How to Handle Negative Feedback and Three Reasons to Embrace It


As I was thinking about writing this post, I thought it would be a good idea to ask some people who are real pro’s at receiving negative feedback. So I sent a quick text to a couple friends who are artists, asking them how they handle it.  I was struck by the response from friend of mine who is in art school right now. She told me that at school they have regular critiques. As part of their education as artists they learn must learn the vocabulary and behavior of a constructive, in-depth critique. They practice giving and receiving feedback and are graded on both, use of “non-words” like ‘cool’ or ‘I like it’ deducts points from your grade. They are learning something that everyone should learn in school, how to give and receive feedback.

Negative feedback can be tough to deal with sometimes. It’s so much easier to hear compliments than disagreements because it suggests we’re doing something wrong.

Unless you’re living under a rock, receiving negative feedback is part of life. So the question isn’t how can we avoid negative feedback, the question is how can we embrace it? Here are some tips for gracefully accepting negative feedback:

  1. Take a deep breath, and LISTEN: It’s natural to want to defend yourself immediately with a “You’re wrong… ”or “No, that’s because…” or “you just don’t get it…” But here’s the thing, no matter how negative the comment was, you have a choice in your reaction. Reacting defensively says more about you as a person than the negative comment does. Additionally, remaining calm and composed helps you deal with the feedback better. If you feel riled up, tell the person you need a moment to digest this new information, but would like to engage in a conversation shortly. This will give you some time to cool down before going further. If the feedback isn’t too bad, pause for a few seconds to allow your mind to process the feedback. Sometimes, the person giving the feedback may not be aware of the real areas of concern. He or she might say something like “I don’t think this is done well” or “I don’t like how you’re doing this”, without supporting reasons. This doesn’t mean you should dismiss the feedback, because something did trigger it. It’s up to you to probe the person and discover what the underlying issues are. Use active listening to help understand where he/she is coming from. Some questions to ask yourself include:
    • What is she concerned about? What are the key issues?
    • Why is he reacting this way?
    • What did I do or say that triggered this?
  2. Understand the Person’s Concerns: Realize that in most instances a person isn’t flat out telling you that you suck. That’s simply how you are interpreting it. Every piece of feedback, whether negative or positive, comes from somewhere. Something you said or did made the person react this way. You have a choice, you can either confront this head on, or choose to ignore the feedback, but then you’ll never know what triggered the person to respond. This means there’s a possibility this issue will recur in the future. Remember that thing our parents used to say to us about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes? Try that here. Imagine you as the person and think about how he/she felt. This will make it easier to understand why he/she commented that way. Whenever I do that, it instantly becomes clear why the person said the things he/she said, and helped me to understand his/her concerns.
  3. Respond kindly: This person took time to share his/her opinions with you (which probably wasn’t easy for them), take the time to give a proper reply. Generally, it’s best to use the following sequence:
    1. Reiterate the person’s concerns, and confirm you have summarized correctly to ensure you are on the same page.
    2. Create a space for peaceful and productive discussion by calmly sharing your point of view (whether you agree or disagree) along with supporting reasons why. Keep in mind it’s totally ok to agree to disagree on your differences of opinion.
    3. Agree on the conclusions and steps needed to move forward.
    4. Thank them for sharing.

As much as we all get a serious case agita from negative feedback, believe it or not, some good can actually come out of the whole experience:

  1. A learning experience! Negative feedback is a necessary component of improving your performance. The negative feedback you receive from most people is an opportunity to learn from what you’re doing, it’s an opportunity to make adjustments to what you’re doing in the future, and to produce better results. As difficult as it might seem, embracing negative feedback as a learning opportunity is the best and fastest way to improve your performance… as long as you’re ready to accept that feedback, learn from it, and make the necessary changes.
  2. Gain Insight. Problems happen. Sometimes it’s your fault, other times it’s beyond your control. Sometimes it’s not even a fault, but rather a problem of inflated expectations. Whatever, the case, wouldn’t you rather know when your customers, clients, employees, or employers are unhappy? Once you know what the problem is, you can work to improve it.Johari_Window
  3. Become a better person. There is a technique I learned about in grad school called the Johari window, that helps people better understand their relationship with self and others. Its basic premise is that every person can be represented by a window with four panes. One of those panes is called the “blind spot” where traits about you are known to others, but not to you. Some of those traits might be good, but some of them are not so great. Sometimes feedback may not make sense to you, and you may feel like it came from left field. If this happens, you now have an amazing opportunity to have an open dialogue about this (but ONLY if you can stay calm).  The point is we don’t always realize how we’re being perceived. Use this time as an opportunity to become a better person.

Finally, remember, practice makes perfect. It’s okay if you aren’t great at this right away. Don’t give up, you will succeed!

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6 Responses to How to Handle Negative Feedback and Three Reasons to Embrace It

  1. Cool post! (Probably not helpful feedback, eh?). I really appreciate your first point – take a deep breath and LISTEN. I often forget to take a deep breath and I get into reaction mode right away. That breath, when I can remember it, allows me to listen.

    I always look at feedback (positive or negative) the way I looked at wedding gifts. Some feedback is similar to a gift right off the registry – it’s what I was looking for and it will be really useful. Some feedback is like a gift totally off the registry and is discarded (or boxed up for a very long time). Some feedback is like the gift that someone obviously put a lot of thought into, yet I’m not quite sure what to do with it right now, but perhaps some day it will be useful.

    Thanks for continuing to provoke thoughts with your posts!

  2. Jessica says:

    Thanks Brian! I think we all at one time or another forget to breathe and actually listen, especially when we’re taken off guard and not expecting feedback. But with practice we can become better at our initial response. Also, I love your wedding gift analogy it was spot on!

    • Bernadette Phillips says:

      Thanks for sharing. This is great. I’m going to post this on our collab space at work that covers best practices on accepting feedback!

  3. Judi says:

    Sounds like great advice. I’d like to pass this along

  4. Pingback: How to Give Negative Feedback without Sounding like a Jackass | Confessions of a Change Agent

  5. My spouse and I stumbled over here by a different web address and thought I might as well check things out. I like what I see so i am just following you. Look forward to looking into your web page repeatedly.

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