Receiving negative feedback really, really hurts. In one particularly painful experience I thought I was sitting down for a meeting with my boss to get a pat on the back and be told ‘well done on a great job Tessa!’ – but actually the meeting was to tell me that I’d done the wrong thing.
It totally threw me off guard. I was surprised, upset, confused as to how this had gone in entirely the opposite direction from the one I was expecting.
I don’t think anyone loves getting negative feedback, but for some people at least outwardly they seem to totally brush it off and not care. Whereas I spend weeks going over and over it in my mind. I know, I’m a grown adult and it’s just a fact of life and work.
But how do I know which critics to listen to and which to ignore? How should I learn to take negative feedback without turning into a blubbering mess on the floor or throwing things across the room in a rage and storming out (I haven’t technically done that but I HAVE wanted to)?
Here are seven strategies that I find really helpful that allow me to take negative feedback like a pro.
- Avoid your gut reaction. Don’t get cross. Try to hold back the tears, even if these tears are gonna come later, that’s okay. For now, just take a deep breath and pause. These initial gut reactions are going to hold you back from being able to process the feedback properly.
- Weigh up the feedback. Is it constructive or destructive? Who’s the person giving it to you and why are they giving you this feedback now? Do they actually have a point? Some people really have your back in life – these are the people you want to get negative feedback from. These are people who’ve been where you are now, maybe they’ve been through the same problems that you’re facing at the moment. These are the people who are going be able to give you the best feedback. Remember, not every piece of feedback that you get has to be meaningful or has to be something that you spend ages angsting over or trying to grow and change from. Sometimes people are just kinda mean. So once you’ve taken a deep breath, it’s time to really weigh up – is this feedback that’s important to you? Is it worth listening to?
- Listen. Assuming you’ve decided the feedback is worth listening to, you actually need to listen at this point. Often I find myself just running away with other thoughts while I’m getting the feedback because after the initial comment comes in, I just spend time thinking….are they right? How could this have happened? But I’m not actually concentrating on the feedback. So try to really be present and focus on what the person is saying, how they’re saying it, the words they’re using, and the message that they’re trying to give to you.
It can be really helpful to repeat back to them after they’ve given the initial feedback to check your understanding. Because sometimes, because you’re feeling under pressure, you actually don’t receive the feedback in the way it was intended. So clarifying it, rather than just trying to get out of there as quickly as possible is really important.
- Remind yourself of the benefits of the feedback. Although it’s brutal receiving feedback, it’s important to remind yourself about the reason WHY you’re trying to listen and be present. Because it will be a benefit to you. I say to myself, “This is going to make me a better clinician or a better supervisor or a better project manager or team player” (or whatever). Or it might just be that this experience is going to help me deliver better feedback to others.
Focus on why it’s beneficial for you to really listen and to be invested in the feedback process. Also keep it in perspective. So if you feel that you’re getting carried away with your emotions, remind yourself that this is just one small thing in a whole scale of feedback in your career and life. It’s just one small bit of negative feedback. It doesn’t define you.
- Say thank you. I know this is really hard to do because you just want to run away and crawl into a hole. But it is actually really important to say thank you. You have to smile at the end, stare them straight in the eye (not in a threatening way), and thank them for giving you the feedback.
Because it is hard to give good feedback. It’s not a comfortable position to be in for them either. Likely, they’re doing it to provide you with some benefit, no matter how painful that feels at the time. Find it in your heart to look at them, smile, and thank them at the end.
- Delve deeper. I know it’s painful to want to ask for more information. Delving deeper will help you gain a better understanding and will make the feedback more meaningful. Now, this has to be done at a time when I’m feeling calm. And if at the time I’m getting the feedback, it’s too emotional or I don’t think I can handle it, then that’s not the time to have a delving deeper conversation and you might want to put it off.
But if you are calm or a time that you’ve arranged that suits, you want to have a better understanding of this feedback. The initial part that they’ll tell you is going to be the thing that they’ve rehearsed or the thing that they’ve planned, but it probably won’t give the full context.
Asking for other examples, asking who the feedback’s from, asking whether it’s related to one specific thing or whether they feel this is broadly across the board. These will all help you get a better understanding.
Remember, the point is not just to receive feedback but it’s actually to work out – can this make a difference to my career, my practice, my life? Can it make me better at the job I’m doing?
- Book a follow-up. That initial meeting where you get some negative feedback can be really hard. It can completely floor you. It can come out of the blue and be a complete surprise. It’s really difficult to make the most out of that meeting. It’s helpful to book a follow-up, whether that’s to get a deeper understanding or whether it’s to check back in and see if you’ve managed to improve on the feedback given. Try to arrange this with the person giving you your feedback, it will really benefit you.
Good feedback is compassionate, specific, and a match. It’s compassionate, meaning that it’s delivered with kindness and sensitivity to the recipient’s needs. It’s specific, so giving examples to illustrate why the feedback’s being given and maybe specifics about who the feedback is from. And it needs to be a match. That means it needs to match the context and the emotions of the recipient. Ideally it isn’t completely out of the blue at a time that is not appropriate or doesn’t suit the recipient.
When I think back to the times where I’ve received negative feedback or criticism, the ones that have been the most challenging or the most painful are the ones that haven’t been delivered with compassion, with specificity, or weren’t a match to ensure that they were delivered at an appropriate time or in an appropriate way. That example I shared right at the beginning was none of these things, and the element of surprise made it worse for me. But we cannot choose how our feedback is delivered or who delivers it to us, and our role as the recipients of negative feedback is to work out how we can use that feedback and get the most out of it and use it to improve ourselves and optimise our performance.
These strategies won’t make receiving negative feedback a pain-free experience, but they will mean that you can process negative feedback in a way that is positive for you and your career.