Responding to Harsh Feedback with Integrity: Article & Exercise

As a social change leader, how do you deal with the emotional pain that goes along with immensely hard feedback?

With all that is happening in 2018 - unending racial profiling, the me too movement, children being ripped from their parents at the border, the denial of climate change and the plowing over of the rights of nature, it’s hard not to be on edge and ready to snap.  

In this climate, leaders who have the best of intentions, are being taken out, criticized, and blamed.

Let’s also not forget being called out at home to - by your spouses.  In my experience as a coach, this is actually far more common, and far more intense, heart-wrenching and painful than feedback at work.

How do you muster the strength to not take it personally, stand in your integrity, and do what’s right, when your whole nervous system is firing with the fight-fright-freeze instinct?

The following is a process that I developed through my own trials with leadership - receiving deeply hurtful feedback from those who were closest to me - my wife, a spiritual mentor - as well as listening to countless stories from clients speak about similar issues - at home, with spouses and children, and in the workplace, with employees, volunteers and clients.

Step One:  In the heat of the storm…

When it’s happening, when you are in the middle of “getting told,” do your best to remember

  1. To be conscious of your breathing

  2. That the other person is speaking from their own place of pain and suffering

  3. To say, “I hear you, and I need time to reflect on what you are saying before I respond.”


Step Two:  Put on your own oxygen mask first, before...anything else!


Don’t go back to work with a wounded heart.  Don’t try to ignore the emotional pain, pretend like it’s just part of life, and keep moving through the rest of your day, as if nothing happened.  If you have other important meetings the rest of the day, do your best to be present or, if you can, cancel them, so you can do what you need to do to take care of yourself.

You will simply not do your best work when you are feeling this level of deep emotional pain.  The work will still be there in an hour or two, or the next day.

In short, step away and take care of yourself.


Step Three: Get into your body


If you are anything like me, your head will be racing with what to do, how to respond, and what will “fix” the situation.  This is your panicked, defensive mind trying to protect itself. It’s not the time to try to fix anything. It’s time to get into your body - ground, center, presence yourself - and move the energy.  Here are some ideas:


  1. Go for a vigorous walk in nature

  2. Take a hot/cold shower

  3. Exercise - run, bike, swim, lift weights

  4. Dance or do yoga - move your body in a healthy way.

  5. Sing, yell, shake - if you feel safe to let go in this way.


Step Four:  Tell your story to someone you trust to listen with care


As soon as possible - preferably that same day - call your coach, therapist or a really good friend or colleague, who is skilled at holding compassionate space.  Give voice to the emotional pain that you feel, and allow yourself to place blame. Give yourself permission NOT to censor yourself, in this particular step. It’s best if you sense that the person who is listening has been in your shoes before and understands from personal experience.

Step Five:  Let the dust settle...


Commit to an appropriate time-frame for self-reflection before responding to the person; at least one full day, but it could be a week or even more, depending on the situation.  Create a rough timeline of when you will re-establish communication, but then continue to listen to your intuition for what your right timing is. You may or may not want to communicate this to the other person, ahead of time.  When you are ready to speak with the person, after completing this process, schedule an intentional time to speak with them.

Step Six: Track down the learning through conversations & journaling


  • Seek wise counsel, guidance and perspective through safe conversations:

    • Find 1-3 other people you trust with whom to share what happened and invite their guidance and perspective.  Now that you’ve “cooled down” and had time to find your center again, it’s useful to discuss the situation again, so you open yourself to different perspectives.  It’s best if you choose someone who can relate to your experience directly because s/he has gone through a similar experience.

    • Be aware of thoughts of self-judgement or being judged by others.  This is where we go when we feel “accused of a crime” and react by protecting ourselves from the danger of being punished.

Reflect on the following questions in the presence of a coach, therapist, friend or colleague or as a journaling exercise:

  1. What can I learn from this experience so that I can be more effective as a leader, in the workplace, in my family and in the community?
  2. Having reflected on all of this, what can I do now to restore trust, accountability, teamwork and integrity to this relationship?  How can I meet my unmet needs and be aware of the needs of the other person, moving forwad?
  3. What else could I have done?  What other response might have been possible?  
  4. Visualize yourself doing it differently until it feels natural and you feel confident you could handle the situation differently in the future.
  5. If I was acting like a victim, and the feedback was harsh criticism that was verging on abuse, how can I take responsibility for playing the victim role, and in doing so, empower myself to shift out of that role moving forward.  If I was acting out of unawareness, how can I become more self-aware and aware of others needs? If I was acting with power over others, what was I trying to get from acting that way - and what’s another way to behave that has more integrity?  
  6. How can I take responsibility for my part in the feedback?  
  7. What healthy boundaries might I need to clarify within myself?  
  8. You may determine that the person who gave you the feedback was projecting, crossing boundaries, overreacting, or dumping their own unresolved issues onto you, in a way that was simply inappropriate, unexceptable, unfair and toxic.  If so, you may decide that you need to create a firm boundary until further notice. This means reevaluating your relationship with this person.  Clarify what is yours and what’s theirs.
  9. What might be some of the needs of the person who gave me thee feedback?
    1. Use this list to identify the needs.
  10. What are my own unmet needs in this situation?

Step Seven: Plan Your Communication Beforehand


Schedule a time to meet or speak on the phone.  Or, if you have decided not to speak with the person, write him/her an email or a handwritten letter.  Use whatever mode of communication honors the integrity of the relationship and feels the most empowering for you.  If you decide to meet, be sure to create a structure for the conversation, be as clear about what you need to say beforehand, and have a clear sense of how you want the conversation to end.


Step Eight: Establish new agreements that fortify your core commitments

  • Moving forward, how am I going to proceed?  

  • What have I learned from this process?  

  • How has my perspective shifted and changed?  

  • What am I going to do differently?  

  • How have I restored and healed the fabric of relationship, as best I can, with truthfulness, honesty and authenticity?  

  • What new agreements will I establish - with myself and with the other person?  

  • How might I share this story with the larger community in a way that actually furthers the quality of trust and relationship?  

  • How do these new agreements align with my core commitments in life and work?  

  • How have I become stronger, more resilient, and at the same time, more sensitive to my own needs and the needs of others?


Responding with harsh feedback with integrity is hard work.  It becomes a much more doable when we have an already existing circle of support to process with. 

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If you have any questions, feel free to email me at