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Surviving Negative Feedback

18 April 2017

Barbara read the HBR article, Responding to Feedback You Disagree With, by Sheila Heen and Debbie Goldstein and learned some tips for dealing with criticism.

Tags: barbara read, communication, thoughtful candor

If I’m absolutely honest, I only want positive feedback. In some situations I’ve even felt addicted to it. But I also know I need suggestions if I want to improve.

The authors of Responding to Feedback You Disagree With say, “Getting feedback that seems just plain wrong can be isolating, painful, and maddening.” When it happens, the first thing to do is nothing. Resist the temptation to respond, explain what you meant, and defend yourself. Breathe, go to the restroom, walk around the block if you can. Then ask yourself and others some questions.

They gave two great examples: Three months into a new job, a newly, hired creative director was told by her CEO that she needed to be more creative. Stunned, she had most people’s first reaction—decided he was wrong, and the second—had the urge to dismiss it. Instead she took a deep breath, went to the restroom, and went back to talk to her CEO. Heen and Goldstein recommended questions like these:

  • “When you say ‘creative,’ can you say more about what you mean?
  • Can you be a bit more specific about particular times or instances I wasn’t creative?
  • Can you give examples of what ‘creative would feel like to you? What specifically are you suggesting I do differently?”

“She learned that the CEO wasn’t referring to her client work at all. He meant that he wanted her to rethink how she was managing team meetings.”

In the second example, a man we’ll call Jake was told to “watch his attitude.” He went to a co-worker friend whose first expected reaction was, “That’s crazy! No one works as many hours a week as you do.” But then Jake asked his co-worker a question, “Is there anything that might be right about the feedback?” and he got this reply, “You do work a lot of hours, but every time you are asked to stay late, you sort of sigh and complain that you have no life. You actually do give off serious attitude.”

When I receive negative feedback in my Thursday night writing class, my first reactions are embarrassment, my face feeling flushed, and a tightening in my stomach. Also I stop being able to hear what is being said. But the great thing our teacher does is digitally record the class and send us a link after class. On the drive home I feel sad, but by Friday morning I’m over it. I listen to the recording, make one change at a time or say to myself, “No, I disagree with that. I am keeping it as it is.” The next week I'm calmer and if I have questions, I can talk with my classmates about the feedback rather than feeling so miserable about the process.

You won't respond with change on every bit of negative feedback you receive, but it’s good to slow down, breathe, ask questions to understand, and then consider if it has valuable information for you that will move you in a direction you want to go. I think this advice from the authors will help me to have a better attitude in the face of difficult feedback, "So always assume givers will need help articulating what they mean. And that the way to help them — and yourself — is by asking clear and curious questions without a defensive tone."


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