If you have a hard time receiving negative feedback, even when it’s well-intentioned, you are not alone. If you suspect the motivation of the giver or if it was delivered poorly, it’s even harder to accept. Is there a way to hear difficult feedback without letting it hurt you?


Intellectually, you know that feedback is only information. Furthermore, it’s information about the giver as much, if not more, as it is about you. You know you should avoid reacting defensively and try to polish that rough pearl to see the wisdom in it. Easier said than done because it’s not only your intellect that hears the feedback. That’s why feedback often hurts even if it can help you grow and improve.

Negative feedback can be so painful, even if there is something of value in it for you, that you might look for reasons to dismiss it as bogus:

  • The person who gave it is a jerk
  • It was given in a clunky and unskillful manner
  • You weren’t ready right then to receive it, couldn’t the giver see that?
  • The giver criticized you in public
  • The giver’s intentions are questionable (not well-meaning)

By focusing on what’s wrong with the feedback, you risk missing what’s right with it so you can learn from it, and so you can effectively negotiate the kind of relationship you have with the giver.

In their book, “Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well,” Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone explain why so many of us have trouble with feedback. They cite research which says that humans have two primary and competing needs to be happy.

  1. To learn and grow; go on a quest of mastery
  2. To be accepted and respected for who we are right now

You can see how feedback flies in the face of this second need.

Three Kinds of Feedback

Heen and Stone also describe three different kinds of feedback: appreciation, coaching and evaluation. These three kinds of feedback often get treated as one. Lack of clarity about which kind is being given or received creates disconnects.

For example, if you ask for feedback, “How do you think I handled myself in that meeting?” You might be asking for appreciation because you think you did pretty well. Your boss might hear it as a request for coaching and say,”When you talked about the budget, you went into the weeds too much.” Your boss intends it as coaching but you then hear it as evaluation (my performance sucked).

My husband and I have learned over the years to specify the kind of feedback we want, especially when we’re feeling low and vulnerable as in, “Just tell me what I did right for now.” This helps.

You can try this in the workplace too along the lines of, “That was a stressful meeting. I’m exhausted. Can we debrief the issues tomorrow? Right now, let’s just talk about the good parts.”

You might recall from last week’s post that dwelling on your bad feelings only exacerbates them and makes you feel worse. It’s better to give yourself a chance to regain your strength and equilibrium before delving into what you need to change.

Recovering from Negative feedback

How long does it take you to recover from difficult feedback? Does negative feedback stay with you longer than positive? It turns out that individuals are wired differently when it comes to these question. Some people take it in, get upset, decide it’s value and whether to apply it and they’re done. Others take it in like a dagger, have a strong emotional reaction and shut down. These are the folks someone might tell to “get a thick skin” or “don’t be so sensitive.”

They can’t help being sensitive. Literally. Some people are wired emotionally to be more sensitive than others.

Whichever way you’re wired, when you’re upset you will tend to distort feedback. Sheen and Stone call this the “Google bias” wherein you mentally search only for “what is wrong with me.”  In your mind’s eye thousands of listings come up with an answer to that question. There are sponsored ads taken out by your mom or dad highlighting your imperfections for the world to see.

Negative, even well-intentioned or constructive, feedback can be overwhelming. It comes across as evaluation even if it is meant to help you grow. You only hear the ‘bad’ bits about yourself and forget that good ones exist alongside those.

How can you see feedback in actual size so it doesn’t spear you like a dagger?

Contain it.

Sheen and Stone suggest one method is to write down specifics about what this piece of feedback is about and also what it is not about. Put it into a broader context.

Using the budget example from above as an example: The manager’s feedback was about a portion of a longer presentation. It was not about the entire presentation. Nor was it about conduct in the entire meeting. It was about the appropriate level of detail for that day’s audience. It was not saying that the detail was inaccurate or unimportant.

Do you see how this works?

Reverse Engineer Poorly Stated Feedback

So often, feedback is lobbed at you using general labels: you need to be more realistic; you’re judgmental; why can’t you be more reliable; you’re so stubborn; and so on. Labels do not provide useful feedback (which is why you don’t use them, right?). If you want to understand  what the person meant, you can ask questions like:

  • What did I say or do to make you say that?
  • Can you give me a specific example?
  • What would you like me to have said or done differently?
  • What would you like me to do differently in the future?

The main reason to learn how to receive feedback well is for your own sake. At the end of the day, you are in charge of what you do with feedback–whether and how to apply it in pursuit of your quest for mastery. Before you can apply it, you have to be able to hear it clearly and see it in actual size. Only then can you evaluate it for its usefulness to you.

What do you do to help you manage the pain of negative feedback? Do you tend to hold on longer to positive or negative feedback? How quickly do you generally recover from negative feedback?

photo credit: Karl Horton via photopin cc