I’d been dreading this doctor’s appointment for days. What a mistake to arrive early only to have to sit in the waiting room with my biggest fears.

What would she say about my test results? Would I need surgery? What if it was the worst-case scenario?

Finally, I was ushered into the doctor’s office. The doctor opened my file and said, “It’s good news, May. There are just a few precautions I want to take.”

In the rush of relief, all I could think of was getting out of the office and going home. The rest of the appointment was a blur.

So when my husband later asked what the doctor said about causes and prevention, I had no idea. Not only couldn’t I recall her instructions about what to do next, I forgot to ask about what caused the issue in the first place.

Just as stress hormones flooded my brain making it impossible to think in the doctor’s office, the same can happen when you’re about to receive your year end performance review.

Whether you welcome feedback or feel fearful of receiving it, there’s an art to handling the conversation well.

Here are three steps that can help:

  1. Listen
  2. Clarify
  3. Plan to Act

Let’s start with step 1.

Listen like it’s someone else they’re talking about

It’s hard not to feel fearful and anxious when you’re about to hear feedback about your performance. After all, no one likes feeling judged and it’s hard not to take things personally.

But when you’re in fear mode, you can’t think straight or make good decisions. It’s the very mindset that will keep you from getting the most from the session.

In fact, it could work against you because one of the criteria for getting ahead could be reacting well to feedback in your performance review.

Instead, this is the time to channel your inner Dr. Spock (the logical Vulcan in Star Trek) and not let emotion take over.

Listen as though it’s a neutral third party your boss or reviewer is talking about, which makes it easier to approach the conversation with logic. So when you’re in the meeting, take a few rhythmic breaths and allow your clear-thinking brain to do the listening so you can answer these questions for yourself:

What is my boss trying to tell me? What’s being said and, reading between the lines, what isn’t being said? Am I clear on how to improve?

Which brings us to the second step.

Get clear on what they really mean

By tapping into your logical brain, you’ll be in a better position to understand what’s truly being said. Sometimes you have to do a little digging to make the feedback into something you can work with.

For example, when I was told I needed to speak up more, I assumed it was just about the dreaded morning meeting where I struggled to participate in a room of 25 outspoken colleagues.

It wasn’t until later that I learned it was also about small working group meetings where I’d take notes, say very little and go back to my desk to do what was needed. Instead, my manager wanted to hear my ideas and know that I could hold my own in a discussion.

This is where having the presence of mind to ask clarifying questions is essential. Asking questions will help you form a full picture of what you need to do to keep advancing in your career.

In my case, I should have asked about the situations where I needed to speak up and gotten a few examples. That would have helped me formulate a plan of action to address the issue sooner and more effectively.

Which brings us to the third step.

Agree the action steps you can take

If the feedback isn’t clear, you won’t be able to form a plan of action. And without taking action, you won’t improve.

This isn’t the time to go back and lick your wounds. Instead, you’ll benefit from getting your boss (or reviewer) on board to help you with your action plan. This has several benefits.

First, they’ll know you’ve understood the feedback and want to do something about it. Second, they’ll feel more invested in you and your career if they’ve helped you improve. And third, they’ll be more likely to pay attention to your progress and notice once you’ve changed.

If you can agree on some next steps in the meeting, that’s ideal. But often, it helps to have some thinking time first. So don’t feel like you have to leave with an agreed plan, but make sure you get “permission” to come back after you’ve had a chance to reflect on it so you can agree a plan later.

But what if your boss doesn’t give you feedback in the first place?

This is when you’ll need to initiate the conversation. If your boss is allergic to formal feedback sessions, you can make it an informal chat.

And if your boss refuses to talk to you about your performance and how you can keep learning, growing and improving, then go and conduct your own set of conversations with key stakeholders. You might just impress some of them with your initiative and even find a mentor or sponsor in the process.

Just don’t let them leave it at “keep doing what you’re doing”

By definition, what got you to where you are now won’t be what gets you to the next level. If your goal is to keep advancing, this feedback doesn't help you.

So while it’s a warm fuzzy feeling to know you’re doing great and all you need to do is keep doing more of the same, acting on that advice will set you up to be trapped in your current role.

For example, “you’re doing a great job” could leave you feeling good about your work, yet it could be the limiting factor in your career, leading you right into a future dead end. There is always something you can do to take your performance to the next level (and your career prospects along with it) – even if it’s leaning into your special strengths even more or taking on a project that will stretch you further and closer to your ideal role.

Remember that feedback is a gift

So don’t forget to say thank you, and don’t argue or get defensive. Whatever the feedback is, you’ll be better off knowing.

And you’ll get more feedback if people see that you can “handle” it gracefully and do something constructive with it.

So when it’s time for your year end performance review, get the most from it with these three steps:

  1. Listen to understand – get into the right mindset and let your logical, clear-thinking brain take the lead
  2. Clarify what they mean – ask questions so you get the full picture
  3. Plan to act – whether it’s on-the-spot or in a follow up conversation, agree a plan for acting on the feedback

Your career is a journey, and feedback is essential for you to learn, grow and improve along the way.

So as you approach your yearend feedback session, which of these steps will be most useful for you to focus on?

Leave a comment and let me know.