How to Care What People Think Without Caring What People Think
One day as I was working in my role as Chief Financial Officer of a national nonprofit, my deputy director blurted out, “Well… we know you don’t like to receive feedback.” I was shocked. I thought, “What? I’m just fine with feedback.” But I gave her an uncomfortable laugh and asked, “Really? I come across that way?” She said she knew I wanted to be open and hear from others, but sometimes I took other people’s suggestions too personally.
After recovering from the conversation, I could admit she was right. Part of my hurt response came from a well-intentioned responsibility that I felt for the department I was in charge of. Feedback often pointed out the areas where I already felt less confident or knew things weren’t going well. And I blamed myself for not doing better. But a lot of it came from personalizing the feedback into a judgment on my worthiness as a person.
I’m telling this story because it relates to my work with organizations on fostering a culture in which feedback is welcome. The most common question that arises is this: How do we have a culture where people are honest and open with each other without being hurtful? But why do we even want to create a culture of feedback? Because the chief barrier to innovation and creative ideas is that we’re afraid of being laughed at.  An organization where staff can be open and honest with each other will be more innovative, more creative, and ultimately more effective.
To get back to our question, there are two directions one can take while answering it. One direction is to emphasize the delivery of the feedback. It’s important to practice delivering feedback in a way that empathizes with the other person and avoids the toxic behaviors of judgment, contempt, and criticism. For this post, though, let’s focus on how we can start to welcome feedback and not take it so personally.
We take feedback personally because the heart and the head are in a conspiracy together! We know from the field of neuroscience that the brain can process feedback (especially feedback delivered unskillfully) as a threat. When we feel threatened, the thinking parts of our brain shut down, and we can go into a withdrawing or attacking behavior.  At the same time, when we receive feedback, we may notice feelings of embarrassment, shame, hurt, anxiety, fear, and anger. These emotions can sometimes overwhelm us, and we end up reacting to them in the moment.
So, what can we do to better handle feedback?
- Start by just noticing. Notice the times when you have a reaction to feedback and the times when you don’t. Expand your self-awareness and be easy on yourself through this process—we all have this reaction in common.
- Once you have identified the feeling, ask yourself “What story am I telling myself to create this emotion?” For example, “He thinks I’m weak.” Or “She doesn’t trust me.” Or “He thinks I’m stupid. Or “I’m so embarrassed about this mistake, and they’re going to think I’m not competent!”
- Once you know the story you are telling yourself, you can ask yourself, “Do I really know this to be true?” Or you can say to yourself, “I’m going to put my feelings and story aside to see if there is something I can learn here.”
- Remind yourself that most people are focused not on you but on their own internal struggles.
- Don’t worry about being perfect—no one is perfect. Stop holding yourself to an impossible ideal. Rather, cultivate grace and be at ease within yourself. Laugh at yourself. Then you’ll be able to act with grace and ease with others.