transcript of “I’m Bad at Taking Feedback” (Ask a Manager podcast 24)

This is a transcription of the Ask a Manager podcast episode “I’m Bad at Taking Feedback”.

Alison: Today we’re going to talk about accepting criticism well. Getting feedback, even negative feedback, is a normal part of having a job and it’s a key part of how you develop your skills and get better and better at what you do, but a lot of people handle negative feedback pretty badly. They get defensive or they get upset or they just shut down and don’t really say much. It can be hard to change your reaction even if you want to. And that’s what today’s guest is here to talk about.

Hi and welcome to the show.

Guest: Hi, Alison. Thanks for having me.

Alison: Why don’t you read the letter that you sent to me and then we’ll talk about it?

Guest: Sure. First, I love the podcast. Thanks so much for all your helpful tips and insight. I would love to talk more about accepting negative feedback or just criticism in general. I’m finishing my PhD in Chemistry and I’m currently interviewing for jobs. I’ve gotten feedback a few times from my current boss as well as colleagues about not accepting criticism or feedback well and taking things too personally. While I give seminars about my research, I tend to unknowingly get defensive when people ask questions at the end. Additionally, when my current boss gives me negative feedback, I struggled to keep my emotions inside and not look too upset or angry. Any help on how I could process and respond to criticism or negative feedback better would be greatly appreciated.

Alison: Okay, first: this is so, so common, so don’t feel weird about it. I think so many people struggle with this. So you’ve gotten feedback on how you’re taking feedback. People have told you that you’re not taking it well. Tell me more about the specifics of what they’ve told you about this.

Guest: Sometimes, for example when I answer questions at the end of a research seminar and I think I’m answering them well, at the end I’ll get a comment from a boss or a coworker that I seemed really defensive and that I need to be more kind and receptive to people’s questions and answer them like, “Oh, that’s an interesting question,” and think about it and answer them kindly. Whereas I guess I get too defensive. It’s not as apparent to me when it’s happening, but that’s kind of the feedback I get. Additionally, I just know that when things aren’t going well with my research and my boss points that out to me, that it’s hard to take it in stride and not get upset or feel bad about it and I think that reads on my face pretty easily.

Alison: So what is going on with you when it’s happening? And, actually, before we really jump into this, I want to say that as we talk, I’m going to use the word “criticism” as shorthand here, but I don’t think that all less than positive feedback is criticism. I think a lot of feedback is more like what I would call developmental feedback or corrective feedback. It’s not “You suck at doing this,” but it’s more like, “Hey, this might not be the most effective way that you could be approaching this and let’s talk about more effective ways.” But that is a mouthful to say every time and so, for the sake of this discussion, I’m just going to use “criticism” or “negative feedback” as shorthand.

Guest: Okay.

Alison: So what is going on with you when it’s happening? In the moment, do you disagree with what you’re hearing, or is it just upsetting to be told that you’re not doing something perfectly? What’s actually going through your head when it happens?

Guest: Yeah, I feel emotions kind of wash over me and I’m trying to keep calm, but my face shows confusion or upset or annoyed, things like that. But it doesn’t even register to me, I guess  I’m just pretty anxious in general.

Alison: How did the conversations go when that happens? And I think for this, let’s focus on one-on-one conversations with your boss, because the responding to audience members in a seminar is almost a whole different thing, although it certainly has similarities. But when it’s one on one with your boss, how does the conversation go when that happens? Do you find that the other person is affected by how you’re responding to it or does it impact the conversation?

Guest: Yeah, occasionally people say things along the lines that I could tell he is noticing that I’m upset by what he’s saying, or if I’m working on something really difficult and I’m like, “I don’t think this pathway’s going to work. I think we should look at a different problem or find another route to fix what we’re doing.” I’ll be like, “Can I try this or this or this?” And he’ll be like, “No, I know this will work. You just have to keep doing it.” And I’m kind of like, “Oh, I’m so frustrated.” And you know, I want to try something new when I come up with ideas. But he’s just like, “No, just keep hitting it again and again and again till you get it right.” And that’s stressful. And I guess those are the kind of challenges that when I hear that I just feel very overwhelmed that I have to keep trying at this same problem not getting anywhere.

Alison: Yeah, that’s understandable.

Guest: Yeah. And he responds like, “It’s okay,” or “Yeah, I could see you’re frustrated by this,” and then he’ll go on and try to explain why he wants me to keep doing the same way.

Alison: And then what happens later? Do you continue to feel the same way about the feedback or is there ever a point where later on, when you’re not in the heat of the moment, you see some merit to what was being said?

Guest: Yeah. Initially, I feel often upset or overwhelmed, but I usually will walk away and I’ll go somewhere and calm down for a little bit and then I’ll go back to work and yeah, eventually, especially if it does end up working out, I can see the merit in it. Occasionally when it doesn’t, I’m like, “I knew that,” but I guess it just happens either way. But yeah, it just takes me a few minutes to come back down and bring my center down to go back to work. Especially in a lab environment, you don’t want to be agitated or upset trying to work.

Alison: Yeah. I think a lot of this is about mental reframing, just shifting your perspective in your own head, which is not easy to do. I think the thing to know about feedback is that there are really two basic ways that you can take it. You can take it as a personal attack on you, where you’re hearing that you’re not good enough, or you can take it as coaching, meaning it’s an attempt to help you. And I think right now you’re experiencing it as kind of an attack, even if it’s just a very low-grade attack. But I think if you could shift your perspective and see it as coaching, as a genuine attempt to help you from people who have your best interests in mind, you might respond to it differently. But to do that, I think you have to really believe that that’s what it is and that is where the challenge lies.

Guest: Okay.

Alison: Sometimes you hear people call feedback a gift and I always think it sounds kind of cheesy, like, “Really? Telling me that my work wasn’t great is opposed to be a gift?” But the thing is, most of the time, cheesy as it sounds, feedback really is a gift. It’s someone saying, “Hey, I’m going to take the time to share thoughts with you about how you could do this even better and how you can develop your skills and be more successful.” And that’s a totally different way of looking at it than people have when they’re responding defensively. I think in the moment it feels much more personal, in a bad way. And I can tell you from the manager side of things, that really is what it is. Not an attack, but the coaching piece of this. When I’m sitting down with someone and I’m giving feedback on their work that isn’t entirely positive, I’m doing it because my job is to help them. It’s to coach them and help them get better. I’m not there to tear them down or to aggravate them or to tell them all the ways that they’re wrong. It’s supposed to be a collaborative process where as the manager I’m offering my thoughts as someone with a different vantage point than what they have, and hopefully giving them some direction and some insight for the next iteration of the work. And I think it’s really important to remember that that is what the manager’s role is in that conversation – to identify, “Hey, here’s what’s working, here’s what’s not working, here are things that may be fine, but it can be better. Let’s try approaching them this way.” And you’ve got to see it as a completely normal part of the relationship between you and your boss, or in your case also between you and your audience when you’re giving seminars. Because I suspect that you aren’t seeing it as a normal part of the relationship and so every time that it happens, it’s almost like a mini shock. Does that resonate?

Guest: Yeah, yeah, it makes a lot of sense.

Alison: It might even help to think about situations that our culture is familiar with, where feedback is more explicitly coaching – like an actual coach of a sports team who’s giving lots of feedback to players and maybe criticism in an attempt to help players get better. Or a director of a play or a musical performance who you would expect would be giving a bunch of feedback to performers to help them nail their performance. Or a book editor. I think there are some situations culturally where we do expect coaching to be very explicitly built into the relationship, and it might be that if you can look at your relationship with your boss more like that, more like a sports coach, it’ll shift your perspective a little bit on those conversations.

Guest: That’s a really interesting thought. I think if I think about it in different way and prep myself by trying to get myself in that mindset before I go into it, that’ll help a lot.

Alison: I think, too, if you’ve ever been in a position where you needed to give negative feedback to someone, you were probably approaching it from a place of wanting to help them improve their work. Have you ever been in that position yourself?

Guest: Sometimes with students, yeah. And it’s definitely a case of trying really hard to help them.

Alison: Yeah. You might really have that in your head about what it’s like when you’re in your boss’s role, where you’re coming from and what you’re looking for from the other person. That might be an interesting thought exercise to really think through — when you’ve been giving students feedback, how are you hoping they’ll respond, how are you hoping they’ll experience the whole thing, what kind of reactions are useful from them, and what kind of reactions get in the way? And it may be that really deliberately thinking through that helps you reprogram the way you’re looking at it.

Guest: Yeah.

Alison: Because I’m sure in those cases you’re not out to prove your dominance over the other person or make them feel bad, you know, you’re genuinely trying to help.

Guest: Yeah, I guess there’s that power dynamic where I’m trying to help them and I expect them to just take the information I’m giving them and think about it and then try to apply what they can.

Alison: Yeah, exactly. I also want to talk a little bit about the impact that you might be having on your relationship with your boss when that happens, because I think it’s a really important thing here. As a manager, if I’m going into the conversation with the mindset that we talked about – that I’m here to help make the work better and to coach the person – it can be pretty jarring when the person does respond defensively because on my side of it, that’s going to feel like the person doesn’t really want to talk about ways to make their work stronger, and maybe also isn’t going to process the feedback that I’m giving and therefore isn’t going to incorporate it into their work. And that of course is not what you want in that conversation.

And in an employee, you want someone who’s going to be open to talking through better ways to do something. So, if I’m your boss and I give you feedback, and you get defensive or you seem obviously put off, that’s a big concern. And then if it becomes a pattern, it’s a problem because a lot of managers in that situation are going to get reluctant to give you feedback in the future. And you really don’t want that, because if your boss is afraid to give you feedback because she’s worried about your reaction, you’re not going to be hearing about the ways you could do better and you might not hear about it if there are real problems in your work – and that could mean things like not only not growing professionally, but also it could potentially affect the assignments you get or promotions or raises or just reputation in general, and you might not have any idea that that’s happening. So you want to know what your manager thinks of your work because it’s such a crucial part of what your life at work will be like. I do want to say, to be clear, a good manager won’t let that happen. A good manager will talk to you regardless of what your response is and won’t let defensiveness stop her from delivering feedback. But it’s hard to do, and there are a ton of managers out there who will pick the easier path of just not offering it anymore. And that is a big disadvantage to you.

Guest: Yeah.

Alison: But none of it means that you always need to agree with the feedback, because you don’t. I wonder if that’s something that you worry about, like if you don’t necessarily share your boss’s perspective, do you feel comfortable navigating that?

Guest: Yeah, I usually do strike a conversation and I really want to understand why someone’s telling me to go in a certain direction or the other. So I do question it in a sense of just trying to understand, because it’s hard for me to get on board if I can’t understand what the motivations are.

I really like to hear the why, and that helps me understand why he’s telling me to do something or drop something else. I want to know more, and maybe that’s less helpful. I don’t know how that seems to a manager, but I understand it better when I really know how to approach it and have more of a drive to go towards it if I understand why I’m being assigned to do something.

Alison: And that makes perfect sense. I do think that there can be a danger sometimes that someone in your shoes is just asking clarifying questions to make sure that you understand it – not because you’re resisting it, but because you genuinely want to understand it more deeply – but it’s coming across as defensiveness. And sometimes that’s because the person in your shoes without realizing it, is sending off defensive vibes. Sometimes it’s just because you have a manager who isn’t great with that kind of thing, but I do think that there is a way to do it that doesn’t come across defensively. At least if you’re dealing with a reasonable manager. And really, you have to. I would never want the takeaway to be, “Oh, I shouldn’t ask clarifying questions because it may come across as defensive.” You’ve got to ask clarifying questions.

I think there are a few different ways to do it. I think it’s often about tone, but it’s often about language too. One way I might think of it is, if it seems like your boss has a very different perspective than you do, you’re trying to figure out what accounts for the difference in the perspective versus your boss’s perspective because it’s possible that you have information that your boss doesn’t have that might change her perspective, or vice versa. There could be something that you’re missing that could make this all make sense to you if you knew what it was, but as you’re talking about it, you want to acknowledge that you’re hearing what’s being said. And so, you could say something like, “I want to better understand what you’re saying. Would it mean that in X situation I would handle it in Y manner?” Or, “In X situation, can we talk about like how we would apply what you’re saying under that set of circumstances?” There’s no resistance in that language. You’re making it very clear that you really are genuinely eager to make sure that you’re on the same page.

And I think too, even when you really actively disagree, you can still acknowledge that you’re hearing and processing it, but that your perspective is a little different. So, you could say something like, “I think I understand what you’re saying. I was looking at it differently. Can I tell you what my perspective was in case it changes the way you’re looking at it or in case there’s something that I should correct about my understanding?” That language is respectful, it’s not argumentative, it’s not defensive and it makes it clear that you do respect that ultimately your boss gets to make the final call even if you disagree with it, but that your goal is to just make sure that you’re both on the same page as much as possible.

Guest: Yeah, that makes sense. I think sometimes I’m seeing something in the lab when I’m working with a specific system that obviously he’s not seeing as he manages a lot of people in labs, so I have to try to communicate what I’m seeing that makes our differences of opinion on a topic clash.

Alison: Exactly. Yeah. And so, if you’re sort of on a hunt to figure out, “Okay, we have two different perspectives, let’s figure out why,” as opposed to sort of bristling at it, I think that can help. And I think too just generally with taking feedback well, it’s really just listening to what’s being said, not letting yourself respond with a lot of emotion, and there’s a lot of good responses that you can have in the moment. It can be as simple as saying, “Oh, okay, I didn’t realize that. I’ll do that in the future.” Often that’s all you need to say. But I think when I think about … I’ve disagreed a lot with bosses in my career and I think the key for having it go well has always been really going into the conversation with the understanding that ultimately it is their call, but maybe I have information that I can offer up that would be helpful to them to hear.

The other thing I wanted to say is, if you are feeling flooded with emotion in the moment, it is okay to not respond right away. If you feel yourself getting upset or aggravated or defensive, it could be that the best thing to do is to say something like, “Hey, thanks for telling me this. I want to digest it and then I might come back to you with questions,” and that gives you some time and some space to get away from the initial emotional reaction and really process the feedback before you do talk about it. And if you do say that, that doesn’t mean that you then have to go back later and have another big discussion about it. If you want to, you can, but it could just be that you say, you know, “Hey, thanks for giving me that feedback the other day. I thought about it, it makes sense, and I’ll incorporate it going forward.”

Guest: Yeah, that makes sense. You’ve given me a lot of helpful feedback on how to think about it, and I have one other kind of related question. I think that my boss gives feedback … he treats everybody the same way, he manages everybody the same, using the same tone and everything, and I think that some of us don’t like his managerial style and others do. Do all managers tend to manage with a certain tone or do you have to tailor it to personalities and should you do that?

Alison: That’s a great question. I think ideally you tailor your approach to the person, that you really get to know the person and the situation and what be effective there. And even with the same person, sometimes different situations call for a different approach. If normally you give someone a lot of latitude and a lot of autonomy, but now they’re doing a project that’s very high stakes or very new to them, you might be much more directive than you normally would be with them. I think you really want to pay attention to what you know of the person and how they operate and their skill level and familiarity with the work they’re doing. That said, there are certainly a ton of managers who do not vary from person to person.

Guest: Yeah. I had an interesting job interview question related to this, asking about what’s my best and worst thing about my manager. And obviously it’s really loaded question, but I was able to give good feedback, but I had said that I don’t think that his managerial style works the best for me and a couple of my other coworkers as compared to the majority and that that tends to be difficult. But what the person told me is, would you feel comfortable telling a future manager what works best for you so that you can work better with them. Do you think that that’s effective?

Alison: Depends on the manager. If you have a pretty good manager, yeah, absolutely. And a good manager will welcome that. There are a lot of managers out there who are not super skilled at managing. In a lot of fields, maybe most fields, people end up getting promoted into management positions because they were good at something else. And that sort of next natural step up is managing a team, and it might be that the thing that they were good at that got them promoted is completely different than the skills that it takes to manage people. And companies don’t do a ton of management training, it’s very odd. So you get managers who have lots of weirdness and dysfunction and difficult traits. There are many of them out there. I think it’s always smart to get a feel for what your manager is like before deciding how open and candid to be.

But in general, yes, absolutely. You should be able to say, “Here’s what I found has worked well.” Obviously, there are limits to that. If you’re saying what I found has worked well is never having to talk to my manager (laughs), only having to get feedback once a year, obviously that’s not going to go over well.

But do you have a sense for what doesn’t work for you about your manager’s style and what would work better?

Guest: Yeah. And part of this is related to the fact that the kind of jobs I’m applying for are max 10% women. So I feel like not seeing people around you in the workplace, I need a little bit more support – like, yeah, we want you here, you’re doing well, you belong here too. And just having that little bit of support along with the feedback feels really good and it makes me so much more motivated to work hard. That works so much better for me, and I want to be to communicate that.

Alison: That’s such a reasonable thing to want. Reading between the lines here, am I gathering correctly that your current manager doesn’t give a lot of positive feedback?

Guest: Yes.

Alison: I wouldn’t be surprised if that is also feeding into the emotion of getting the negative feedback because, assuming that you’re doing a good job, ideally you would be getting a ton of positive feedback. And so when you did get more negative feedback or corrective feedback, it would be against this backdrop of knowing that overall things are going very well and knowing that the things that you’re doing well are being recognized. But if that backdrop is missing and you’re never hearing that stuff and you’re only hearing the negative stuff, that is legitimately upsetting.

Guest: That’s very enlightening. I get almost zero verbal positive feedback. So I think that’s why I always go into those situations pretty anxious.

Alison: Well, no wonder. I would really cut yourself a break about this given that. I mean, you still want to work on it and it’s still smart to have a good reaction to feedback, all the stuff we’ve talked about, blah blah blah. But I think recognize that you’re in this sort of praise desert where you’re not hearing the other piece of the story that really matters.

Guest: Yeah.

Alison: And I wonder, there are ways to draw that out of a manager who isn’t good at naturally giving it. And a manager who doesn’t give positive feedback, it’s not necessarily because they’re a jerk – usually it’s not because they’re a jerk or emotionally withholding or whatever it might be. Often it’s because they just haven’t been that thoughtful about it and they’re just thinking, “My job here is to critique and talk about ways that the work could be going better,” without looking at the larger picture and without thinking about the fact that negative feedback lands a lot more easily when people know that you’ve recognized the strong points. But sometimes you can draw it out by saying things like, “Hey, could we talk about how things are going overall?” I’m trying to think of the way that I would word this. I think I would say it just like that. “Hey, can we talk about how you feel like things are going overall?” And sometimes a manager who has been pretty exclusively critical will surprise you in response to that conversation by saying things like, “Oh, I think things are going great. You’re doing a really great job.” So it might be that you have to draw it out of him.

Guest: That’s a really great point because I think all of us have a hard time figuring out where we stand because we only get negative feedback really, so it’s hard to know, but then when we talk to each other, we realize we’re all getting negative feedback so we feel like we’re on the same plate. But when it’s just you individually, it feels like, “Oh, I must be doing a terrible job.”

Alison: Yeah. How is your rapport with your boss in general? Do you feel like that is something you could point out to him?

Guest: It’s gotten better over time and now that I’m looking at leaving, I’m going to graduate soon and look for real jobs, that it might be something I could communicate for his future work, but is obviously almost going to be too late for my future with that boss.

Alison: If you do feel like you have decent rapport and he would take it well, it might be worth pointing out. Sometimes managers who operate that way are really surprised to hear that that is what people think.

For some reason, what’s popping into my head here is that I used to manage a whole team of managers and so when they had to write performance reviews for their staff, I would see those performance reviews. And sometimes they would be just full of corrective feedback. Not super harsh, but what they were focusing on was all the stuff they thought someone could be doing differently. And I would know that the employee in question was someone who they thought really well of, that overall they thought the person’s work was great – and I would read the performance review they drafted for the person and think, “My God, if I were this person, I would come away thinking that I was not doing a very good job at all.” And I would point that out to the manager and they would often be shocked because they knew in their head, they had the backdrop in their head of knowing that they thought this person was doing well, but they didn’t realize that they hadn’t explicitly vocalized that. And so, I think sometimes managers who do this can really be surprised by it and it can help to point it out.

Guest: Yeah, I think I’ll try to find a way to communicate that very briefly before I leave and move on. I think it would be helpful.

Alison: But certainly what you are looking for here, what you wish you were getting from your manager, is a very reasonable thing to expect.

Guest: That’s good to hear, because I’m not looking to be coddled and that’s something you’re trying not to communicate. But at the same time, I want, I guess, support: “You could do this better, but you’re doing this great. You could do this better.” Like that’s so much easier to take. (Laughs)

Alison: Yeah. I don’t think you want to be coddled (laughs). It doesn’t sound like that at all to me.

Well, thank you so much for coming on the show.

Guest: Thank you for having me.

Alison: Thanks for listening to the Ask a Manager podcast. If you’d like to come on the show to talk through your own question, email it to – or you can leave a recording of your question by calling 855-426-9675. You can get more Ask a Manager at, or in my book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work. The Ask a Manager show is a partnership with How Stuff Works and is produced by Paul Dechant. If you liked what you heard, please take a minute to subscribe, rate, and review the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Play. I’m Alison Green and I’ll be back next week with another one of your questions.

Transcript provided by MJ Brodie.

You can see past podcast transcripts here.