how should I respond to feedback from my boss to show I’m not upset?

A reader writes:

A few weeks ago, my boss and I had a meeting during which he mentioned a couple of things which could be improved on in my work.

This conversation was not a formal reprimand. It was more like “good job on X and Z, but we would like to see more of Y as there’s been some questions over whether you’ve put enough of your focus in this area.” It was all constructive criticism. Throughout the conversation I was nodding, saying “yes,” “of course,” “no problem,” “thank you,” and “I can do that.” I didn’t say much else. His criticism was valid and it’s perfectly feasible for me to make the changes he was asking. I’m only a month into this role, so I thought about explaining that the reason I hadn’t focused on Y before was because in my old firm X and Z were always emphasized as more of a priority. However, I didn’t because I didn’t want it to seem like I was trying to make excuses and I understand every firm operates differently. I think my tone and body language were just … normal for that kind of situation.

Growing up, I was terrible at taking feedback (I took it far too personally, got overly emotional, and would just give up). I’ve worked a lot over the years on really trying to improve my response, but I don’t think I’ve got the balance right yet because as we left the meeting, my boss acted very concerned. He appeared to think that his feedback had upset me a lot more than it actually had.

What’s the best way to respond during those kinds of conversations so I can demonstrate that I really am okay and glad to be hearing feedback on my work? Are there any good phrases to use so I don’t inadvertently come across as defensive?

Well, it’s possible that you were fine in that meeting and your boss is the one having an odd reaction.

But for the sake of this question, I’m going to assume that you indeed did seem more upset than you intended to (which could be the case even with the responses you gave).

If that’s the case, my guess is that it’s one or both of the following:

* You looked upset. If you looked alarmed or very serious, your boss might have read into that.

* You said literally nothing other than the responses you listed here. If this was a two-minute conversation, that wouldn’t be weird. But if it was a pretty lengthy discussion, he might have wanted you to be more engaged in the conversation — not just agreeing to all his feedback, but having more of a back-and-forth.

That would point to a need to be more conversational — just stuff like “Ah, I hadn’t realized that’s how you approach it, okay, that makes sense,” “Oh, that’s a great trick to make that load faster,” “I was worried about X happening — how do you navigate that if it does?” and so forth. Just … more of a conversation and less of him delivering a list of items to you that you simply note as received. That might not seem like a big difference, but it can make it feel like you’re more engaged with him and with the feedback (and not silently freaking out inside and praying for the conversation to end). It’s the difference between being very stiff and formal as you receive feedback versus being relaxed and treating it as a dialogue.

If I had to guess, I’d say that because you’ve struggled with feedback in the past and have had to work not to be defensive, you might not be coming across as very relaxed about it now. Sometimes people who have worked to overcome defensiveness will land on a set of appropriate responses and stick to those like a script. Because the script is appropriate! It’s so much better than what they were doing before! But it can come across as Not Comfortable.

So it might help to expand the script a little. Your responses ( “yes,” “of course,” “no problem,” “thank you,” “I can do that”) are fine. They’re fine! But you will likely seem more comfortable / less tense if you just get a little more conversational. Even just “This is really helpful! I’ll work on implementing it. Thank you!” can change the feel of the discussion.

Of course, it’s also possible that your boss is looking for a bizarrely peppy level of response. But because you’ve struggled with feedback in the past, there’s a decent chance you’ve just got to work on transitioning from polite acceptance to more active engagement.

If that doesn’t sound like what’s happening, you could always just ask him. It would be totally fine to go back to him and say, “I got the sense you thought I was upset by your feedback and I wasn’t — I really appreciate getting that sort of critique! Was there something specific I did that gave you that impression, so I make sure I’m not doing it going forward?”

Or you could skip that and just say, “Thanks for your feedback the other day. It was really helpful!” … which, if nothing else, can help counter any impression he had that you might be sensitive to getting feedback (since you want him to keep giving it to you freely and without hesitation).

{ 94 comments… read them below }

  1. Guacamole Bob*

    I really like the last suggestion, “Thanks for your feedback the other day. It was really helpful!” That lets you register with your boss that you were happy to get feedback without turning it into A Big Thing. You’re only a month in so you’re still getting to know each other, learning work and communication styles, so I wouldn’t think a Conversation About How You Receive Feedback would be necessary at this point.

    If you’d been there longer and this was a more ongoing issue, yes, but it was one conversation! Your boss didn’t actually say anything to you about it! Keep your response to the situation low key for now and see how it goes in the future.

    1. D3*

      Yes, I liked this one, and if possible add a clarifying question, or a request for more feedback.
      “Thanks for your feedback the other day. It was really helpful! You mentioned being more detailed in my reports, but you didn’t mention how detailed. Do you want client level data for all clients, or would you prefer I just provide detail on clients who need attention?”
      “Thanks for your feedback the other day. It was really helpful! I’ve worked to have a better balance between X, Y and Z in my work. Are you seeing the kinds of improvement you’d hoped for?”
      Honestly I have found that asking clarifying questions goes a long way to showing you accept and value feedback. Be careful about tone and thoughtful about what you ask.
      A sarcastic “oh should I just let X not get done?” is not what I mean.
      But you could say “I’m concerned if I put more time into Y that I won’t have time to do X well. Should I prioritize Y if I can’t manage both because Z is taking up so much of my time as we prep for the audit?”

      1. Amaranth*

        This is my personal favorite, just going back to ask a couple questions, not in a desperately concerned way, but to show that LW was paying attention and is happy to work on improvement. Casually cheerful? That’s a great time to say ‘hey you mentioned x and at Lastjob we emphasized y and z, so could you take a quick look at this and let me know if there is enough x going forward?

      2. Susie Q*

        This. When I get constructive feedback, I like to ask clarifying questions to real-life examples. So in this presentation, I said it this way, would you want me to explain it this other way?

    2. Indigo a la mode*

      I recommend that suggestion *during* feedback sessions, too – “I really appreciate that feedback” or “Thanks for bringing that up” both tells your boss you heard them and signals that you welcome the opportunity for progress. That’s all feedback is (or should be), anyway.

      1. Kes*

        Yeah, I would listen and hear them out, but I think it’s fine to explain as long as you make it clear it’s not an excuse and you are open to change. “Thanks for letting me know. At my old job x and y were always the top priority, so I didn’t realize you wanted me to focus more on z as well, this is really helpful” said sincerely I think is fine and shows transparency and openness to feedback/willingness to change
        Thanks for the feedback/thanks for letting me know/this is really helpful, combined with active listening and trying to look really engaged in the conversation, I think are useful phrases

    3. Seeking Second Childhood*

      One thing to suggest — the next time you do the task he asked you to address differently, shoot him an early draft and ask for specific comment.
      “Last week, you said the TPS reports need more cowbell. Here’s how I’m trying to change that. Am I on target?”
      You’ll show not tell that you’re really absorbing & responding to his feedback.

    4. Not So NewReader*

      I just watched a cohort do this very thing.
      I believe it made the recipient feel that more feedback would be welcomed in the future. Both parties walked away pretty happy about it all.

  2. No Name Today*

    You are month in. You are both figuring things out, and the best way to figure out if you two are on the same page is communicate.
    Have you implemented any of the things he talked about?
    Have you had any problems switching focus?
    Whether it’s yes or no, try a brief, “I want you to know I appreciate getting feedback and I am excited to implement the changes in focus etc that we discussed (he listed, but don’t stress that, it’s OK!) Some things I’ve already started, but before I get too far, I want to confirm my overall strategy.”

  3. Alia*

    If you’re like me and can formulate your thoughts better in writing, sometimes sending a quick Slack ping afterward to the person giving feedback can be a nice way to reiterate that you’ve appreciated and heard it. I like having the chance to let both parties take in feedback and reactions, then gather their thoughts without needing an immediate response or face-to-face interaction on something potentially contentious.

    1. old curmudgeon*

      I heartily endorse this – I don’t think well on my feet and tend to stammer/stutter in conversations, but I am very comfortable crafting a written response. As an added benefit, if the written reply was in a savable format like email, I can use that as a reference point later when I ask myself “ok, when was it that I talked with Fergus and changed the order in which I do those steps?”

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        Yes, and in a lot of roles, being someone who’s a little awkward in the moment when receiving feedback but is good at absorbing it and acting on it afterwards is totally fine! Maybe not perfect, but something a lot of managers would be happy to work with. Much better than seeming okay in the moment but ignoring the feedback, or getting super defensive, or other possible responses.

        Some roles require that you respond with more grace in the moment in hard situations (some of the stories my litigator wife tells me about things she hears from clients, co-counsel, and opposing counsel would never, ever fly in my collegial office and would probably have me in tears), but in a lot of roles it’s fine to take a breath to think about your response, ping the manager later, etc.

      2. Waiting on the bus*


        Stammer, getting glassy-eyed, flushing like I’m about to cry, tremor in my limbs, shortness of breath that makes it hard to get words out in the first place – criticism (real or imagined) sends my body into total panic mode (I’m not even that upset emotionally! Just my subconscious seems to take it as a life or death situation). For scheduled meetings it helps me to write down the possible things my boss could say in my notebook, like writing it down takes the danger out of the criticism because I know what could be coming.

        But when it comes up unexpectedly I try go for the same response as OP here just to limit my verbal responses and end the interaction quicker. And then I’ll send a message to my boss via chat that acknowledges his feedback in a more detailed way (whatever is appropriate to the situation) so he doesn’t mistake my curtness in the face-to-face interaction with reluctance/refusal to engage with his feedback in general.

        1. Jennifleurs*

          God I’m glad it’s not just me! I too have this automatic-feeling bodily response to perceived criticism, which is so embarrassing!!

  4. WellRed*

    I’m glad you refrained from commenting on the priorities at your previous company as reasons. Onward!

    1. Washi*

      Since the OP has only been there a month, I think it would be fine to say something like “oh, I appreciate that feedback since that’s a little different than how it was handled at my last job. I will make sure to do Thing X going forward!” (As opposed to “but that’s not how we did it at Old Job!)

      1. Mental Lentil*

        Exactly this. This is perfect wording. It shows that you are competent and adaptable.

        Now if you’re six months in and this is a daily or weekly task, that’s another matter.

    2. Spencer Hastings*

      So, I get that making excuses is to be avoided, but are there situations where a boss would find that to be useful context? The difference between “Jane is coming from a previous role where she did a lot of X and Z but not Y” and “Jane either doesn’t care about Y or doesn’t understand the importance of Y” might make a difference in how they would want to manage you going forward, right?

      1. Pearls and Tech*

        I think so! Not the same as managing obviously, but awhile ago I oversaw a volunteer who was earning his degree in my field (this was pretty specialized volunteer work, that required some background). Once I asked him to do something a little differently, and it led to a great conversation about how he had learned to do it at his internship. I was able to explain why his other organization did A while we did B, so he learned about some key differences, and I also gained some context for why he might do things a certain way in the future. He wasn’t defensive about it though; I can totally see how/why that would be off-putting. He was more genuinely curious about the differences.

      2. Allonge*

        I think sometimes the why of things matters (e.g. if I do something in the order of n.o.p.q because that is how it is in the manual I was given, and turns out that was not the latest version, and now we are supposed to be n,p,r). It’s important to clear these up, and especially in the first month there is not a lot of other ways than tell the boss why – this is when you do the ‘I understood it was so, and please let me check, yes, here it is in the manual, could you confirm this is not correct?’.

        But ‘we did this in my previous job’ is not likely to be one of these. Unless your previous method is obviously superior, it likely does not matter – your boss just told you she wants it in a different way.

        You can and do demonstrate your engagement and loyalty to the process in other ways, and sometimes explaining and excuses are separated by a very thin thread only.

        1. Spencer Hastings*

          Yeah, I feel like you could make one of those sarcastic verb conjugation jokes about it: “I provide useful context; you explain yourself; she is making excuses.”

          I have not been a manager, but if I were, and if I were coming to a wrong conclusion about someone, then I think I would want to know that it was wrong. In this case, if the person says nothing, then the story in the manager’s mind likely becomes “she was cavalier about Y, so I talked to her, and that fixed it.” Which is not actually true in this case…

          1. Allonge*

            I am not sure why you assume that the manager is coming to the wrong conclusions. Look, a good manager will not decide that someone is cavalier or horrible or a bad emplyee or anything like that based on one month of work that in some ways needs correction, with or without excuses or explanations. New people don’t know everything, that is the way life works. (A bad manager will not care whatever justification you give.)

            By all means bring up differences with your previous roles, if you can manage the tone! It can lead to interesting discussions, especially if it is a complex thing. If we are talking about a situation where things could go either way, it may be worth it to bring things up, especially if you are sure that it could lead to something getting better. In most jobs I think one month in is way too early for that, but it does not hurt – as long as it’s not just about explaining why you were wrong.

            Because frankly, for something that is easily corrected (at this company we use the purple pens for signing off on things and you signed with a red one), I as a manager usually don’t care how you did it before, just that you understand how I want you to do it, and that you do it that way. If this is the context, I will still listen to you explaining and explaining why, if that seems to allow you to feel better, but the end result will not change: use the purple pens. If you get that, all is well.

            1. Spencer Hastings*

              I meant *if* the manager is coming to the wrong conclusion, they might want to know about it in case the additional knowledge would affect their decision-making.

              1. Allonge*

                Well, if the boss is coming to a wrong conclusion, I would still address that directly (hey boss, I hope you know I understand the thing you explained and am taking this seriously, look how I did the next 3 things right, it’s right, correct? Is it ok if I go on this way, do you want to see the thing before I submit?). Basically, demonstrate engagement with the process as boss described it.

                For me, what you are proposing is saying, well, actually, I did it this way because I was doing it this way before, and just sort of hoping that boss will then revise their opinion of you based on this mostly unconnected piece of information. Whereas, boss might well be thinking: ok but does [employee] really understand what I want them to do? ‘Cause they have been going on about why they did it wrong, but I am still not sure they get what is the right way.

          2. Trekkie*

            I think that is more insightful than a joke — it demonstrates something … well, not the same as, but perhaps adjacent to, fundamental attribution error.

          3. DireRaven*

            In my experience, the thread separating “providing useful context/explaining” and “making excuses” is the amount of social/political/how-well-liked the person offering the explanation is to the person to whom it is being offered. (If I don’t like you, it is an excuse.)

      3. Jaydee*

        I think, especially when you’re relatively new, it’s totally appropriate to mention how things were done at your previous job. The tone and context matters, because that’s what makes the difference between it sounding like an excuse and sounding like an explanation.

        “Oh, at OldFirm we did X and Z but not much of Y” said in a defensive tone without anything more sounds like an excuse.

        “Oh, at OldFirm we did X and Z but not much of Y. When specifically would like me to do Y? Are there any resources where I could learn more about how to do Y here at NewFirm?” said in a matter-of-fact tone like you would use if you just recognized the cause of a minor problem and were offering a solution to it (kind of like how you would say “oh, the paper jam is probably in the other section of the printer; we need to open the side panel and pull it out from there.”) sounds like an explanation and is also a conversational response to feedback.

    3. Waiting on the bus*

      Since OP had only been at there for a month I think it would have been perfectly fine to mention it. Who knows, maybe that would be a good approach for their current company as well and it’s just that no one has considered it because This Is How We Have Always Done It.

      As long as they don’t harp on it and don’t get defensive over it (which it doesn’t sound like they woulf), I don’t really see the harm in mentioning it.

  5. Blue Eagle*

    I would not say “I got the sense you thought I was upset about the feedback”. You are introducing the idea that you might have been upset, which you totally do NOT want to do. Particularly if that is not what your manager was thinking.

    Just saying “Thanks for your feedback the other day. It was really helpful!” is a more positive comment that the manager will appreciate.

    Also, Alison didn’t mention anything about it but in no case should you say that the reason you did it your way was because that was how they did it at your prior job. This comes off as too defensive. Just saying that you appreciate the feedback and will work to implement the manager’s suggestions will likely be received positively.

    1. Mental Lentil*

      in no case should you say that the reason you did it your way was because that was how they did it at your prior job. This comes off as too defensive.

      I don’t know about that. I mean, if we hire you because you’re good at doing A, B, and C at firm X, and we need you to do those same things, it’s fine to say “Oh, at firm X that was always a lower priority than here. I’ll move that up in my list of priorities” (or whatever). It shows that:

      1) Yes, you know how to do all these things, and they made a good choice in hiring you.
      2) You can and will adapt your working style to what your new job requires.

      You don’t have to say these things, but I just don’t think it comes across as defensive.

      1. PT*

        It’s tricky because in some cases, you might have an employee who was trained to not comment on performance feedback because at their last job it was considered talking back, while at this current job it would be expected and by not commenting it makes them look disengaged.

        So everyone’s experience is pretty salient in situations like this.

    2. Jaydee*

      It comes off as too defensive if that’s all you say. If it’s just “That’s the way we did it at old job.” Especially early in a job, it’s not defensive at all to explain that you don’t have as much experience with Y because old job prioritized X and Z or that Y was handled differently at your old job. You just have to be sure to follow that up by getting more information about how your new job wants you to handle things.

      1. Allonge*

        Honestly, instead of explaining this (which will still so easily sound defensive), I would suggest asking questions. Will Y be something where I need to get to a higher level soon? If so, could I have a training or a mentor on this?

        And then you can say you don’t feel 100% confident as you don’t have a lof of experience. Honestly the last job does not even have to come up unless there was a specific reason that Y was not a thing there.

  6. Katie Porter's Whiteboard*

    I’ve struggled so much with taking feedback. In the moment, I’m nodding and just trying to take it in. Afterward, I would spend a little bit of time taking it very personally and being upset with myself before making a plan to implement the feedback. Since I realized that I work this way, I’ve worked to correct this. I practice slowing down and instead of nodding as I receive feedback, I try to turn it into a conversation by saying things like “In xx type of situation, how would you like to see me responding” or “I was approaching it this way but I see that way is a more appropriate alternative.” If I don’t feel like I can do that in the moment, I make sure I follow up with my manager and say “I implemented this and it was really helpful” or “I tried to implement and I’m not seeing the results I expected. Can we talk about it and figure out whether I’m on the right track?” Thus far it’s been really effective and I’m grateful that my manager prefers open communication to simply giving instructions.

    1. Joan Rivers*

      Best wishes as you grow. Anyone who can come up with a user name as clever as “Katie Porter’s Whiteboard” has a bright future! She is the best and a great role model for women, and men.

  7. NerdyKris*

    I’m wondering if it came across like that thing people do when they don’t want to argue, where they just stoically repeat “okay”, “yes”, “I’ll do that” and it sounds to the other person that they’re just saying whatever needs to be said to end the conversation while not actually acknowledging what’s being said.

    1. Washi*

      Yeah, if the OP was tending towards monosyllabic, that can signal “let’s get this unpleasant conversation over with as quickly as possible.”

      I like to repeat back feedback in my own words to make sure I understood and also to show I’m listening and taking it seriously (“ah ok, so just to confirm, I should do ABC in X situation unless Y, is that right?)

      That can help make it a little more conversational!

    2. hbc*

      I agree, and the “acknowledged…acknowledged” stoic answers probably don’t combine very well with the “I have worked very hard on not taking this kind of thing badly” affect. A sincere “okay” or cheery “of course” will come off as receptive, but unemotional monosyllables are going to look like rejection of input, even if it’s better than tears or denial or whatever else had been going on.

      OP, I would do two things to combat the (apparent) vibe you’re giving off. 1) Sum up at the end, which I think is a lot easier than dealing with the feedback as it’s coming. “Thanks, that all sounds like good feedback, and I’ve already got some ideas of how I can shift to more Y by next week.” 2) Tell people who will be regularly giving you criticism what the deal is. “FYI, I might look and sound a bit like I’m not taking feedback in, but that’s just me processing.”

    3. Rachel*

      That was my thought too! That from the boss’s perspective, this could be just casual redirecting of a new employee and not capital-F Feedback, and the OP was responding like she was enduring really serious criticisms (which is how I would read someone saying the least amount possible with uncomfortable body language).

      1. Joan Rivers*

        People don’t realize how much our body language reveals. And we don’t realize how much we interpret others’ body language w/o thinking about it. “Her face looks upset” may not specifically tell us if she’s more sad or angry, but we may see something.

        We see it and we size it up even if we don’t know we are.
        Some of us will deny “body language” even exists — but they still use it, subconsciously.

  8. Lego Leia*

    OP, is it possible that your boss was looking for back and forth? You agreed with his feedback, which was good. Perhaps they were looking for “Y is the piece that I finish last. Should I do it first, before X and Z, or ?” Or, “X and Z are taking up the majority of my time, any tips on how to make them go faster so that I have more time to Y?” You did a great accepting the feedback! The boss may have been looking for some input from you.

    1. Smithy*

      I was wondering this too – while the basic take away may have been to prioritize Y, there may have been interest in discussing the work more broadly.

      There’s certainly feedback that when it’s given is essentially a command or very concrete – such as “you’ve been submitting your timesheet at 3pm on Fridays, and we actually need it to be submitted by 1pm on Fridays.” But for feedback similar to what the OP received, the manager may have been looking for more of the OP’s thinking or context. Both in the sense of confirming if the OP understood – but also to learn more about the OP’s work style. Is the OP someone who combines all the X,Y, and Z work to be done on separate days? Has the Y onboarding not yet happened – or the Z onboarding is taking longer than expected?

      As a manager, when I gave feedback that was received as very concrete as opposed to more nuance – I also worried that I wasn’t very clear in my feedback. So part of the manager’s anxiety may have stemmed from a worry that they weren’t clear in what they were trying to say.

      1. Guacamole Bob*

        There could be an underlying mismatch in expectations about the boss/employee relationship here – how much is OP expected to take ownership of her own projects, make certain decisions, come up with solutions, show initiative, versus implementing something exactly as her boss tells her to? If I had an employee giving one word answers to feedback I’d worry a bit that they were in a mindset of “just here to do what I’m told” when people on our team are expected to be generating ideas, suggesting solutions, working independently, etc.

        It can take managers and employees a while to develop a good working relationship on independence versus oversight, but it could be that OP’s manager felt the feedback conversation showed they weren’t in sync yet.

        1. Not So NewReader*

          Maybe? At one month, I was still taking the wait-and-see approach. Even if the words are monosyllables, they are at least agreeable words. As a boss, I’d want to see what happens next, does the person do X thing? If they have problems (complications) do they come ask me about it?
          There are plenty of people who do not say too much at first. Probationary period is one reason. But they also just plain want to keep the job.
          Just my theory but it seems to take several such interactions over a period of months before the tension lowers.

          Your best bet, OP, is to just make sure you follow through on his guidance. If you don’t understand or get caught in a special situation that needs to be handled differently, go ahead and check in with him. I have said things such as, “I have a special set of circumstances regarding X and I’d like to check in with you before I proceed.”

          On what you have here, (I do not see the whole picture, of course) it sounds like you have a decent boss.
          He told you what to fix in a timely manner- rather than letting you do it “wrong” for months.
          He explained it in a decent tone of voice and in private(?), so there’s couple of pluses.
          He showed concern on his face. It’s hard to know what that concern was- he could have been wondering if he did a good enough job explaining it to you. His job is to make sure you succeed at your job, he maybe asking himself if he is being clear in what is needed here.

          Honestly, I think if you just go about correcting the areas he mentioned you will be fine. You may at some point look forward to talking things over with him because you learn something and you gain confidence. I have had bosses that I truly enjoyed talking with about various problems. I walked away feeling sharper for the conversation.

  9. ThatGirl*

    When I’m getting valid, valuable feedback I try to be upbeat about it – oh, thanks, that’s a great suggestion! Or oh, I guess I’d thought X, but now I can see it’s really Y. Smile, use a positive tone of voice, etc.

    I know that doesn’t come naturally to everyone, and it’s certainly not the only way to show you’re not upset, but it’s worked for me.

    1. BubbleTea*

      I once had a really snarky mentor who hated however I responded to feedback. I once said “oh, that makes sense” and she snapped that of course it made sense, she wouldn’t have said it otherwise. She reduced me to tears most days for the two weeks I was allocated to her (and thank goodness it wasn’t longer). Sometimes you just can’t win.

      1. ThatGirl*

        I’m not saying my method is foolproof or anything; you’re right, sometimes you can’t win. But I don’t really understand “assigned” mentors – obviously she was a lousy fit for you, it’s a relationship that should grow naturally and informally.

      2. esmerelda*

        Ugh, I feel that pain – I’ve also had that kind of response to “oh that makes sense.” It’s the worst when I’m just trying to say that I understand and agree and the person is like “WELL OF COURSE YOU DO” and tries to make an argument out of it, the exact thing I didn’t want. lol

  10. Sparkles McFadden*

    Don’t be so hard on yourself (I know…easier said than done). You’re only a month in and getting used to things. You know what you have to work on, which puts you ahead of most people.

    I would just let your boss know how much you appreciate the feedback. It sounds like you have a good boss who wants you to succeed. You could also check back in awhile to make sure you’re on the same page. You’ll get more comfortable in time.

  11. Pearls and Tech*

    I also had a boss who thought I was upset about (very mild, constructive) feedback when I wasn’t upset at all. She brought it up the next day and wanted to make sure I wasn’t distressed, and when I looked confused at her concern, she explained that the last person she’d managed had been extremely sensitive. I think her radar for her employees’ level of stress just needed some re-calibration! Since then, it seems like she’s been better able to judge how I take feedback, and she’s even complimented me on how well I respond to it. Maybe it’s possible that you were fine and your boss’s judgement is off from a past situation as well?

  12. A Genuine Scientician*

    Being seen to take criticism well can be an incredible asset.

    About a year and a half ago, I was ~ 3 months into a one year contract. Tywin was a senior person on the team, though not my boss nor in my reporting line, and really didn’t like me from the moment I showed up. We suspect it’s because I got along well with Olenna, and they had been fighting for decades. Anyway, Tywin decided to sit me down and tell me that he “questioned my competence” in, say, llama grooming. And that he felt I did not have enough experience in it to teach it.

    This was, frankly, absurd; I had more than 15 years of experience in llama grooming, including a PhD in it from someone who won a MacArthur Genius award in llama grooming. I had won a teaching award from another university specifically for teaching llama grooming. I had more experience doing llama grooming than anyone in the department other than Tywin, by a substantial margin. But I’ve got a very good poker face, so I didn’t visibly react emotionally to it, and said something along the lines of “I’m sorry you feel that way. Do you have any specific examples of things you wish I had done differently, or things I should have done but didn’t, or things I did but shouldn’t have?” He said so, it was just a general feeling. I then brought up a few instances I suspected he had been upset by, and gave him context that he didn’t have for them. When he said “Well, what you’re saying is reasonable, but the students said something else, and I don’t know who to believe,” I said “Student Assistant Bran was in the room for the last three of these incidents; you could ask him for his account of what happened. If you like, I don’t even need to be there, so that he doesn’t feel pressured to support me.” He told me that wouldn’t be necessary.

    I then went to my actual boss, and said something like “I’m concerned that Tywin just told me that he questions my competence in this role. Is this something you also question? I’m happy to take feedback, or explain my choices and thinking, but I have to admit that this is a little unsettling to hear out of the blue.” And my boss assured me that he did not question my competence, he felt that things had been communicated poorly, but that Tywin was prickly and establishing a good working relationship with him would be a good goal. I then asked for advice on how to do that, as I had good relationships with Olenna and Catelyn and Arya and Aemon and Stannis, but clearly what I was doing with them wasn’t working with Tywin. And my boss replied “That is a very good question, and something many people have struggled with over the years, and I have no useful advice.”

    3-4 months later, my one year contract was made permanent. By that time, Tywin was a big supporter of mine, and directly said that a large part of that was how well I had handled the situation. (Also, the people I got along well with pointed out to him a lot of things I had been doing behind the scenes that Tywin wasn’t aware of; my time was split evenly between, say, teaching llama grooming and alpaca husbandry, and Tywin was only involved in the llama grooming side of things.)

    There are times where you pretty much need to visibly perform something, rather than just say the words. It can feel very unnatural if you’re typically a reserved person, but it smooths things over with some people. In this case, you want to come across as open to feedback, but not excessively timid, so changing your script in the ways Alison has suggested could help a lot.

    1. Smithy*

      This story personally brings to mind the reality that not everyone giving feedback or criticism always has the most concrete objective in mind. Whether it’s a prickly character like a Tywin or more of a first time manager, the feedback may focus on general feelings or tone, and taking the time to clarify and discuss can also just help reassure or come to mutual focus for the person giving the feedback.

  13. Autie Programmer*

    Bookmarked. These kind of scripts are very useful as a neurodivergent person who struggles with what understanding what things to say in social situations with neurotypical people.

    1. I'm A Little Teapot*

      If you haven’t found Captain Awkward’s site, that might also be helpful. Though mostly not-work related.

  14. introverted af*

    Coming back a little later with “thanks for the feedback” is good, and even better if you can say how you’re incorporating that into your work. “I’ve changed my workflow by emailing Jane for the data first thing on Mondays to make sure that report gets done quicker” or whatever is relevant, or even a question about how to incorporate their request for improvement like, “I’ve realized that X was slowing me down. Any ideas how to handle that?” Both or either of these will show that you’re thinking and engaging with what they said, even if you didn’t in the moment.

  15. Cat Tree*

    I think Alison is probably right, but there’s another possibility too. Some people are really uncomfortable about *giving* constructive feedback because they expect the receiver to be uncomfortable. If he’s relatively new to managing, he might just worry that anyone receiving it would feel upset. Even if that is the case though, Alison’s advice still applies.

    1. Allonge*

      This is what I was thinking, that it may just be an awkward attempt at checking that you are ok, LW. Don’t overthink it, you will get to know each other better.

  16. Lacey*

    It may be that you’re a bit hard to read. I have noticed that people, even friends I’ve known a long time, sometimes find me hard to read and assume that I’m upset when I’m just thoughtful.

    I’m generally processing when I take criticism at work and I find I need to make a conscious effort to smile and say something pleasant so people know I’m not upset.

    1. CoffeeIsMyFriend*

      Same here – when I am thinking or processing I tend to look very serious. Interestingly when I am actually upset but not thinking hard, I don’t look upset.

    2. Guacamole Bob*

      This is part of why I would encourage OP to give it more time. It’s only been a month – that’s not a lot of time to be able to read someone’s response to a tricky conversation! (And that goes double if the pandemic has them working remotely so this was over video.)

      If someone is often quiet or looks serious or whatever, versus someone who’s chatty or cheerful, that can help interpret their response to a feedback conversation. But you have to get to know someone a bit to know their usual range.

    3. AFac*

      Especially if you were wearing a mask, or were meeting over video. I’m not the most intuitive at reading people, and it’s been particularly bad when all I can see are their eyes or if they’re a fuzzy blob in a small square on my screen.

  17. Chelsea*

    I struggle with receiving negative feedback too. This script is very helpful. I’ve favorited this post.

  18. Hosta*

    As a manager I struggle knowing if folks actually understood my feedback when I get one word positive answers delivered with a smile that doesn’t change. A brief “hey, by the way, thank you for being willing to give me some pointers on X last week” can make it clear to your boss that you not only accept feedback, but you acknowledge that it can be an awkward conversation.

    Yes, it is your boss’ job to give feedback. No your boss’ feelings aren’t your responsibility. But being a little extra kind to the boss and treating them like a person with feelings is helpful (and kind).

  19. Unkempt Flatware*

    On another side of things, I just separated from a boss who constantly assigned feelings to me that I didn’t have nor do I think I showed evidence of the feelings she assigned. She also softens her corrections making it so I have to wade through a lot of words to get to her actual correction. When I asked her to please stop and just give me the straight dope, she mentioned her feelings would be hurt so mind must be as well.

    It’s very frustrating to be on the receiving end of this so my advice to OP is to stay the course, don’t get rattled, and perhaps consider if your boss is projecting at all.

    1. Chilipepper*

      I also have supervisors (multiple, it goes right up the chain!) who assign feelings to staff (not just to me) that we don’t have. They have decided they need to respond to the feelings underneath our words – but they are completely guessing what those are and are often wrong. And in at least one case, have literally told a coworker that she is not, in fact, feeling x, she is feeling y.

      So if the boss is projecting, it is worth taking some of the steps suggested here – a follow up to say I put more cowbell in the report, am I on the right track? (love the cowbell example someone gave!), to say thanks for the feedback, it was helpful, etc.

    2. Blinded By the Gaslight*

      Ugh, I went through a similar situation with a former boss. She would call me out in team meetings, like, “What’s wrong, Petunia–I can tell by your face you’re upset,” which was so galling because I *wasn’t* upset, I was just thinking, and now everyone is looking at me, and now I have to convince everyone I’m not upset, which just makes everyone think I really was upset. And she would look at me (and continue to talk to me) as if I was secretly upset and she had to “handle” me the rest of the meeting, to the point where it was impossible to fight that narrative. Then she would bring it up in our individual meetings, and the more I tried to convince her I was truly fine, the more “concerned” she got. Like, lady, you’re punishing me for emotions you 100% made up in your head! So glad I don’t work for her anymore–totally exhausting.

      1. pancakes*

        It’s so irritating to see people do that! The vast majority of people inclined to do it are notably bad at guessing.

    3. A Genuine Scientician*

      My mother used to assign feelings to me all the time. And then argue with me if I told her she was wrong. It felt so undermining, like she was negating my existence as a person separate from herself who was way more likely to know what they were feeling than she was. I get that when I was 3, she probably did know better than I did what I was feeling, but that certainly wasn’t true later on. It led to the largest argument we ever had, back in my late teens, when I expressed my frustration about her constantly doing that.

      To her substantial credit, though she was convinced she did not do this, she suggested that for the next two weeks I point it out every time she did. That lasted approximately 2 days, until she said “OK, you can stop now. You’re right. I apparently do this constantly, and I didn’t even realize it. I’m going to try to work on it, but if I do it this much without even noticing, it will probably take me a while and I might never completely stop.”

      Sadly, not a workable solution wit your boss as work.

    1. Kes*

      Yes! agreed this is a great book. Particularly for people who struggle to receive feedback well, but let’s face it, most of us struggle to receive feedback at times, especially feedback that isn’t totally positive, and I think this book is really good at pointing out the things that get in our way of receiving feedback and how to combat those.

  20. Heidi*

    I get it, OP. If someone asks you to do something differently, you should be able to say, “okay, no problem” then do what they ask and have that be the end of it. But some people need to have little reassurances that they aren’t causing offense. So we make the little cooing noises (“oh thank you, I appreciate the feedback, etc.”). File it under pleasantries.

  21. Nonprofiteer*

    Since you’re a month into the job, is it possible this was meant to be more of a low-key “how are things going” conversation? I’ve worked at organizations where new hires had mandatory 30-, 60-, and 90-day check-in meetings with the supervisor, where it was completely normal to give some guidance both ways.

    Just wondering if your supervisor was expecting more conversation with you and your thoughts on how the job is going, rather than a performance review.

    In any case, as others have said, I would start making the changes and give updates on them in your regular meetings. In my experience that really helps to build a good dynamic with my boss – and normalize not being perfect at your job!

  22. Coffee Owlccountant*

    From the Manager perspective, I might have been concerned about this conversation as well, depending on the nature of the feedback I was giving. For something concrete like “We need to have the Llama Grooming reports submitted by 3pm on Thursdays”, it wouldn’t raise any red flags if you said, “Sure, I can do that.” However, if the feedback is getting into aspects of how your job works, maybe something like “The Llama Grooming report data isn’t pulling the right information, can you look into that?”, I’m looking for more engagement from you in the form of questions, clarifications, context, etc. This is especially true for roles where you’re expected to own your work at a higher level – I want to know that you’re listening and engaging at a higher level than simply acknowledging that you heard a request.

  23. DG*

    I currently work with a junior employee who responds to feedback very similarly. Her responses are along the lines of “Ok, got it” / “I understand” / “Makes sense” / “Will do” / etc.

    I believe she thinks she’s just being agreeable and deferential, but it’s honestly off-putting as a manager – I expect *some* degree of engagement on the employee’s end, whether that’s confirming they understand the feedback, asking follow-up questions, or explaining their thought process to me more clearly. I want to be able to provide more context if needed or know when I’m wrong about something!

    Here are examples of responses I would prefer to a one or two word answer:

    “I understand – I struggled to find the right tone to strike in that email, so this feedback is really helpful!”

    “Got it. In the future, would you like me to review the financial reports with Fergus before submitting them to you?”

    “I think I understand, but just to confirm… [repeat back feedback].”

    “I can make that change in the sales update newsletter, but I remember Jane said revenue was forecasted to increase by 20%, not 10%. Did I misinterpret something, or have you seen more up-to-date data?”

    1. Simply the best*

      Have you provided any of this as feedback? Your employee can’t read your mind. You’re the one with the power so if you want this to be an engaged conversation and not just one where your employee takes your feedback and says okay and then does it, you have to be the one to tell them that.

      You also don’t say whether or not your employee actually takes the feedback and then implements it. Is she not understanding it? Are you having to go back over the feedback because she’s not asking follow-up questions? Or does she actually get it and the additional engagement is just for your peace of mind? Not everything needs to be a discussion for some people. Some people can just hear what you want to be adjusted and can internally recalibrate.

      1. allathian*

        Yes this. I think it’s really important to consider what happens after you give the feedback, does your employee implement it, or do you find that you have to give the same feedback over and over? If she implements it, I don’t see a problem that she isn’t more engaged.

        Honestly, the fact that you would prefer her to thank you for feedback “thanks for… it was really helpful” makes you sound incredibly needy.

    2. PspspspspspsKitty*

      Have you tried asking questions or… well better questions? Or maybe make the discussion more engaging? Most people, even those who are young and new don’t have anything else to say than “Will do” if you told them to get your report to you by the end of the day.

      Things like: “I notice that the reports you do are usually late. I need them by Monday at noon. Help me to understand the barriers of why this is happening” and then ask for clarifying questions. My manager does this and it’s wonderful. We have great discussions and sometimes she even apologizes for not prioritizing or setting an expectation clearly. Or she learns I’m dealing with a department way more than what I need to and she talks to their manager.

  24. Grump*

    I struggle with this, too. Especially if it’s no big deal or something I find helpful or agree with. I tend to operate like a computer – just, “OK, thanks, new input received and incorporated.” I remember a tennis coach in high school saying I didn’t take feedback well – apparently, I was supposed to do more than nod and immediately apply it to my game, but I’m still not sure what. Knowing how uncomfortable many managers are about giving feedback, I try to make it more conversational now to put them at ease, but it’s more about their comfort than my own ability to receive/process/incorporate.

  25. Master Bean Counter*

    One awkward conversation doesn’t need to be followed by another. Put more focus on Y and check in with your manager in a week or two when it makes sense.
    As in, “hey I’ve retooled the way I do the orange-peach report. I kept the way I cover X and Z essentially the same and I put more focus on Y by doing it this way. What do you think?”

    1. Raida*

      definitely. And it shows a lot more actual understanding than just [yes/of course/sure/will do] responses.

  26. learnedthehardway*

    I find that people who are giving constructive criticism respond well when I thank them for pointing things out that I need to work on, then summarize my understanding of what they’ve asked for, before giving them a couple of my ideas on how I can improve that area. I’ll then ask them if they feel this will meet their needs.

    This does a couple things – 1) it keeps me focused on the issue, not on my feelings about it, 2) it makes sure I’m clear on what the person wants me to change, 3) it shows I’m taking the constructive criticism seriously and am thinking about how to solve whatever the issue is.

    It also has a 4th benefit – if the criticism is not constructive or is simply not actionable, it sort of makes the point that it’s ridiculous, without my having to say so.

  27. Ace in the Hole*

    I’ve noticed that some people tend to project their own discomforts or anxieties onto me regardless of what I say or do. It seems to be an age-based dynamic: I’m a young woman (and look younger than my actual age), and the people who do this are usually managers old enough to be my parents.

    I haven’t found any solutions for it. It’s maddeningly difficult to change someone’s perception of you when their perception isn’t based on your actual actions. But just wanted to say it’s entirely possible you did act just fine and your boss is projecting. The best thing to do is carry on without letting it phase you, and proactively ask for feedback in the future so he won’t think you’re avoiding it.

  28. Raida*

    I’ve found the best way to really communicate I’m-not-upset is making a list.
    Someone is giving me feedback? Well that sounds like something I should record! Grab my laptop/notebook and start making a bullet list, and it give a chance to run through it at the end, ask if there was anything else, and specifically ask for more information on one or two of the bullets.
    Asking for more info – being interested – is not how an upset person would react, so it’s a good way to communicate that to you this was a business meeting about business tasks and how to do your job.

    1. Qwerty*


      Tbh, also useful to give yourself some cover if you are reacting strongly – keeps you busy in the moment, and makes it easy to come back to the information when you’re ready to digest. Just get it in the notes for now.

  29. Not So NewReader*

    I think self-talk is super important. You can tell yourself things such as, “A boss who wants me to succeed will take the time to make sure I do the job correctly.” And you can tell yourself other things such as, “I am going to do what it takes to succeed at this job.”

    This type of self-talk can fortify you for when you have these conversations, because it will help you to remember what the actual goal is here.

    I have gone as far as saying, “I want to keep this job, I don’t want to mess up something. Please just tell me when something needs correcting.”

    OTOH, I had subordinate say, “Thank you for making sure I know what my job is and that I know what is expected from me.” Yeah, I was wowed. I wasn’t sure how she would feel about what I was saying. Her comment left little doubt in my mind. Most people don’t say things clearly like that, though and that is okay. What I noticed here is her mindset was better than my own mindset at that time, when it came to constructive criticism. And I decided that I wanted to be more like her. Yeah, in the process of teaching my subordinate something, the tables turned and *I* learned something.

  30. PspspspspspsKitty*

    Taking criticisms has been an interesting learning process for me. I have learning disabilities. As a child and teen I have received more criticism than the average person on a regular basis. It destroyed my self confidence. And it’s not that I brush off the criticism, it’s more like my thoughts and feelings find it hard even though I act perfectly fine. Research has shown that those with ADHD also receive more criticism than the average person. I suggest some self reflecting, even if you are neurotypical: Did you grow up in a critical household? Did you work for a dysfunctional place where criticism was common place? Was there more criticism than good feedback? Even if criticism was warranted doesn’t always mean it’s needed either. Context is important too. Some managers are just bad at giving feedback.

    I also found therapy to be useful because I had a hard time trying to validate my feelings and make the changes I needed to make.

  31. I tap my foot when interviewing*

    One thing I haven’t seen mentioned yet, it could partially be the result of the mask? I noticed that people thought I was more upset than I was (not just in criticism situations, but in general) and eventually I realized it’s because of my mask. For whatever reason I have resting concerned eyes and without my smile to temper it people think I’m upset all the time. I’ve learned to be more expressive with my eyes by standing in front of a mirror so that my body language was right. Just something to consider.

  32. Medusa*

    This letter could’ve been written by me. I used to be extremely defensive about feedback and reacted completely inappropriately when I was much younger. I also had to work a lot of internal work on it. Now I assess feedback as objectively as possible and try to be engaged while also taking notes that I can refer back to.

    I’m now over a decade into my career, but *still*, something about how I respond to feedback makes some people think I’m upset. I have a serious face (even more so when I’m concentrating), and have been told by one or two superiors not to be upset while they’re giving feedback. I usually think to myself “I’m… not?” I also suspect that part of it is that being a Black woman with working with non-Black supervisors, people revert to “Angry Black Woman” stereotypes.

  33. Keymaster of Gozer*

    I…still have to fight the urge to just nod, say ‘yes’, ‘okay’ and the like when someone is giving me criticism because even after all these years it still takes me right back to a particularly traumatic time. I don’t like criticism, never will.

    But…I can act a lot better around it now. When it’s constructive I can ask if I can clarify exactly what I need to change/do better so I ensure I do in fact improve (I DO like getting good at things), or thank the person for the feedback and say it’s given me a lot to think about (then actually go and work out if I can do better).

    If it’s non constructive I’m better at just acting engaged up to a point, but not really processing any of it. I don’t need the stress of worrying if I’m ‘acting too friendly to the guys and giving them the wrong idea’ when I know that a) I’m not and b) that particular boss dislikes any women in authority.

  34. Allypopx*

    I had a boss give me a piece of feedback once that he was clearly worried I’d respond badly to and I responded with (I don’t think an overly peppy) “Oh, yeah okay that makes sense. I intended abc but I can see why xyz, no problem I’ll be more mindful moving forward.” And you’d think I gave him the key to the city of gold he still talks in my references about how AMAZING I am at taking criticism (ironically I have ADHD and rejection sensitive dysphoria but I can apparently hide it pretty well?).

    My point being I don’t think bosses always have the most realistic expectations for these situations. If you seemed uncomfortable – that’s totally normal. Feedback is uncomfortable, on both sides. It sounds like you know this is something you struggle with so I find it unlikely that your reaction was over the top – you’ve put effort into not doing that! I think Alison gives great tips for maybe taking that work to the next level, and you should follow her advice. But I think it’s highly likely your boss is at least a part of the problem.

  35. Gawaine*

    In terms of reasons…it could also be that he’s just not really good at giving criticism or used to people who are really bad at taking it, and trying to figure out how to give it without breaking you. A lot of people who’re expecting confrontation or unpleasantness either get angry or scared before the unpleasantness, and then react to what they think the other person will say instead of what they actually say. So your reactions could have been perfect, and your boss could still be afraid that they’d hurt you/lost you/broken your spirit.

  36. Resting Concerned Face*

    Might just be your face? I frequently have people try to reassure me or comfort me at moments that I find absolutely baffling. I finally connected the pattern and realized I must just look concerned when I’m concentrating. It’s frustrating because it’s often in situations where someone could reasonably be concerned or worried, but I’m just not. I’ve tried to pay better attention to what my face is doing, but if someone does mention it I try to be direct. I just laugh a bit and say “oh, no, thank you! I’m just thinking really hard, haha” and try to play it off. Mixed results, but once it happens a couple times and I actually Fix The Thing instead of freaking out, people eventually start to believe me.

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