you ask for it, and how your work will be perceived at each stage by the people you approach.
We’ve all found ourselves sitting across from someone who clearly doesn’t want to hear the feedback we’re providing. We can almost see their defenses going up, their anxiety level rising, their sensitivity to criticism on full display. Most of us strive to remain open when we’re on the receiving end of feedback, but as we all know, it can be really hard to process someone else’s opinion — especially when we suspect that it might be true.
The key to really processing feedback in the moment, of course, is listening. True listening — as opposed to merely hearing, or listening in order to respond — means placing aside any other thoughts, responses, or agenda, and focusing entirely on understanding what the other person is saying. If you can consciously listen to feedback in the moment, the value of that information will multiply tenfold.
In the context of receiving feedback, listening also means putting aside all your opinions, assumptions, and pride about your work, and letting go of any attachment you have to your choices up till now. If you notice the urge to defend your work or debate the feedback, catch yourself. You can always disagree later; you can always defend your work when it’s time. Your opinions aren’t going anywhere. But in the moment you’re receiving feedback, your only job is to listen.
The coaches here at AoC have seen people listen poorly and listen masterfully in literally thousands of feedback conversations, and the difference between the two approaches is staggering.
One of our students, for example, was wrestling with the ability to authentically banter with strangers, one of the key skills we drill in our live residential programs. When we shared our observations of his conversational style, he quickly chimed in.
“I don’t wanna be difficult,” he explained, before telling us that he was a serious person by nature, and didn’t feel authentic being playful with new people. Which might have been true, of course, but these were just defenses masquerading as explanations.
As soon as we pointed out that he wasn’t fully listening, and that he had more to gain by just considering a new perspective, he fell quiet. Once he graduated, we told him, he could decide whether our advice was helpful or unhelpful, whether this new social persona we were exploring was authentic or inauthentic. But in this moment, his only job was to listen.
The shift was palpable. His body relaxed; his eyes focused. The rest of the conversation was a revelation: the first time he had ever really considered someone else’s observations without reflexively resisting it. And it was only possible because someone pointed out that he was subconsciously defending against information he didn’t want to hear. Once you see them in action, these subtle self-defenses that prevent us from really listening — or, rather, our tendency not to listen in order to self-defend — become a difficult jig to keep up.
So make this a conscious practice. As you sit down for a feedback session, deliberately tell yourself that you are simply here to listen and learn. You can qualify and defend if and when the time is right, but in this moment, your only job is to consider a perspective you hadn’t considered before.
That simple practice is one of the best-kept secrets of top performers.
Probe, dig, and understand.
Being open to feedback is essential, but the commandment to listen doesn’t mean that feedback should be one-sided. The best criticism is a conversation that allows the feedbacker to deliver the best possible feedback to a person who is committed to really understanding the criticism being offered.
Early in my career, I generally sat back and received feedback as it came. Even when I remembered to just listen — which, as I’ve touched on before, is a skill I had to consciously learn later in life — I would absorb the information I was hearing, speak very little, and consider whether I agreed with it later on. Which actually worked well, especially in traditional careers like law.
Over time, though, I realized that I was only getting a fraction of the benefit of people’s feedback. The notes people share are just the tip of the iceberg: the summary of their opinion, the headline of their view, the conclusion at which they’ve arrived. There’s so much more to learn, so much more to understand.
When I get feedback now — whether it’s a listener writing in to discuss a recent guest or a friend giving me detailed notes on a new article — I alternate between conscious listening and deep inquiry. I internalize what I’m hearing without judgment, then dig deeper on points I really want to understand.
“Did you find that paragraph strange because it wasn’t clear, or because it’s an opinion you don’t agree with?” “Would it articulating it this way make it clearer?” “Does that note also apply to your point about the opening — was that a helpful window into the topic?” Questions like these bring me into a partnership with the person giving me feedback, and multiply the value of the criticism being offered.
As I probe people’s notes, I also tend to play with possible solutions. “What if we came up with a new hook at the opening, then spread the three case studies out?” “Do you think if I had asked that guest why he was suspicious of self-help, we could have gotten a better answer?”
My goal here isn’t to shut down the feedback process, but to explore different ways to put it to good use. I then invite my feedbackers to chime in on whether those recommendations work, or whether I need to keep working on the right solution.
So as you listen, ask questions. Clarify. Dig deep into recommendations you don’t fully understand. Probe people’s notes to really understand what they’re trying to say. But stay vigilant. Notice when your desire to clarify a note begins to cross over into defense, which is a normal human reaction to criticism. Engage, but stay in that space of openness and conscious listening.
That’s the dance: listen and probe, process and dig, absorb and inquire. You never want to listen at the expense of being an active participant in your feedback, and you never want to participate at the expensive of listening. The interplay between the two is how you get truly killer feedback.
Track your emotional responses.
Few experiences are as emotionally charged as receiving feedback. The more important the subject is to us, the stronger our emotional response. And the more that the feedback reflects on us as people, the more primal those feelings become.
It turns out that our acute response to feedback is deeply wired in our DNA. Because criticism is a form of social information that directly has an impact on our social standing, we often experience feedback as very stressful. That stress, in turn, gets felt acutely in our bodies and our minds as we try to determine what it means for our social status.
As Dr. Margaret E. Kemeny found, humans experience a profound psychobiological response to these “social threats.” Stressful life experiences, like receiving negative feedback, affect the central nervous system, the endocrine system, and the immune system, sending powerful signals along a bidirectional network of interactions. In other words, when we perceive criticism as a social threat — which we’re basically built to do — the feedback has a direct impact on our nerves, our hormones, and our ability to protect against disease. Pretty crazy, right?
Which explains the range of emotional responses we have to criticism. And four emotions tend to crop up more than others: anger, envy, sadness, and fear.
We’ve all experienced these emotions in response to feedback at one point or another. Anger at criticism we feel is underserved. Envy of those who didn’t receive the same criticism, or of the people who are in a position to give it. Sadness that we failed to avoid this criticism, or have more work to do than we thought. Fear that we’re not as smart and talented as we like to believe, that we might be vulnerable to this kind of criticism again.
The standard advice is to hit pause on those emotions, and suppress them when you’re receiving feedback. The intention is good, but it rarely works. Emotions we suppress have a clever way of seeping in (or lashing out) anyway. And suppressed emotions only become harder to work through.
Instead, I recommend acknowledging these unpleasant feelings when they arise in a feedback conversation, allowing them to be there, and using them to learn more about yourself and your work.
This doesn’t mean we should foist every emotional reaction on our feedbackers, but that we can invite those emotional responses in without allowing them to take over.
Adrian, an AoC program grad, was telling me recently about a performance review he had at his consulting firm. Adrian’s a top performer, which might be why he found himself getting frustrated when his manager told him that he needed to work on the way he managed his analysts.
As Adrian asked some follow-up questions, he could feel himself getting angry, and he could tell that his manager was noticing it too. So he did something really interesting: he called out his emotional response, and made it part of the conversation.
“If I seem angry right now,” he explained to the manager, “it’s because I thought I was doing a pretty good job managing my team, and I really want to get better, and I’m realizing it’s hard.”
By having the self-awareness to articulate his emotional response, he immediately removed the negative charge around the conversation. His manager actually thanked him for being so open and committed to getting better, and they even discussed how his anger might have played a role in the way he related to his team. Interestingly, Adrian also said that the moment he acknowledged his anger out loud, he immediately felt less angry.
Which is pretty much a textbook example of how to use your emotions in a healthy and productive way.
In most cases, feedbackers really empathize with emotional reactions (since they’ve almost certainly wrestled with them themselves) and appreciate that you care enough to share that emotional response. If you articulate it the right way, you can also signal that you are truly invested in the outcome of this conversation — that this feedback really means something to you — which is exactly the kind of emotional connection that builds social capital.
And by bringing these reactions into the conversation, you can actually use these “ugly” emotions to your advantage. Anger, for example, can teach you what you truly care about. Fear can reveal the vulnerabilities you’re protecting. Envy can show you the qualities and accomplishments you secretly wish you could attain.
Whenever I notice myself having these reactions in feedback conversations, I ask myself what those feelings are trying to teach me. In every single case, they’re pointing to a belief, vulnerability, or weakness that is directly connected to the criticism in question. And the criticism is almost always correct.
We don’t need to be emotionless drones to process feedback. We can be vibrant, emotional beings who are invested in the criticism being offered — as long as we know how to put those emotions to good use. As Adam Grant says, “Once people take ownership over the decision to receive feedback, they’re less defensive about it.”
Consider the source.
For a long time, my instinct was to agree with most of the feedback I received. I took that criticism seriously because I believed there was an objective source of feedback, and that my job was to live up to it as best I could.
But as I recorded more podcasts, developed my voice, and discovered my broadcasting sensibility, the more I realized that there is no such thing as truly objective feedback. There is only more or less helpful feedback, and all of it — good and bad — is ultimately subjective.
As we discussed in our first feedback article, all criticism is informed by people’s interests, backgrounds, and tastes. Because their opinions are filtered through those biases, you have to consider those biases as you process their feedback. This is what the writer Tara Mohr meant when she said that feedback doesn’t tell you about yourself — it tells you about the person giving the feedback. In reality, it does both. Feedback offers you a perspective on yourself, but filtered through the experiences of the person giving the feedback.
So as you listen to feedback, consider the source. Ask yourself which life experiences have shaped your feedbacker’s taste and worldview. Have they enjoyed a great deal of success in their life? Have they struggled? Are they giving you notes on your sci-fi novel having done a masters in British literature, or are they giving you notes as a hardcore fan-fiction writer? Are they critiquing your product prototype as a salaried engineer at a major company, or as a freelance coder who’s built several different products? Do you admire this person’s reputation and work? Do you share their sensibilities and tastes? All of this background will help you understand where their feedback is coming from, and why.
Another important dimension to consider is your relationship to your feedbacker. Every relationship carries its own unspoken rules, politics, and expectations. Is your glowing performance review coming from a manager you’ve become good friends with, or an embattled senior executive known for tearing down his employees? Can the person offering you feedback affect your career prospects, or are they sharing criticism as a true outsider? Your connection to the feedbacker shapes the substance and style of the criticism being offered. It should also shape how seriously you take it.
Finally, consider the forum or venue in which you’re receive the feedback. A customer comment on an anonymous review site will probably mean less than a lengthy comment from a close colleague in an all-hands meeting. I know from personal experience that I treat a Twitter complaint from a first-time listener very differently from a piece of feedback from a longtime fan who approaches me after a conference. Each venue shapes the agenda and value of these notes, so I take the forum into account when I decide whether to act on them.
So as you process feedback, keep considering the source of the feedback — how your feedbacker’s life experience, relationship to you, and chosen venue influence the criticism they’re offering.
Separate observations from recommendations.
All feedback has two components: diagnosis and recommendation. A feedbacker generally makes an observation about your work (for example, that the sign-up process for a new product could be smoother) and then offers a solution (to reduce the number of sign-up steps and rework the UX). In most cases, feedbackers tend to present both components as gospel. They implicitly suggest that if they’re right about the problem, they must be right about the solution.
It took me years to realize that people can be right about one and wrong about the other. In fact, they usually are. As Neil Gaiman says in his famous eight rules of writing, “Remember, when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”
So as you process criticism, separate out these two pieces. Notice when someone is identifying a problem, then notice when they shift into possible solutions. Those solutions might in fact be great. But you don’t need to agree with them just because you agree with the problem.
In my experience, other people are astoundingly good at noticing a problem. It’s then up to me to figure out how to fix it. Rarely will you hear the right diagnosis and the right solution in the same feedback conversation — and that’s perfectly fine. It’s our job to decide which to embrace and which to decline.
Seek out the note behind the note.
Gilad, an international journalist and friend of AoC, was telling me recently about the feedback he received on his manuscript for a book about the modern refugee crisis.
After sharing the manuscript with a group of friends and colleagues, he started getting one note over and over: that his story, while fascinating, was difficult to empathize with. People were intrigued by the refugee problem as he saw it, but not as emotionally invested in the outcome. The consensus was that the characters in the book — people he had traveled the world to interview — just weren’t making his readers invest in the journey of the book.
Cut half of them, said one editor. Write some dramatic action sequences, recommended a friend. Restructure the narrative, said a third. Gilad was devastated. He had put in years of work gathering all this research. But if so many people had the same reaction, who was he to argue?
The next day, he reread the manuscript with fresh eyes, keeping this major note in mind. What he realized this time around was that he hadn’t introduced his characters very vividly — that they all got a quick description and backstory, and that they all sounded roughly the same.
So he did an experiment. He rewrote all of his character introductions, emphasizing the unique quirks and idiosyncratic perspectives that made them so interesting. He deliberately didn’t change anything else.
Then he sent the manuscript to his colleagues — including a couple of the original feedbackers — and asked them specifically if they felt emotionally invested in the outcome of the crisis. This time, he got a unanimous response: they weren’t just invested, they were riveted, surprised, and moved by the book. He did an additional rewrite, and recently published the book to great reviews.
Gilad’s story reminded me how important it is to seek out the “note behind the note” — the piece of feedback lurking, often hidden, behind another. The note Gilad kept getting was that the story was hard to identify with. The note behind that note was that his characters just weren’t compelling enough. Gilad took the time to probe for that deeper criticism, and put in the work to implement it. Had he accepted the original feedback at face value, he might have gutted years of great research, and produced a middling book.
So as you process feedback, probe the ideas you receive to discover what additional, deeper, better ideas might be lying behind them. In many cases, that’s the real feedback. It’s up to us to mine the criticism to find it.
Allow yourself time to process and implement.
As we mentioned, feedback has a strong emotional charge. Criticism gets linked into the most primal parts of our brains and bodies, which can make it difficult to rationally process.
When I receive major feedback, my new rule is to wait at least one day before deciding whether to implement it or set it aside.
If the feedback is more profound, it might take me several days, maybe even weeks, to really reflect on it. The key is not to embrace or dismiss feedback when it’s still raw. Our sense of being attacked or misunderstood — or, alternatively, the high of being praised and recognized — can make it impossible to objectively analyze the criticism we receive.
Acting on feedback also takes time. I’ve received notes that I was able to put to good use the very same day, and I’ve gotten notes that took years to internalize. The more meaningful and ambitious the notes, the longer it takes to act on them.
That’s why it’s important to be patient when it comes to good criticism. Sometimes we receive feedback that we just aren’t equipped to put into practice just yet — feedback so valuable we have to keep working to really understand.
Follow the fun.
At the end of the day, the best barometer I’ve found for assessing feedback is whether it makes my work more fun. If a note doesn’t make my work more interesting to me, if it doesn’t make me more excited to tackle it, then it’s probably not the most helpful note.
This doesn’t mean, however, that all feedback will feel good. I’ve been infuriated by notes, confused by them, afraid of them. But once they settle, and I take a few days to look at them objectively, then I pay close attention to how the notes function in my work. If they open up new possibilities, if they give me a new approach or set of skills, if they make me look at my work in a new way — then that’s a pretty good sign that they’re pointing me in the right direction.
So as you decide which feedback to take and which to decline, ask yourself whether the criticism in question is empowering and exciting you, or diminishing and confusing you.
In some cases, feedback will fall somewhere between the two — it will be confusing and interesting, inspiring and intimidating — but if those good feelings accompany the bad, then, at the very least, you’ve received criticism worth exploring.
The principles we’ve covered in this piece will make you a better recipient of feedback. They’ll also make you a better feedbacker. That’s the beauty of this skill: it works both ways. And if you can master the essential art of giving feedback as well as the critical art of receiving it, then you’ll find that you and your work will begin to flourish. The criticism you receive will enhance the quality of your work, which in turn will increase the quality of your feedback, which will in turn enhance the quality of other people’s work.
The net result, of course, is a powerful social capital engine that is unstoppable. At the heart of it is how we ask for, listen to, and process meaningful criticism.