7 Steps to Grow from Constructive Feedback

Todd Hall
Personal Development
April 20, 2015

Have you ever felt hurt, even crushed, by feedback from someone? When I was training to become a clinical psychologist, part of my program involved a professor and classmates watching videotape of me doing therapy and providing constructive criticism. Talk about vulnerable! I definitely got some feedback that stung, but I also grew tremendously from that experience. Whether it’s from a friend, family member, co-worker, or boss, critical feedback is always difficult to hear, even when it’s constructive, but it’s the lifeblood of self-awareness. Self-awareness, in turn, is the gateway to personal development. One of the most important qualities in having a positive influence on others is self-awareness. One of the best—and often necessary—ways to develop self-awareness is by getting feedback from others who know you and care about helping you develop. Last week I talked about how to give feedback that actually helps. In this post, I want to build on that by talking about 7 steps to help you grow from constructive feedback.

STEP 1. Look at constructive feedback as a rare gift—because it is. Constructive feedback is rare for several reasons. 

First, most people don’t want to deal with messy relational issues that can arise from giving constructive feedback. 

Second, as people move up the administrative ladder, fewer people below them feel secure enough to provide constructive feedback, and there are fewer peers available to provide this feedback. So when someone offers constructive feedback, the first step to benefit from it is to get your mindset in the right place. You need to view this as a rare gift that has the potential to help you grow and develop like nothing else. Why does it have this potential? Because we all have blind spots. I have blind spots. You have blind spots. You need someone to point these out, even if it stings. My graduate students in psychology go through an intense evaluation process at the end of their second year in which they meet with three faculty members who discuss feedback from the faculty as a whole. I often tell my students that this may be the most valuable feedback they'll ever get in their entire life. And I truly believe that. To have three more experienced professionals (psychologists in this case) take the time to sit down with a student and provide feedback on their strengths and growth areas is, for many, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. When someone uses their time and expertise to offer you feedback, it’s extremely valuable. 

In a post on learning to love criticism, Inc. columnist Jeff Haden says, “Feedback is just data, and the more data we have, the better." Once you begin to see constructive feedback in this light, you’ll be in an emotional state that fosters benefiting from feedback.

STEP 2: Focus on listening and take time to reflect before responding or taking action. When someone gives you feedback, either formally or informally, work on developing the habit of going into “listen only mode” and save the task of evaluating the feedback for later. You can do this by creating a general “implementation intention,” which is an if-then scenario in which you decide ahead of time how you will respond to the scenario. 

It might look like this: “If someone offers me feedback, then I will suspend evaluating the feedback for a later time, and focus on listening and understanding the feedback, and asking clarifying questions if necessary.” Then give yourself time to reflect on the feedback and let it simmer in the back of your mind. If you feel hurt and defensive at first, this will help you get to a better emotional place that will enable you to be more open. Then you can evaluate the feedback and figure out how best to respond. 

Best-selling author Kevin Daum says in his article on criticism, “When criticism comes my way I have a special mode. I breathe, open myself up and heighten my awareness. I tamp down the inner voice and absorb the data as openly as possible. I do my best not to react on the spot, choosing to take time to analyze the feedback."

STEP 3: Look for patterns. This is where you begin to evaluate the feedback after you’ve taken time to digest it. If the feedback doesn’t resonate with you and you’ve never heard something similar from anyone, it’s less likely to be on target. Still you want to file it away and see if it comes up in the future. If, however, the feedback is consistent with what you’ve heard on other occasions, you want to really take a close look at it. If there is a pattern of this kind of feedback in your life, it’s more likely to be tapping into a core truth that you need to take to heart. 

Patterns are difficult for us to see, because they reflect core issues that can be very painful and sensitive. There have been certain patterns of feedback I’ve received from different supervisors over the years. These have been the most difficult things to hear about myself because they reflect ways of coping with core painful feelings about myself. For example, my explicit commitment is to be emotionally present and available to the people in my life. But I’m too often implicitly committed to being productive so as to be viewed as worthy of attention. This is a defense against growing up with a mother with whom I felt unseen. This sometimes works against me being emotionally present and available to others. I’m still working on this, but it took feedback from multiple people in my life to help me realize this. Had I not received this feedback, or had I dismissed it completely, I never would have come to this realization.

STEP 4: Find the kernel of truth. Sometimes feedback is off-center. You have to consider the source and your level of trust of that person. But even if this is the feedback is off-center, there is usually a kernel of truth from which you can learn something about yourself. Your job is to find that kernel of truth, and discard the rest. To find this kernel you have to put yourself in other people’s shoes. You have to empathize with others and take their perspective.  Here's a few tips to help you do that. 

Separate out ill-conceived motives. For example, if the feedback is related to a complex relational issue between you and the feedback giver, then you need to separate out the other person’s issues from yours. It’s easier said than done, of course, but try to figure out your growth areas, own them and work on them. 

Separate out poor delivery. Just because someone delivered feedback in a jerky way doesn’t mean there is no truth to it. There may still be something there you need to consider.

Separate out lack of understanding of the full context. The person giving you feedback may not have the full context for the circumstances related to the feedback, but there still may be a piece of truth that you need to hear. Once you separate these factors out, what's left? Most likely you’ll discover a kernel of truth about yourself suggesting some way in which you need to grow. I hope these steps help you to grow from feedback. 

STEP 5: Reflecting on what you can learn about yourself based on how you responded. Taking constructive feedback to heart requires a baseline level of emotional security. It’s normal to feel defensive and upset at first when someone gives you some critical feedback. But if you never seem to get past this in different feedback situations, it’s likely that you don’t feel emotionally secure enough to manage the normal bad feelings that come with constructive criticism. The way you respond to feedback provides a window into your attachment patterns. If you struggle to take in constructive feedback, take a closer look at your attachment patterns which you can read more about here. 

Reflect on questions such as: What feelings come up from this feedback? Are these feelings familiar? Is it possible that something about the person or situation is triggering some core painful feelings about yourself? If so, spend some time talking through those feelings with someone you trust. And if you’re struggling with this, spend some time focusing on your identity and your strengths and then come back to the feedback when you are in a better place to hear it.

STEP 6: Examine your implicit commitments and how they may conflict with your explicit commitments. Above, I mentioned a conflict between one of my explicit commitments and an implicit commitment. This is a very helpful exercise for growing from feedback, especially feedback that feels off-base. It may be off-base, but it may also reflect conflict a subliminal, implicit commitment and an explicit commitment. Take some time to identify and write down your explicit commitments, and then what your behavior patterns reveal about your implicit commitments. Implicit commitments that conflict with your core values are often coping mechanisms against emotional pain. Once you identify the source, you can deal with the pain more directly and make changes where you need to.

STEP 7. Develop an action plan. Based on the feedback you’ve received, and what you’ve identified in steps 1-6 above, develop an action plan to grow in a few specific areas.It’s important to be specific and focused. Identify 2 or 3 development goals in which you want to grow over the next year or some specific period of time that makes sense to you and/or within your job.

How will you know you succeeded in each goal? Map out specific action steps you will take to develop in these areas. If you can, it’s helpful to make yourself accountable to someone.

One approach that may help is to focus on developing positive habits that help you respond productively to stressful situations or just situations that are personally difficult for you for whatever reason. To do this, you can develop “implementation intentions,” which I mentioned in step 2. These are specific if-then scenarios. If situation X occurs, you will respond by doing Y. Plan our your response in detail and write these down.

Starbucks uses this technique, which they call “recognizing inflection points,” to help baristas manage their emotions and deal with difficult customer situations. For example, “If a customer gets angry and starts yelling, then I will use the LATTE method to respond. Listen, Acknowledge the complaint, Take action to resolve the problem, Thank the customer, and Explain why the problem occurred. While it won’t be easy, if you work these steps, you’ll find yourself growing from feedback to have an even greater positive impact in your life.

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