Handling Negative Feedback

A few tips on how to handle negative feedback well rather than poorly

We all have experienced receiving negative feedback, and if we are honest there are times when we have not handled well. We may know what to do, but in the moment of the feedback being given to us our amygdala brain hijacks us – this is the part of the brain responsible for detecting danger and our survival reactions, normally “fight or flight”.  One consequence of this is that it overrides our executive thinking, shutting down our ability to think clearly and heightening our emotional response. This is often why we handle negative feedback so poorly. But there is way to overcome this.

Take a Break, Make a Choice

When you receive negative feedback you have a choice. You can listen and learn from it, or you can let your amygdala control and become defensive and shut down.  While you cannot choose what happens to you, you can always choose how you respond.  You can do this very quickly. Just knowing that you can make this choice is often enough to stop you going into a defensive mode automatically.

Three Actions to Take

Once you have decided to adopt an open response here are three things you can do to ensure that you maintain an open approach, and avoid being hijacked. These include: listen carefully, don’t get defensive, ask for time and respond.

1. Listen carefully. You not only need to listen carefully, but to know what to listen for. In doing this you need to be silent, you can’t listen if you are talking. Certainly you want to understand the feedback, but just as importantly if not more so, you need to listen for:

  • Fact or opinion? – is what being said fact or opinion? Distinguishing between the two makes it easier for you to respond appropriately. It is a fact that you were late with a report, but the way you chaired a meeting was poor is an opinion.
  • Is the feedback accurate? You need to distinguish between what was said and how it was said.  Often people take umbrage not at the content of what was said, but how it was delivered. This is a case of “It wasn’t what she said, it was the way she said it.” OK, the way she said it was harsh and callous and insensitive. But is she right? Even though negative feedback may be badly delivered, it may be accurate.
  • What’s the intent or motive of the person in giving you this feedback? If you know the individual is trustworthy and reliable you will pay close attention to it. If they are ego-driven or a drama-queen they you should still listen, but consider the source when doing so.

2. Don’t get defensive. Easier said than done, but if you become defensive several things happen which will work against you.  Firstly, you stop listening properly and this means you lack a proper understanding of what is being said. Secondly, you look to make the other person the problem and you listen not to understand what’s being said, but to spot distortions or inaccuracies or faulty conclusions so you can refute their feedback. Thirdly, there may be some useful information which is being shared but is poorly expressed, being defensive you fail to hear this or recognize it.

The key is to listen to the other person without planning our reply. Simply nodding until the other person has completely finished will make sure that your counterpart has said everything intended. As Steven Covey said, “Seek first to understand before being understood”. To do this ask questions, this reduces any appearance of defensiveness and helps you glean further insights whilst clarifying your understanding of them and what they are saying.

3. Ask for a time. Unless the negative feedback concerns something that is right-on-the-spot fixable, it’s good to ask for time to consider what you have been told. This helps to defuse the situation, show the other person that you consider their feedback important to warrant the time to consider, and it lets you consider the accuracy and validity of what you’ve been told, perhaps testing its validity with others.

4. Respond. Once you have assessed the feedback, calmly and objectively, you need to share your understanding of it with the other person. You also may need to apologize if necessary, clarify as may be required, or refute in a calm, logical manner backed up with suitable evidence.

So what can we learn from this? Although we describe the feedback here as “negative” it is only that if we give it that label. If we label it as “positive” – for exactly the same feedback – we provide ourselves with more options and constructive ways of dealing. Feedback is about the information and insights, it is not about you so don’t take it personally, take it professionally.

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