Handling critical feedback

August 23, 2019
8 min read
Handling critical feedback header image
Hand vector created by makyzz

There I was, on top of the world. I, who was about 6 months into my career as a software engineer, had just given possibly the best ever presentation to my team on how to inject custom VB code into an SSRS report. The knowledge I had imparted and the way I had delivered it was second to none. Next stop was probably running Earth or something simple like that.

As I went to stride out of the room with my head held high, my team lead pulled me aside. "Hey Gareth, do you mind if I give you some feedback on your presentation?". "Wow", I thought, "I'm not even out of the room and I'm about to be lathered in praise, what a great day!". Not long after sitting back down, things quickly began to turn sour. I was hearing things like "your slides were too crowded with text" and "you spoke too quickly and glossed over some topics that nobody in the room had heard of before". What the heck, how dare he ruin my day with this nonsense. My anger flared up. After we were done, I held myself together, thanked him for the feedback, and went out of the room; anger still bubbling away inside me.

It wasn't until later that evening, as I rode the train home from work, that I really thought back on my presentation. Initially, I had convinced myself that everyone loved it. But thinking on the vibes I was getting back from everyone in the room, the disinterested and sometimes confused looks, the lack of conversations about it after I was done, it began to dawn on me that perhaps it wasn't the greatest presentation since that person who unveiled sliced bread to the world. The feedback my team lead had given me was actually pretty kind and well thought out compared to what I might have said if I were in his shoes. It wasn't until this point in time that I could actually reflect on what had happened and really begin to digest the feedback properly.

It starts with the urge to flip some tables

It's hard not to get upset when somebody gives you critical feedback. It almost feels like an attack on who you are. How dare they! The audacity! Generally speaking, you're not going to be ready to fully process that feedback on the spot. So how can you manage this? Well, it's hard to stop the anger from bubbling up inside, sure, but you should aim to maintain politeness to the person giving you the feedback. Recognize that you're upset, but don't default to disregarding everything that's being said to you. Try to keep a mental note of the feedback, even if you're not ready to process it yet. If you're able to, ask to get some notes in written form, as this will help with remembering what was actually said, and avoid some skew in your memory of what was said due to your emotional state.

Getting through this stage will obviously be different for different people. If you're prone to fits of rage where tables get flipped because a passing kid looked at you funny, then getting past this stage is going to be tough for you, and I worry for the welfare of those around you. Also, you should probably go see someone about that. And conversely, if you're someone who defaults to going super quiet if any form of confrontation occurs, getting through this stage will still be uncomfortable, but you probably won't need to go to the police station to give your statement on why the office needs redecorating. Taking time to reflect how you handle situations like this is always a good idea. It'll hopefully help you to continually improve yourself, and in turn reduce the company budget for buying new office furniture.

I was pretty mad all day about the feedback I received for my presentation. How dare my team lead burst my bubble and bring me down to earth. I stewed and stewed on this, and at this stage, I wasn't ready to digest anything I had been told. Luckily 7-Eleven was running one of their awesome $1 days, and I was trading reality for a tonne of affordable sugar. Awww yeah.

Give your old buddy Time a ring and see if he wants to hang out

Your anger will eventually settle down. Once it has, you'll be in a much better place to process the feedback you have been given. I know I can personally stew on something for the rest of a work day, and not really deal with it properly until I get some quiet time on a commute home (unless that darn kid two seats up keeps staring at me!). If you're able to, try to refocus your attention on something else until you've calmed down. Be it going for a jog, challenging yourself to eating 12 donuts in one sitting (at the total cost of $12!), or just diving into some other work you've got to do, this will hopefully help to let your emotions settle somewhat.

As I said above, it wasn't until I had gotten through the day (and starting riding a mad sugar crash) that I calmed down enough to begin processing the feedback I was given. With some top notch Nickelback cranking in my ears and 2 hours of time alone to sit and think on the train, I was ready to reflect.

Hold your clock up to a mirror. It's time for reflection.

With all that anger settled down it's time to reflect. This is probably the most important step here, without it, you'll find it tough to grow yourself throughout your career, and even your life. Think on what was said and try to understand why it was said. Look back on what you did or have been doing to generate that feedback, and see if you can accept the feedback and look at how you could apply it in the future. Reflecting like this is a really useful way to better yourself through the feedback that others give you.

I saw that although I had shared some new thing that nobody knew you could do, I hadn't delivered it in the best way possible. Slides that were crammed full of text meant that people could either read them or listen to what I was saying, but not both. The pace I moved through my presentation was quite quick, which was likely due to nerves and excitement. I also recalled that it wasn't only critical feedback I had been given. My team lead had told me that it was really great that I could even give this presentation, as a lot of people would have been put off by having to speak in public like that. He had also praised me for the simple way that I had delivered most of the information. In the heat of the moment, I had completely disregarded this positive side.

Keep this in mind for the next time that you're the mean person telling someone how terrible they are

Since then, I've not only began to better incorporate how I process critical feedback that I'm given, I've also used this insight to help with giving feedback. I start by keeping good feedback habits in mind like basing it on facts, not emotions, and writing it down in a clear way and sharing that with the person to help try and keep potential anger to a minimum. But ultimately, I accept that the person I'm giving critical feedback to will need time to process it before they can really process the feedback and take any learnings on board. I don't nail this every time, but I often reflect on how I gave feedback and aim to continually improve myself to make the next time better.

And that's all there is to say about that! Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not some feedback guru who always takes away everything I'm told and makes myself 10x better because of it. I still get upset when I'm given critical feedback and I still need time to process it. But I do take the time to sit down, put my ego aside, and reflect on what was said, which is helping me to continually improve in this space.

Do you have any helpful tips for how you manage receiving or giving critical feedback? I'd love to hear about it! Drop a comment below and share your insights!