Feedback: handling criticism and rejection

Most of us are not very good at handling criticism. We tend to reduce openness and hold our positions. Even when the criticism is nicely packed and presented by our beloved mentor it can be tough to handle. Destructive criticism is ignored, or worse, can generate antagonism. We can learn to handle feedback better. How? More reading here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Many faces of feedback

Feedback can have many faces.

Quick numerical feedback is one of the best tools to learn new things.

Getting feedback from a mentor means he wants us to succeed and proposes a way to improve our chances.

Feedback from a spouse or a partner implies that his success is linked with yours, and often more important than your happiness.

If you get feedback from your boss, you may start looking for a new job. “Improvement needed” is an ultimatum.

Soliciting feedback from your clients is a very serious thing. Some clients will always be unhappy, but they should be a minority. The majority should be between content and ecstatic.

Cognitive equations

We cannot fairly deal with so many faces of feedback. Most people build cognitive equations that are faulty. For example:

They reject me =  I am worthless

I need to improve my presentation + I was late yesterday = I will not close the deal

There is an error in my tax submission = I am a criminal

The way I do the exercise is not safe + when I tried a better way my results decreases = I am going to fail

Most of these equations generate a catastrophic prediction, which reduces motivation and focus. For sure the stress increases. Some people actually attack and function better under the stress, others freeze or escape.

Every time we see such a cognitive equation we need at least to put a question mark above it. Is that so? What else can it mean? How can the situation be reframed?

Feedback sandwich

We all know the feedback sandwich technique. Complement good performance. Explain what needs to be improved. Stress how valuable the person is for the team. Good-Improvement needed-Great. There are some alternatives like asking for permission to correct something small or asking for cooperation on a common project. The schemes act similarly: package the bitter pill in some sugary coating.

Does it work? It definitely increases openness and decreases stress. Especially if the feedback is specific and actionable. “All I have to do is improve this measurable indicator? Easy!”.

If the feedback is not specific and actionable, the sugary coating may generate a negative response. “At least have the decency to say directly you do not like me gaining weight! Your respect for me and my metabolism has nothing to do with you finding me hideous!”. The response is stronger when it hits a hidden vulnerability.

Anyhow, a good mentor will know both how to formulate feedback and how to present it in an effective format. I have a masterclass about it. Write me for details.

Bad feedback is very common

Suppose your mentor/both/partner did not take my course and did not get the things instintively. Now what?

Studies, for instance, have indicated that as much as 62% of a rater’s judgment of an employee is a reflection of the rater, not the person getting reviewed. This means that the low self-esteem of a boss influences all of his employees. Fortunately, a disproportional number of managers have various degrees of narcissism. They might be hard to deal with, but they will give you a very high evaluation.

Experience biases can include a false consensus effect, in which we assume more people agree with our beliefs than is actually true; the blind spot bias, where we can pick out biases in other people but not ourselves; and many others. How does that actually work? The rater assumes that everybody else has a very similar perspective. If the perspective of the rater is not discussed transparently and non-judgementally, we do not even understand why he made his decisions.

When you get feedback and you do not know what to do about it, ask for a second opinion. We do this with doctors, so why not do this in other places?

Practice self-compassion

Quite often the initial response is the hardest to deal with. We kind of want to beat ourselves or quit “the game”. In computer games and hobbies we may actually quit the game. This is not very good. Everybody makes mistakes, and your priorities should not be guided by bullies of any sort.

So instead of experiencing aggression/freeze/flight, try to soothe yourself almost like you would soothe a child. Quite often with a hot drink. Maybe even brace yourself physically. Try to love yourself not because of what you do, but simply because you are alive. You make the world more meaningful simply by existing.

There is nothing magical in self-compassion. You may use mindful breathing, grounding, gratitude, or diffusion. Any kind of mental self-help will work. Once again, this is something I teach in masterclasses.

Practice the relevant skills every week or every day, so that when you actually need them they will come almost automatically and almost effortlessly.

Constructive vs destructive criticism

Any feedback can combine constructive and destructive criticism. Try to separate:

  1. Constructive criticism shows a clear improvement path.
  2. Destructive criticism is often aimed at ending the relationship or causing psychological damage.
  3. Constructive criticism is empathic and rarely emotionally charged.
  4. The things that work for one person do not work for another. Using something with anecdotal evidence can be destructive.
  5. Does the criticism limit your potential? If so, it might be destructive. Constructive criticism if followed typically reduces the risks and increases benefits.
  6. A criticism coming from a toxic person will tend to be destructive. Still, it may be based on things that can be improved. So try to consult others.
  7. A verbal cue of “no offense” or “its in your interest” is a sign of destructive criticism coming.
  8. A verbal cue of “when I was in a similar situation” is a cue for constructive feedback.

Consider the source

Social media is typically destructive unless the message comes from your close friends and supporters. Negative communications generate a more active reaction, so algorithms enhance it.

Competition/peers will usually provide a balanced mix of constructive and destructive feedback. They balance the empathy towards you and professional pride with the need to outperform you.

The superiors and permanent partners want their own good, and not necessarily your good. The criticism will be constructive for your performance but may have a destructive effect on your life.

Bitter people tend to be destructive. Avoid them if you can. Do not get bitter if possible.

Thank the person for the feedback

Providing feedback is an effort and a considerable emotional risk. You might not integrate the feedback in your life, or discard it. Does not matter. Simple politeness requires you to thank the person for the feedback, or show that you take it seriously.

Also, never reject feedback immediately. Try to accept it and see where it leads you. Be cautious. If everything fails, it is your fault. Do not blame others for bad advice.


In the military and some other high-stress activities, the initial training sort of deconstructs the person. Then the person is reconstructed from the bits and pieces in a way that increases his performance.

This is basically a manipulative game. The initial feedback is very destructive, and it is followed by constructive feedback.

Human intelligence handlers use the opposite approach. They provide a lot of positive feedback to build relationships. Then they provide negative feedback to provoke a certain uncontrolled response.

Manipulative games often try to mimic feedback. Yet, they are not real feedback. Do not be fooled.

Do not seek approval

Soliciting feedback should not be concerned with looking for approval. Quite the contrary. The responder will often offer approval to get rid of you. Try to go past the approval to a more complex realization.

Treat whatever you find bravely. Do not be afraid of the worst possible feedback. If everybody loves you, either they are lying or you give up too easily. Focus on being authentic and respected. It is OK to have differences and criticism and faults.  This is one of the ways to grow.

Zero criticism is a dead end. What to do next? Not clear!

CBT sort of diary may show that you are less willing to open up and hear criticism than you imagine.

Praise people

If you can provide an honest and positive feedback, you are lucky. Just do it!

If you get such feedback, a simple “thank you” will be enough.

It is especially important to praise your protege when you improve. Always focus on improvement, rather than the actual state.

Reframe, regroup, recover

Suppose constructive feedback outlines your mistakes. Now what?

This is actually a blessing. You can make a huge improvement!

You can reallocate resources to maximize the return on investment in presence of the new information.

And once you grow, you can be grateful that the event happened.

Self-confidence, the key or the barrier?

You kind of need just enough confidence. Too little confidence and you might fail to perform. Too much confidence and you might ignore the inputs. The balance here is really fragile.

Possibly it is better to have less confidence and deal with the psychological issues via mindfulness, self-compassion or reframing. These tools are relatively easy to acquire. Listening to others and accepting feedback is actually much harder.

Get 4 Free Sample Chapters of the Key To Study Book

Get access to advanced training, and a selection of free apps to train your reading speed and visual memory

You have Successfully Subscribed!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.