How to respond to negative feedback

How to respond to negative feedback

The people you live and work with are reluctant to give you negative feedback. They’re afraid you’re going to freak out and they don’t want to treat your freak out. It’s easier to say nothing.

When I first started teaching how to give and receive feedback, I gave detailed explanations of how to predictably respond to feedback and the reasons for that response. Now I’ve boiled down the natural response to feedback into three words: The Freak Out.

Every person you know personally and professionally wants to be liked and recognized. Even the people in your organization who you think are lazy want you to rate them highly. And when someone questions another person’s competence, that person is likely to freak out (become defensive).

It’s very difficult not to get at least a little defensive when you’re getting feedback. A defensive reaction often sounds something like, “Thank you for telling me that. Can I tell you why I did it that way?” The problem with this slightly defensive reaction is that the other person hears, “You’re not listening. I’m wasting my time talking to you.” Then the conversation ends quickly. People want to feel heard. And when the feedback receiver becomes defensive, the feedback giver feels unheard.

Don’t feel bad about getting defensive about receiving negative feedback. Getting defensive when you get bad news just means you’re a living, breathing person with feelings. That beats the alternative. But The Freak Out scares people. They don’t want to deal with your mild, moderate, or very defensive reactions.

Because people want to avoid The Freak Out, they keep negative feedback to themselves or, worse, tell someone else. If you want more truth, you need to make it clear that speaking up will not have any ill effects.

Here are seven steps to make others comfortable giving you negative feedback:

1. Ask for feedback.

2. Determine exactly what kind of feedback you want.

3. Let the person you are asking for feedback know when and where they can see you in action.

  • A bad example of asking for feedback: “I really want your feedback. Feel free to pass it on.” This is too vague and does not show your seriousness.
  • A good example of asking for feedback: “I really want your feedback on the pace of the new hire orientation program. Will you call next Wednesday at 9:00 am in the first hour and tell me what you think of the rate and why?” This request tells the person exactly what you want and shows that you mean business desire for feedback.

4. When you receive feedback, say, “Thanks for telling me. I’ll consider what you said and maybe get back to you in a few days to discuss more.

5. Do not immediately respond to negative feedback. Walk away instead of answering.

6. If you want more information or want to let the person know that you don’t agree with what they said, wait until you calm down to have that conversation. This can be minutes or a few days later.

7. You can raise a counterpoint, but don’t do it immediately after receiving feedback. Anything you say at this point is likely to sound defensive.

No matter what role a person plays in your life—your boss, a colleague, an outside client, or even your spouse—it takes courage to give you feedback. When a conversation requires courage, the speaker’s emotions are heightened. When the feedback recipient’s emotions rise in response to the feedback, the conversations escalate. That’s how arguments start. If you want to put the other person at ease and get more feedback in the future, do the opposite of what people expect. Instead of getting even a little defensive, do the opposite. Say, “Thanks for the feedback. I’m sorry you had this experience. I’ll consider what you said and maybe get back to you for more. Then go away

Walking away when you just want to react is very difficult. Leaving takes a fair amount of self-control, but the rewards are great. You’ll build trust, strengthen relationships, and gain more information than ever before—information you need to manage your career, reputation, and business.

About Shari Harley

Shari Harley is Founder and President of Candid Culture, a Denver-based training company bringing back openness to the workplace and making it easier to provide feedback at work. Shari is the author of the book on business communication How to Tell Everyone Anything: A Guide to Building Business Relationships That Really Work. She is a keynote speaker at conferences and conducts training courses in the United States. Learn more about Shari Harley and Candid Culture’s training programs at

Tags: being open to feedback, giving negative feedback, how to respond to negative feedback, negative feedback, receiving negative feedback, responding to feedback