7 ways to handle negative feedback

Changing the way you respond to criticism can help you use it to your advantage
By Naseem Jamnia  Published on 07/17/2018 at 10:51 AM EDT
Illustration by Brenna Daugherty

I can think of literally nobody who enjoys being criticized.  But negative feedback happens all the time in our daily lives, from our kids hating the dinner we made to our boss’s disappointment in our latest project. According to one study, these comments trigger feelings of self-doubt and cause lack of motivation in the people on the receiving end. And I get it. However, learning how to approach negative feedback can end up having a positive impact on your career and relationships! It can also make you a happier person.

Here are a variety of strategies to handle negative criticism.

  1. Don’t get defensive. Sometimes, negative feedback might feel like an attack, but one of the worst reactions you can have to criticism is to become defensive. It’s a natural first response; we perceive disapproval as a threat, so our brains treat it as one. However, at its core, feedback is supposed to help us get better. When you feel yourself getting defensive, take a deep breath and count to ten.  This will help you listen to what exactly the other person is saying.
  2. Be self-aware. Even if you don’t agree with the overall feedback, some of it may be helpful and allow for greater success in the future. A paper from Baylor University suggests using a “specific assertive strategy,” where you look at the part of the criticism you agree with and then clarify it. For example, if your coworker is unhappy with you, clarify what exactly you did to make them upset. And then, once you’ve pinpointed the issue…
  3. Ask for suggestions. No one would bother giving feedback if they weren’t hoping for some sort of positive shift in behavior. One study found that comments that are specific, considerate, and don’t attribute the performance to internal causes don’t trigger negative feelings. Since you can’t control how someone is giving you feedback, try to direct it into specific things that you can do better. Ask for suggestions on ways you can improve if they do not offer up any. They might give you ideas you’ve never had before, and you can see if they help. Sometimes ideas from outside ourselves can be just what we need.
  4. Ask someone else their thoughts. After sitting with the criticism a while, if you’re still not sure you agree, talk to a person you trust, who is able to give their objective, honest thoughts. Experts say this should be someone in your field who you’re able to build a mutual relationship with—somebody who can come to you to ask the same questions. Developing this sort of relationship in the workplace can help you both get the best of every feedback.
  5. Don’t respond aggressively. It doesn’t take a study to show that negative feedback can increase feelings of self-doubt and lack of motivation. It’s easy to lash out against the person evaluating your work. Over half of the managers surveyed in one study were worried about some sort of hostility and even retaliation from their employees, and nearly all that were surveyed received some sort of poor response—for the most part it was verbal, passive, and indirect aggression, such as refusing to do the work assigned or spreading rumors—in response to negative feedback. These types of behaviors ultimately hurt you, causing you to jeopardize your relationships; if you feel the urge to engage in them, take a step back and refocus.
  6. Reframe your internal response. It’s easy to either take too much responsibility (I’m such a failure”) or too little (“I’m not unproductive; at least I answer my emails on time!”) when receiving criticism. One way to combat this is to reframe your thinking. Instead of “God, I’m never going to get this right,” think, “Maybe I can nail this if I ask for help.” Instead of, “They’re the ones at fault,” consider thinking, “I won’t be able to learn and grow if I’m resistant to hearing this.” Learning to change negative thoughts will not only help you address the feedback but also make you happier in the long run.
  7. Thank them. When feedback is genuine, it’s because the person wants you to do better—why else would they take the time to tell you? Thanking the person acknowledges that and reduces any potential feelings of animosity. Handling it with this kind of good grace can end up increasing your standing in the other person’s eyes.

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