How to Handle Criticism We Don't Want to Hear

Keep this one thing in mind when you’re given negative feedback at work.

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What happens when someone tells you something you don’t want to hear?

Hearing something negative about yourself is a hard thing to swallow. Especially when you disagree with it.

I’ll never forget when this happened to me most vividly about four years ago. I sat down to get coffee with a mentor of mine.

To my surprise, she expressed how she was disappointed in my lack of follow-through with two people she had introduced me to. Then she said this:

“Because of that, Claire, you come across as fake.”

Ouch.

I felt my stomach flip. I felt my temperature rise. I knew I had followed up with them. And I knew I wasn’t a fake person. Should I say that? Should I defend myself?

Instead, as silly as it sounds, I breathed in. Then I counted, 1–2–3. And then I breathed out.

I realized that regardless of what I believed to be the truth, what she told me was true to her. And that’s what mattered.

There is always a reason that someone chooses to believe something is true. It’s not as though she (or her contacts) was crazy or delusional. There had to be a reason.

After all, it could be pointing to a larger issue… 

Maybe she was right?

Maybe this was a sign that I was taking on too many meetings. Maybe I was brushing people off. Maybe I was caught up in the “go go go, gotta keep moving,” and that I wasn’t investing the time and thoughtful consideration with each person I spoke with.

Maybe I was coming across as fake.

Even though I know I’d followed up with her contacts, that wasn’t the point. The point was that I had a real opportunity to learn, change, and improve. It’s not about what’s true to me. It’s about what’s true to her.

So instead of trying to change her mind — instead of trying to change what was true to her — I decided to try to change my own behavior. I didn’t want to spend energy getting worked up, being defensive. I wanted to use that same energy to become better.

I told her that I was sorry. Really sorry. That I thought I had followed-up. But that it didn’t matter either way. I told her that her feedback caused me to reflect on how I was treating and handling each interaction I’ve had. I was determined to do things differently moving forward.

We’ve touched base since then, and it’s been rewarding to reflect on how much I’ve improved, even just a few weeks after that conversation happened. I immediately started investing more energy and thoughtfulness into every meeting I scheduled, every conversation I had. I meticulously tripled-check my follow-through on things I’ve promised to others. Years later, to this day, her words stick with me.

Looking back, I’m grateful I fought my urge to rebut her feedback in that moment. If I hadn’t, there’s no way I would’ve changed my actions for the better as quickly as I did.

Keep this in mind the next time someone gives you feedback you disagree with: It doesn’t matter if what they’re saying true to you — what matters is that it’s true to them.

The sooner you recognize that, the sooner you’ll benefit from it.

To learn why we tend to dismiss feedback in the first place, read our next chapter in our Knowledge Center.

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