Interpret negative feedback accurately

Most of us find it difficult to receive negative feedback.  We may feel criticized, judged or blamed. Learn how to hear feedback as information about what we can do differently rather than who we are as a person.

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Why this matters

When we learn to see feedback as information about something we did or didn’t do, rather than an attack on our person, we can be more objective about how we receive it. If we’re curious rather than defensive, we can think about what we can do differently. This doesn’t mean we agree with the feedback, but we’re open to exploring the possibilities.

Negative feedback often feels bad because we tend to make assumptions about what the other person’s saying. These assumptions make up the story we tell ourselves about the person’s motives or intentions. It can be helpful to train yourself to focus only on the words being said. Don’t assume the other person is trying to convey a hidden message. If you focus on the subject of the feedback – the behaviour or task – rather than taking it as a personal attack, you’ll be in a better position to  clarify, learn and grow from it.

For example, if your boss says something like, “The quality of your last report was lower than what I’m used to seeing from you,” it can be tempting to interpret this as:

  • They think I’m terrible at what I do
  • They’re disappointed in me
  • They want to fire me

Alternatively, the story we tell ourselves could be about our own feelings of shame or guilt.

  • I’ll never get this right
  • I’m a failure
  • I don’t deserve this job

Unfortunately, our assumptions may be overly negative and  inaccurate. It’s easy for us to take feedback about a small flaw in an otherwise good project and blow it out of proportion into a comment about our overall ineffectiveness.

What we need to do is challenge the story we tell ourselves and instead look for what we can learn from the feedback. For example, rather than making up a story about what the other person is thinking, ask the question, “What do I need to do differently to meet or exceed your expectations the next time?” and “How will you measure success the next time?” Getting this clarity, rather than reacting with emotion, will help you learn and grow.

If your response is personal shame, guilt or humiliation, you may want to ask yourself, “Did I do the best I could with the information and resources I had?” and “Could I do this more effectively?” If you know you did the best you could, you don’t need to feel shame or guilt. No one is perfect, especially when they’re learning new skills. The only way to improve is to try again with new information.

When you see feedback as information you need, you can interpret it more accurately. When feedback is not fair or accurate, ask these same questions rather than becoming defensive. This will help you clarify the feedback without challenging the other person.

When we express judgment and criticism we may shut down any chance of an open and honest discussion. Take time to develop a non-judgmental understanding of others, their behaviours and their reactions to situations. 

Explore and reflect

Think of some negative feedback you’ve received. Identify what the other person said and take note of your assumptions.. Then rewrite those assumptions to show the actual situation.

Here are some examples of negative feedback. Consider what assumptions you could make if you heard this feedback about yourself. Next, consider what you might intend if you gave this feedback to someone you respect.

  • Your co-worker finds it challenging to engage you in problem-solving conversations
  • Your project came in over budget
  • Your report needs to be rewritten

In each of these examples, it’s possible to go to extremes if we feel this feedback is about us. We may feel that the other person is saying we’re antisocial, careless with money or sloppy in our reports. When we give feedback to someone else, however, we may say the same words, but mean that co-workers want to talk with them more, we need to re-examine the budget for the next project or the purpose of the report has changed. In both cases, the only way we can know the other person’s intention is to ask clarifying questions: “What do I need to do differently to meet or exceed your expectations the next time?” and “How will you measure success the next time?

Take action

The next time you receive negative feedback, be aware of your assumptions. Try to actively catch your assumptions and ask clarifying questions so you can get the information you need to learn and grow from the feedback.

Contributors include.articlesDr. Joti SamraMary Ann BayntonWorkplace Strategies team 2007-2021

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