Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

9 tips on how to receive feedback gracefully


Done well, giving feedback is a critical part of setting boundaries and being assertive, as well strengthening relationships and building trust.

Done badly, it’s a nuclear explosion.

We’re often taught to give feedback – we’ve even written a post on it.

But has anyone ever told you how to receive feedback?

I remember having this discussion for the first time with one of my managers early in my career. I was working in a people consultancy, and we often trained people in giving feedback. But it was rare that a client would be happy investing time and money in workshops on receiving it. It was as if people should just ‘know’.

My manager was passionate about the idea that support with receiving feedback was just as important as giving it, and it really stuck with me as I developed my own assessment and development skills.

I’ve given feedback to people at every level over the last 12-13 years, and it’s always fascinating to me to see how people react. Personality plays a big part in how people react – are they sensitive, tough-minded, open to change, analytical, emotional – all these traits create a different response in the individual, no matter how much I adapt my own style to match theirs.

But with the few clients who have had a little training on how to receive feedback with love and openness, the feedback becomes so much more than a ‘hit and run’ where it lands very badly, or gets blown out of proportion.

Feedback’s an integral part of being a high performer – in most cases, being committed to self-improvement is a key part of what makes someone a high performer – and don’t forget that we can be ‘high performers’ both at work and at home. Two way communication skills are critical to keep relationships of any kind – but communication isn’t just about daily chat. It’s about being open and honest, and expressing things you don’t usually talk about.

I’m a big advocate of asking for feedback, but I also want to support you when you receive it. Here, then, are 9 helpful tips for receiving feedback gracefully.

Let me know how it goes!

1. Stifle your initial reaction to defend.

Often our instinctive reaction when someone gives us feedback is to provide all the reasons why we did what we did, and to show how it couldn’t have been any other way given the situation.  If this is a real feedback situation (and you’re not being hauled over the carpet by your boss to explain what happened), then the point of the session is not for you to explain why it happened, but for the person giving you feedback to explain how it landed, and the implications of your actions.

Asking for written feedback rather than verbal feedback can make stifling this instinct to defend easier, though it can also stop you from getting more detail. Consider how well you know the person, and what the dynamics are before choosing written feedback – if it’s a highly charged and emotional situation at home, then writing it down might help to take some of the emotion out of the situation – or it might mean you’re left with a feedback bomb that you don’t know what to do with.

2. Make notes.

If you’ve plumped for verbal feedback, then assuming your feedback provider is experienced, and providing it to you in the classic ‘what I liked; what you could do differently next time’ format (if you’re doing this with a friend or partner, suggest this structure to them!), your initial role should be just to take notes when they’re giving you the feedback.  It’s easy to mis-remember things later, as we all carry certain biases around (that might, for example, mean that the last thing or the first thing they say is all you remember), so notes will ensure you can look later at what they actually said, rather than your memory of what they said.

Try also to write down what they say verbatim rather than your own summary. For example, the verbal feedback might be: “You work well with others in team meetings, and you’re a clear and confident communicator. Very occasionally you talk over others in your enthusiasm to get across a point,” but your notes become “Too talkative in meetings!”.

3. Consider the source of the feedback.

Who is giving you feedback? And about what event?  There are times when the person providing the feedback might have their own biases, or might have only seen you in certain situations.  However, you need to do this in a careful and objective way, potentially with the support of a neutral colleague (as opposed to a spouse!) because…

4. …Perception is reality

In some ways, it doesn’t matter whether the feedback is ultimately ‘right’ or not, if this is the other person’s opinion of you, then you need to mitigate against this.  For some feedback providers this might mean you need to show them other logical evidence to the contrary, but for others this will just make them dig in deeper, and they may take longer to convince.

It’s also important to remember no matter how self-aware you are, you are unlikely to know everything about your impact – the Johari Window reminds us we all have blind spots of things that are known to others and not ourselves. So rather than shrugging feedback off as ‘wrong’, review it in the context of that relationship. What can you do differently to change this opinion?

5. Sift the wheat from the chaff.

Not all feedback is created equal.  Feedback should be timely (close in time to any events it is referring to), balanced (combining both things the person thought went well, as well as things you could do differently), specific (about a particular situation or event, with examples provided) and objective (rather than overly personal – about your behaviour, not about you as a person).

So, good feedback might be: “Melissa, at the team meeting last week I thought you gave a clear and straightforward presentation about your client.  Next time I think your slides would benefit from fewer words and more pictures to support the great verbal message.”  Unhelpful feedback on the same topic might be: “Melissa, your powerpoint slides are always really cluttered and busy, you never seem to know what the most important points are to emphasise in a presentation.”  Unhelpful feedback is blanket, overly personal, unbalanced, and untimely.

6. Prepare your response.

It’s important to say thank you to people providing feedback (especially if you asked them for it!).  Giving feedback is never easy, and they may have agonised about the best way to say it.  You should provide the thank you as quickly as possible. An example might be: “Thank you for taking the time to give me feedback.  I’ll have a think about what you’ve said – is it ok if I come back to you with any questions?”

7. Ask yourself where else the feedback might apply.

Once you have objectively processed the feedback, and taken some time to digest it, have a think about whether the feedback might be useful in any other context.  If you’re being told you have great communication skills, is there a way to capitalise on this strength more in other areas of your work?  If your powerpoint slides need work, when are you next giving a powerpoint presentation, and who could you ask for some tips?  (Although we’re not covering it here, remember to trade on your strengths and to work on your development needs – you’re really missing a trick if you only focus on your weaknesses).

8. Remind yourself of some great feedback you’ve had in the past.

Keep things balanced and in perspective by comparing this feedback to previous feedback sessions to see progress you’ve made, and look at some of your good feedback on this or other areas in the past to remember you consist of more than this one piece of feedback.

9. Be proactive about asking for feedback in future.

Asking for feedback is a great habit to get into, and is less of a shock when you’ve asked for it yourself, and when you’re used to getting it.  It’s also important to provide feedback to others.  However, remember that feedback’s not a game of tit for tat – don’t immediately respond to someone else’s feedback on you with a list of all the things they could do better!

More war stories from you now – tell us in the comments, what’s the worst feedback you were ever given? Why? And what was the best?

11 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • staffing services October 26, 2014, 10:11 am

    I really enjoyed this blog post

  • Sandra Pawula April 11, 2016, 7:37 am

    This is so helpful, Ellen. I definitely fall in to the “sensitive” category, and it feels deeply embedded. I’m glad to have these tips so I can practice receiving feedback with more grace in the future.
    Sandra Pawula recently posted…Illness As a Path of Self-TransformationMy Profile

    • Ellen April 12, 2016, 9:52 pm

      Yes, it can be so hard when you’re finely attuned to the world around you for messages anyway, and then when we hear feedback from those who are, perhaps, a little less sensitive, the more gentle among us can be crushed. But remembering the tips will hopefully help those of us like that.

  • Elle April 11, 2016, 2:14 pm

    Love these tips Ellen…I had an opportunity to practice #1 this very morning. And by simply allowing the incident to be just that…an incident…the need to even respond no longer felt necessary.

    Since it wasn’t ‘feedback’ per se, but an action taken and I ‘considered the source’ that was sufficient to realize no response was necessary or useful.
    Elle recently posted…6 Ways to Get Beyond Thinking Problems Are A ProblemMy Profile

    • Ellen April 12, 2016, 9:51 pm

      That sounds like a powerful – if no doubt challenging – experience. Sometimes the very best thing is to listen – and then let it go.

  • Debbie L Hampton April 11, 2016, 2:27 pm

    Thanks for this valuable insight. Receiving feedback is always a challenge… but an opportunity too. I find that if I can do as you say and stifle my initial urge to defend, I always can learn something valuable. Maybe even get a crucial idea I had not thought of.
    Debbie L Hampton recently posted…How The Chemicals In Your Head Contribute To DepressionMy Profile

    • Ellen April 12, 2016, 9:51 pm

      You’re definitely not alone in feeling that urge to defend. I often have to lock my teeth together! But it’s all about listening, being present – and then sifting the wheat from the chaff.

  • Lisa Swaboda April 11, 2016, 3:25 pm

    Ellen,where have you been all my life? Could you not have written these words 30 years ago? Man, the heartache you would have saved. I’m so thankful to have them now and will pass them on so they can serve others. Wow….

    • Ellen April 12, 2016, 9:50 pm

      Thanks Lisa, really glad you found it useful. I’m quite passionate about this one – I feel like all the education and support is on the person giving feedback, but how to receive is just as important!

  • Cathy Taughinbaugh April 13, 2016, 4:06 am

    I appreciate reading your post today, Ellen! Your point to stifle your initial reaction to defend is a good one to remember. It is easy to jump to defending yourself rather than really listening to the feedback, and taking it in. I can be sensitive as well, but am always open to feedback if given in a constructive way.
    Cathy Taughinbaugh recently posted…17 Ways Forgiveness Can Improve Your LifeMy Profile

  • Zeenat Merchant Syal April 14, 2016, 6:10 am

    Ellen, This is such an important post for most people to read. We sometimes forget to accept and naturally live in reaction mode, thats where the problems begin.
    Love your helpful tips here.
    Much Love,
    Zeenat Merchant Syal recently posted…4 Morning Rituals That Will Make You More PositiveMy Profile

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