Employee Feedback

How to Receive Feedback Without Being Apologetic or Defensive

August 19, 2022
November 7, 2023
Farrah Mitra
Lattice Team

This story is a guest contribution from Farrah Mitra, founder of Green Reed, a leadership development and executive coaching company. She is one of only 12 Radical Candor coach trainers in the world.

As a Radical Candor coach, I get asked a lot about feedback. Most often, the focus is on how to give kind, clear, specific, and sincere feedback. That’s kind of our thing — and what our co-founder Kim Scott had in mind when she wrote her bestselling book

But almost just as often, I get questions about reacting to feedback. For instance, one teammate recently shared that they had received feedback on how they received feedback. They tended to apologize or appear sensitive. They worried that this only discouraged future feedback.

As you might imagine, others might react in a different way: by getting defensive when receiving feedback. That’s counterproductive, too. 

Our in-the-moment reaction to feedback is nearly as important as what we take away from the feedback. That’s especially true for leaders who set the tone and open the door to a feedback culture. Feedback is a gift — and when we don’t treat it as such, it isn’t shared enough. Here’s my advice on how to receive and react to feedback.

1. Empathize with the feedback-giver.

Whether you’re giving it to a peer or direct report, giving feedback can be hard or uncomfortable. Giving it to a leader or someone in authority to hire, promote, or let go of employees is even more difficult. Don’t lose sight of that, no matter how welcoming or approachable you believe yourself to be.

For example, I encourage feedback from the team, going out of my way to show I welcome it. Recently a teammate went to their manager to ask if it was okay to give me feedback. They sent me a two-sentence email asking for a meeting — and from the careful wording, I could tell they took 30 minutes to write it. They carefully prepared their feedback, practiced with their manager, and brought notes ahead of the meeting.

Giving feedback is scary, no matter how approachable and welcoming we think we are. Staying mindful of this, and empathizing with the feedback-giver, will go a long way in shaping how you react to feedback. 

“It may sound counterintuitive, but be thoughtful about when to ask for examples — it can feel like we're being defensive or asking the feedback-giver to prove something.”

2. Thank them, then play it back.

Once again, feedback is a gift, no matter how hard it might be to give or receive. Before saying anything else, acknowledge it with a thank you. By making it a reflex, you immediately start your reaction on a more positive, welcoming note.

Next, repeat the feedback. Doing so sends a signal to the feedback-giver that they are being heard, and you want to fully understand it. As importantly, playing back the feedback allows you the chance to clarify and process it before prematurely setting action items or next steps. 

This is also a natural point to ask for elaboration. It may sound counterintuitive, but be thoughtful about when to ask for examples — it can feel like we're being defensive or asking the feedback-giver to prove something by putting them on the spot. Consider asking them to provide examples but only when they’re ready to do so.

3. Set next steps and follow through.  

Once you’ve thanked the feedback-giver and clarified what they’ve said, it’s time to begin processing that into results. But setting next steps doesn’t mean having an elaborate, in-depth plan in place right from the get-go. Even a “micro-step” — like taking space to process the feedback — can put you on the right track and signal that you’ve taken their feedback seriously. It also opens the door to future feedback.

For example, let’s say a team member wants you to help foster connection on the team. This isn’t something that can be accomplished in a week. However, as an immediate next step, you could carve out 15 minutes in next week’s one-on-ones to understand what this means for each teammate. You could share this first step with the original feedback-giver, and later share what you learned. From there, you can co-create some next steps.

Feedback is a perspective, not a fact. Further, it’s also a choice: You may not always agree with it, and that’s entirely fine. But in either case, feedback can take bravery to give and how we respond matters. Take pause to ensure you’ve truly processed it. You may find a sliver of truth in the feedback. Even if you only agree with 5%, that feedback is still worth reflecting on and considering any next steps — and thanking the one who provided it.