How to Frame Criticism as a Coaching Opportunity

Topic(s): coaching, development
Publication: Harvard Business Review
Article: Find the Coaching in Criticism
Authors: Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone
Reviewed by: Susan Rosengarten

We all know constructive feedback is necessary for personal growth and development. Simply put, you cannot improve your performance if you do not know what you need to work on. But, at times, feedback can be difficult to swallow. After all, no one likes hearing they are doing something wrong, or having their weaknesses pointed out.

So how can you become a stronger person, and learn to take feedback without becoming defensive or getting your feelings hurt? The following six steps suggested by authors Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone (2014) explain how to “find the coaching in criticism.”


  1. Know Your Tendencies – How do you typically react when you receive feedback? Do you automatically put up a wall and get defensive, or do you try to really listen and understand the other person’s viewpoint? Being honest with yourself is the first step. 
  2. Disentangle the “What” from the “Who” – Separate the message from the messenger and assess each one accordingly. Consider the source: How well do you know this person? Do you value this person’s opinion? Is this someone you trust? But at the same time, don’t discredit valuable insight just because it comes from someone you don’t like. As difficult as it might be to admit, sometimes even your worst adversary may be spot on in their assessment! 
  3. Sort Toward Coaching – Feedback can be evaluative or coaching in nature. Evaluative feedback focuses on past behaviors and where you went wrong, whereas coaching feedback provides you with ideas on how you can improve. Strive to focus on the future and exploring new opportunities. 
  4. Unpack the Feedback – Before you immediately react, take some time to understand the intended purpose of the feedback and why it was provided. Was the feedback given with malicious intent, or was it intended to help you grow and become better at what you do? 
  5. Ask for Just One Thing – To avoid surprises at your annual performance review, ask for feedback regularly and often. Getting too much feedback at once can be overwhelming for even the most self-assured among us, so ask others for one specific thing they think you should work on. Ask your manager, colleagues or friends, “What’s one thing you see me doing (or failing to do) that holds me back?” 
  6. Engage in Small Experiments – Try changing your behavior based on the feedback you receive. If it yields positive results, keep doing it. If not, try something different and see what happens.

Asking for feedback is relatively easy; it is internalizing the responses of others and working on yourself that is the difficult part. Following these six steps can bring you closer to unlocking your potential and become a better, more improved version of yourself. Strive to find the coaching in criticism and see what happens. You have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.