10 Tips on Receiving Critical Feedback: A Guide for Activists

Are you an activist or organizer working against systems of oppression in your community? Have you ever received feedback — gentle or not — that you were bringing the same behaviors into social movement spaces that you thought you were there to fight? Did you react with disbelief or defensiveness? Spiral into shame or self-doubt? Disengage and disappear from the work? Or were you able to learn from the feedback, repair harm, and recommit to a lifetime of shifting your practices to better align your values and actions?

The late revolutionary Grace Lee Boggs asked us to consider “What time is it on the clock of the world?” Today we find ourselves in a moment of devastating ecological collapse, unprecedented and racialized concentration of wealth and power, staggering state violence against communities of color, a rapid resurgence of fascist formations, and incisive attacks on our most basic rights and democratic institutions. We also see a groundswell of powerful popular resistance. People are filling the streets by the millions and, for some, asking for the first time in their lives: “What is my role in all this?”

We know mobilizations alone are not enough. We must build mass movements led by frontline communities, but also united fronts that align our struggles across race, class, gender, homeland, and more. What that practically means is that we’ll spend thousands of hours organizing tenant associations, unions, land trusts, cooperatives, and coalitions with people whose lived experiences may be very different than our own.

While we may be working to unlearn the toxic behaviors of dominant culture (e.g. ableism or transphobia), we may still unintentionally bring old patterns to bear on our efforts to build the new, causing harm and hurting. When this happens, giving and receiving critical feedback can be difficult. Few of us have been taught to do it well. However, creating a movement culture in which feedback is expected, encouraged, and well-taken helps us build the deep trust and accountability essential to effective movement building.

I originally wrote this guide as a white woman who was preparing to join women of color to give feedback to some of our dearest male comrades about how patriarchy was showing up in our shared political project. I was nervous about it. Multiple times per day I thought: “Never mind, it’s not worth the awkwardness.” Having been socialized to put men’s needs above my own, I default to conflict avoidance. But then I remember that every ounce of respect I now enjoy as woman was hard-won by women and gender non-conforming folks before me, and that I owe the next generation that same struggle.

I’ve also made mistakes. Lots of them. As a white person in multiracial movements, I’ve brought racism into organizations I’ve loved in ways that I’m not proud of and which have had real impact on people I cared deeply for. I’m grateful for mentors who stepped to me with honest observations that helped me align my actions with my values. They invested in my development toward the person I yearned to be but was (and am) not yet.

It is from these experiences — both giving and receiving feedback — that I offer these 10 tips on receiving feedback well. To the extent to which this is useful, credit goes to others — mostly women of color — who took time to help me come correct when I was not. Thank you. Any shortcomings are my own.

10 Tips on Receiving Critical Feedback:

1. Take a deep breath. When we hear critique, we often believe our self-worth is at stake, triggering feelings of powerlessness. We spin out, making it harder to take in and learn from feedback. Re-connecting to our breath and feeling into our body helps us regulate ourselves and remain rooted in who we are as we absorb painful information. As you breathe, feel your feet on the ground and your history and loved ones at your back.

2. Trust that feedback is an offering, not an attack. Though your body may at first respond as if it were being attacked (flushed, heart palpitations, sweat), feedback is not an attack. Feedback is an offering and a gift. The person we’ve hurt could have stopped working with us without explanation or talked behind our back. Instead they’re investing their time in giving us important information to help us better align the person we want to be with how we’re actually showing up in the world.

3. Remember that your self-worth is not on trial. We’re born into a culture poisoned by racism, capitalism, patriarchy, etc. When we live on the privileged side of any of those systems, we internalize superiority so deeply it can be hard for us to see. We will make mistakes. When we do, we don’t fall out of worthiness or belonging. We do, however, get good data on how to be the person we want to be more of the time. For example, as a white person, I can never fully unlearn white supremacy. All I can do is to get up every day and fight it harder, smarter, and with more loving fierceness than I did the day before. Some days I show up in that fight better than others. When I make mistakes, I’m responsible for repairing harm, but my self-worth is not on trial.

4. Let go of your attachment to being one of the “good ones.” The world is not divided into “good” and “bad” men (or white people). The myth of “good ones” perpetuates the false idea that some of us have achieved a mythical “ally” status, to be certified by our friends on the frontlines of systemic oppressions. When we get hard feedback, we often default to either (a) Defensiveness: “But I’m one of the ‘good ones.’ I can’t have done anything wrong!” or (b) Fear: “I’ll lose my reputation as an ally.” We worry we’ll jeopardize relationships and communities we care about. That anxiety is real, especially in today’s online call out culture. However, if we’re able to let go of being “one of the good ones,” we open ourselves to understanding how we’ve impacted others and in doing so we actually strengthen our relationships.

5. Listen, ask questions, and take notes.

Listen: We often listen with a filter for defending, rebutting, critiquing, offering counter examples, or fixing. Instead, listen for understanding. When your mind wanders, re-focus your attention. Don’t interrupt. Hold eye contact. Notice what your body language may be communicating.

● Ask clarifying questions: ie. “Are you open to telling me more about the impact that had on you?” or “Would you be willing to share some examples to help me better understand?”

Take notes: Strong emotions hinder our ability to remember details. Take notes if appropriate (if you’re not sure, ask!) during or after the conversation.

6. Ask yourself “If this were true, what would it mean?” You may not agree that your behavior was problematic. Since disbelief is a common way our brain tries to protect our egos, try to momentarily suspend disbelief. Ask yourself, “If any part of this were true, what would it mean? What harm might I have caused? What apologies or repair might be in order?” You still may not agree with the feedback, but search for truth and lessons within it.

7. Save your critiques of how the feedback was brought. We often criticize how feedback was communicated — i.e. wrong time, place, volume, or tone. We say: “They should have _____!” Instead, I ask myself: “What is this reaction preventing me from feeling?” See if you can put these critiques aside and listen for what the feedback actually is. For instance, as women we are taught to ignore our own needs, such that by the time things have gotten so bad that we finally speak up, we’ve been holding back weeks or years of hurt, anger, and resentment. We are also socialized to feel responsible for care-taking people who’ve hurt us. If you’re a cis man receiving feedback from a woman or gender-nonconforming person, ask yourself, “Why do I believe she/they should be responsible for bringing feedback to me in a way that protects me from experiencing negative emotions?” Days later, once you’ve had a chance to process the feedback, acknowledge the harm, and take responsibility, then ask yourself whether you still need to critique the way in which the feedback was brought to you. Maybe you do. Maybe you don’t.

8. Process elsewhere first. The person giving you feedback has likely already done a lot of emotional (and other) labor to prepare for this conversation. Though you may want to immediately discuss it with them, they’re likely already exhausted. When I feel anxious to process with someone who has shared feedback with me, I ask myself what is behind that urgency: “Am I hoping to convince them that I am not at fault? Or that they’ll reassure me I’m still a good person?” Wait until you can come motivated more by curiosity than a need to convince. Practice sitting in discomfort. For men who were socialized to disproportionately rely on women for emotional support, now is a good time to switch that up and lean on other men. If you need to talk, start with people other than the most impacted. You can return later to the person you’ve hurt to ask if they’d be willing to talk and under what circumstances.

9. Offer a clear apology. It’s hard to process feedback immediately. It’s ok to say “Wow, I’m grateful for, but also overwhelmed by this feedback. Thank you for bringing it to me. I’m sad to think that I’ve done something to hurt you. I need some time to process what you’ve shared. I’d like to check back in with you tomorrow / next week to see if you’d be open to talking. Would that be ok?” When you are ready to offer an apology, here are a few do’s and don’ts:

DO

● Re-state in unequivocal terms what was problematic about your behavior.

● Name the impact you understand that it had on the other person.

● Share what work you plan to do to shift your behavior in the future.

DO NOT:

● Apologize for how someone feels. Saying “I’m sorry you’re upset” does not take accountability for your actions. Instead say: “I’m sorry I did X that had Y impact on you.”

● Beat yourself up (i.e. “I can’t do anything right”). We often use self-flagellating language to indirectly ask for reassurance that we’re not a bad person. In doing so, we ask the person we’ve harmed to do more emotional labor. Doing this also re-centers the conversation on your needs, not theirs.

10. Commit to a lifelong of shifting behaviors. We may feel like disappearing from the work entirely (“Fine, I’ll just do my own thing!”). This evades accountability. Instead, we must re-dedicate ourselves to doing the work in authentic relationship with, and accountability to, frontline communities. Doing so will involve giving up some of the power, recognition, and shine we’ve become accustomed to. It may also mean moving slower (as Adrienne Maree Brown says, “at the speed of trust”). This is our test. Can we shed our shame and grow our sense of belonging by building authentic relationships? Can we replace our ego with humility and patience? We may also hunger to be seen for our efforts to change. That recognition is neither our right nor our real objective. Instead, we should ask ourselves:

● What is at the root of my patterns? What is my work to shift those patterns?

● How can I seek more feedback? Can I ask five trusted people: “I’ve gotten feedback that I ____. I’m curious if you’ve witnessed that from me? Please be honest. If you experience me doing this, I’d be grateful if you’d tell me.”

● How can I dedicate time to learning about power, privilege, and oppression without placing the burden of that education on oppressed peoples?

● How am I cultivating authentic relationships across difference that are grounded in honesty, consent, and accountability?

● What is my personal stake in dismantling oppression, including those systems meant to benefit me? How does this understanding strengthen my work toward our collective liberation?

● What systems do I need to hold me accountable to the changes I want to make? Daily reflections? Therapy? Check-ins with accountability buddy?

A few final thoughts:

You may still disagree with the feedback offered to you. That’s ok. We sometimes get feedback that is just plain wrong, or motivated by something other than genuine interest in our personal growth or collective liberation. That happens. However, we strengthen our practice by first looking for the truth and lessons in it and then building authentic relationships with people who share our values, are invested in our growth, and who themselves have cultivated a practice of soliciting and integrating direct feedback.

Shifting our individual behaviors and how we show up with integrity in movement spaces is necessary work, but it must be in service — not instead — of the hard, messy, imperfect work of dismantling systems of oppression.

This is by no means a comprehensive guide. I wrote this for internal use over a year ago, but was recently asked to share it more publicly to support collective conversations on how we can up our capacity for growing from feedback.

Have tips (or feedback!) to share? Let’s continue the conversation.

Thank you to Movement Generation (where I’m proud to be on staff) and the Catalyst Project (of which I’m an avid fan girl) for their feedback on this piece.