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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work Relationships

A Feedback-Phobe's Guide to Dealing With Constructive Criticism

I’ve never been great at welcoming feedback. Throughout high school and college, I was a bit of a perfectionist, so any time I turned in an assignment, I held my breath and wrung my hands until it came back with a good grade. And if it didn’t? I took those red pen marks and suggestions as a critique of not just my work, but of my personal worth.

Not surprisingly, that mentality stayed with me well into my professional life, too. I hated turning in any projects or assignments because I feared the feedback that would come back from my boss.

And when it inevitably came? I’d vent to my co-workers and friends and let the criticism consume my mind to the point that I couldn’t focus on anything else. I didn’t see the value in the feedback—only the negativity.

But as I grew in my career, I realized that I needed to learn how to be more resilient—to learn how to not let constructive criticism affect me personally, but to accept it gracefully and view it as a tool I could use to boost my career. Here are a few ways I did it—and you can, too.

Realize It’s Just Your Job

I know—like me, you’re probably serious about your career. You want to do what you’re passionate about and be fully invested in that role. So it feels almost sacrilegious to even considering venturing into the mindset of “it’s only a job.”

But during my first month in a corporate communications role, I was in the middle of writing a press release that had gone back and forth countless times between me and my boss—and I had just received another draft covered in red.

I approached my mentor, completely discouraged. I’d just made a pretty big career switch from management to communications, and by the looks of the red pen covering my assignments, I wasn’t faring too well in my new venture. Obviously, I wasn’t as good of a writer as I thought I was.

“The writing you do here is for your job,” he said, reminding me that my company wants things done a certain way, and I simply have to learn to deliver that. “It’s not about who you are as a person, or even who you are as a writer. You just have keep writing and learn as you go.”

Compartmentalizing constructive criticism—i.e., saying “I’m going to apply this in my career, but it’s not a reflection of who I am—can help you look at feedback objectively, rather than take it personally.

Focus on the Content, Not the Delivery

The delivery of the constructive criticism can also make a huge difference in the way it’s perceived. I tend to be pretty sensitive of tone—so the minute a hint of disappointment or frustration enters the conversation, I immediately jump to “My boss hates me!” instead of “I see what I need to work on.”

So it’s helpful to deliberately distinguish how the criticism was delivered from the actual content of the feedback. The delivery’s not always perfect—especially if it’s coming from a stressed-out higher-up—but regardless, you should carefully consider the actual feedback.

To start, try actually writing it out (as Adrian Granzella Larssen outlines here) to remove the emotion from the equation. Eventually, you’ll be able to look beyond the way the feedback is actually said and start evaluating the worth of the constructive criticism on the spot.

Tailor the Feedback to Your Learning Style

It can be difficult to fully take in constructive criticism if you don’t agree with or fully understand the reasoning behind it. So it’s important to make sure you receive feedback in a way that facilitates that understanding.

For instance, I tend to need specific examples to really understand feedback about my writing. Sure, I understand constructive criticism like “You need to get to the point quicker”—but it becomes crystal clear when my boss says, “See, if you took out this paragraph and moved up this sentence, you could establish the main idea much quicker.” That way, I’m not just guessing about what I did wrong and could do better—I know exactly how to do that. And that makes it much easier to swallow.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions, get clarification, make suggestions, and, in general, make the feedback work for you.

Remember That It’s Better Than the Alternative

While I’ve gone through rough weeks of getting an abundance of feedback, I’ve also experienced weeks of radio silence. All of a sudden, my boss—who’s caught up with deadlines and responsibilities of his own—doesn’t have time to provide detailed feedback on each of my projects.

And you know what? Not getting constructive criticism was emotionally easier, for sure. But during that time, I also realized that not only did I have no idea how the quality of my work was comparing to others’ on my team, but I wasn’t growing. I didn’t know what I was doing well or what I could improve. There was nothing I could work on for the next assignment, because I hadn’t received feedback. I just kept doing the same thing—and as someone who constantly wants to grow and advance in her career, that wasn’t a good thing.

In short, getting feedback—as cringe-worthy as it can be in the moment—is better than the alternative of staying stagnant in your abilities and career overall. Remember that, and you’ll find you’re much more receptive—thankful, even—for that criticism.