How to Handle Tough Criticism, Even When it Really Stings

Pause before you go on the defensive

L.A.-based life coach Gia Storms helps us navigate a tough work or life (or work life) issue. 

“You know, I feel like you don’t support me at all.”

The silence stretches on between us and I battle a wave of nausea. My friend continues, “I haven’t really felt that you are backing up my choices. I almost get the sense that you don’t want to be here at all.”

She’s not wrong. We’re on a three-day group vacation, and though I’ve tried to put on my best party face, attempting to be an active participant and vocal cheerleader, I’m secretly judging the weekend more than I would like to admit.

We’ve all been faced with tough feedback in our lives, criticism that, in the moment, feels poorly delivered, badly timed, or just flat-out wrong. But even after years of training teams on giving feedback and sitting through my own share of courageous conversations, this feedback hits me like a ton of bricks.

“What?” I stammer, trying to get my bearings. “What makes you feel that way?” I pivot to a question, trying desperately to remember the first thing about active listening and conflict resolution, while fighting waves of defensiveness and self-judgement.

With a massive effort I turn my attention back to her words, noticing that her body is also poised for a fight, even as her eyes glisten with tears.

How do you take full personal responsibility for your unintended impact? How do you take in the useful parts of the feedback someone has for you, while also leaving the pieces that don’t belong to you and don’t serve? And how do you resource yourself to be able to stay present to it in the moment without falling into a shame and emotional spiral?

The first thing to do when confronted with difficult feedback is take the space to get centered and watch your inner critics. In the moment, two inner critics will appear: The “how dare you after everything I’ve done for you” monster shows up first, rearing its ugly head; followed by the self-judgement monster, cloaked in shame and self-blame. Take time or space to watch these critics, remove yourself from the situation and get fully resourced, and come back to the content before you engage.

Then, acknowledge what is true and helpful about what is being offered you. What’s useful about what is coming forward? What’s the 2 percent truth in feedback And what is the opportunity here for your growth?

Take what works and leave the rest. Once you’ve had a chance to neutrally process the feedback being offered you, you get to decide what you want to shift and what you want to discard.

Return to the relationship. When you’ve digested the feedback, find a way to return to the relationship. Start by thanking other person for the courage to share their feedback. While I definitely know some conditions are better than others to receive feedback, I also know, as Robin D’Angelo says in White Fragility: “I value your feedback and so I will take it in any way I can get it. I can handle it.”

While I’m not proud of how I responded in the moment to the feedback offered me, what I am proud of is that I stayed: I stayed to follow through with that conversation to its bitter end, through the discomfort of the moment; I stayed when we worked to clean it up, not once or twice but multiple times over the coming weeks. I stepped forward (at my coach’s urging) to apologize, fully and in my heart, for the pieces that I knew were mine (my attitude, my thoughts, my actions) that had caused her to feel unsupported, unloved, and a lack of trust. I let her know that I appreciated her coming forward and that I wanted us to be stronger moving forward.

When we lean into our natural resilience around feedback instead of our fragility, we can welcome these conversations as precious opportunities to strengthen intimacy and move more fully into how we want to show up in our world.

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