How to Respond to Negative Feedback

Hearing negative feedback about your work can be a real shock, especially if you thought things were going well. And all too often, people respond to that shock by handling the conversation poorly – getting defensive, not listening, or getting angry.

Those reactions won’t help the situation – even if the criticism is off-base. If nothing else, it’s in your best interest to hear what the other person is concerned about, and if you’re focused on defending yourself, you’ll miss out on the value of what’s being said. And if the person does happen to be right, blocking out their input means that you’ll deny yourself the chance to get better at what you do.

Instead, when someone gives you critical feedback, do the following:

1. Really listen. Often in this situation, people immediately start thinking of how they should respond, which keeps them from hearing and processing the input. The person might have a reasonable point, which you’ll never pick up on if you’re focused on how to defend yourself.

2. Don’t brush it off. Responding with a brusque “okay” and nothing more makes it look like you’re just interested in ending the conversation. At a minimum, say something like: “I want to take some time to think about this, but I appreciate you telling me.”

3. Don’t be defensive. You’re not in a courtroom, and your manager isn’t looking to you to defend yourself. She’s looking for signs that you’re hearing what she’s saying and taking it into account. For instance, look at the difference in these two responses:

Defensive: “I’m really upset to hear this! I was working on A and B, and if I had done what you were asking, those never would have been finished on time!”

Open/nondefensive: “I’m glad you’re telling me this. I’ve been letting some deadlines on this project slide because I had thought that projects A and B were higher priorities and was focused there. But am I looking at this wrong?”

4. Use responses that indicate you’re open to the feedback. For instance, saying something like, “I didn’t realize that this has been an issue, and I’m grateful to know” can dramatically change the nature of the meeting, diffusing any adversarial feel and making it more collaborative.

5. If you genuinely disagree with the criticism you’re hearing, and you’re sure it’s not just your ego getting in the way, say that. But it’s all in how you say it and what tone you use. For instance, you might say: “I hadn’t realized it was coming across that way, so I’m glad to know. From my perspective, it seems like _____.” (Fill in the blank with whatever your perspective is.)

And remember, managers who take the time to give you feedback are the ones you want to work for.

Alison Green

Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.

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