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How to Receive Negative Feedback, without being Defensive

Estimated reading time: 5 mins

I have written before that providing feedback is giving a gift. Even if it is negative.

Receiving negative feedback is like a tooth extraction: we might not look forward to it, we’re very unlikely to enjoy it, it will be painful – but to make things better for us we have to go ahead and do it. And the sense of relief that follows can be great, even if we are left with a residual ache for a while.

Negative feedback is useful in helping us learn from our mistakes, and becoming aware of things we are doing that we are not aware of, or aware their impact. Negative feedback can be painful, but a necessary exchange so that we can develop and become better people.

Ask yourself this: as a budding entertainer appearing in America’s Got Talent / Britain’s Got Talent, who would you get the most useful feedback from?

Even though he is the most critical, the most cutting, the most direct, and the most stunning – Simon Cowell offers the best feedback of all. Because, even when negative, it is honest, specific, clear and helpful. 

But being defensive is a natural response to negative feedback, and also unhelpful. When we hear information about our flaws, mistakes, or bad behaviors, it can be awkward and painful; it requires us to face the very things about ourselves that we either…

a) didn’t know we were doing (and who knows how long we have been doing it and with who and when and….) or (more likely),

b) DID know about ourself, but are too afraid, ashamed or incapable of fixing – and a reminder brings the bad feelings back up again.

When the feedback evokes a wave of emotion then a defensive response often results and our instinctive reaction is either fight or flight. 

Fight: we turn aggressive – the red mist descends – and can turn the tables by attacking the other person. We’ve all done this – at least once in our lives.

Flight: we flounce off, slamming doors and muttering expletives under our breaths. How dare you say that! How very dare you! We’ve all done this (yeah we have) – at least once in our lives.

OK so we can all get defensive, even when it is to our detriment, so what do we do about it?

How to Receive Negative Feedback

We’re being given negative feedback, and our heckles are starting to rise…

  1. You have two ears and one mouth – use them according to that weighting. Keep listening; don’t react straight away. Remaining silent keeps you in control. Don’t be forming your reply whilst the other person is talking – you will stop listening and potentially miss vital information. Nod, and actively listen. Use you more sparingly.
  2. How does your criticizer appear? Appear nervous? It’s not that often we meet a person who is exceptionally skilled at providing feedback, so it is possible (nee probable) that the other person is stumbling about on it. Of course, you could strike against this weakness, but why not help them make their point by asking questions that tease it out?
  3. Is the feedback accurate? Is what you’re being told based on real hard facts, or is it based on probabilities or opinion? It’s well worth you checking the validity of the feedback before you accept it or challenge it. Ask for evidence, examples or substantiation.
  4. Is the feedback specific? Is the feedback based on specific points, or general issues? The more specific feedback is, the more helpful it is. Also, the more genuine it probably is to boot. Feedback that is vague and generalized is probably based on opinion with an underlying agenda.
  5. Ask for their purpose. The feedback is coming to you for a reason. What is it? Are they fed up? Wanting to help you? Do they have a genuine problem that you’re causing? Just angry? Establish WHY they’re giving you the feedback as early as you can and it will clarify how you should be responding to it. If their reason is a good one, then you have nothing to lose by listening and accepting the feedback. If they’re just angry or emotional, then still listen, but heed it less.
  6. Don’t respond immediately if you don’t have to – taking some time to reflect on what you have heard, and process the points made could make a huge difference in what you do with it. Once the initial discomfort is over, you will find that you have greater capacity and propensity to take the feedback on board.
  7. Close the right way. Feedback is a gift – thank the person giving it to you. Be sincere. Ask if there is anything else that they would like to tell you. This is good for two reasons: 1) it demonstrates that you can take the criticism  well; 2) the first engagement is sometimes the thin end of the wedge. There may be other feedback they want to give you!

And Remember:

Every Mistake You Make is Progress…

… is the perfect mantra for helping us avoid the ‘instinctive reaction’. Every mistake we make is a learning opportunity that can be turned to our advantage.

This is called experience. Kids learn this way all the time.

So when we are being called out, seek the lesson; seek the clue as to how we can improve and develop and make progress. Burn this one behind your eyelids.

I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

The Famous Thomas Edison Quote! So you’re being told what you’ve done wrong. Bingo – thanks very much. I have now found another way that doesn’t work, and so I can move swiftly and sharply onto the next way that just might work.

This is the mindset to develop. It’s the healthy, positive mindset.

Your criticizer is helping you with your 10,000!

You have only failed if you have given up. Until then, it’s learning.

So you’re being told what you’ve done wrong. Are you going to flounce away or flail your arms around in aggression? This is giving up.

By doing so, you’re really saying – what you have to say isn’t going to help me so I am shutting you down, buster. You’ve chucked in the towel, and truly failed.

But if you were to listen, and take the feedback on the chin, you’re leaving yourself open to learning. You’re not giving up. Are you?

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About the author /


Simon is a creative and passionate business leader dedicated to having fun in the pursuit of high performance and personal development. He is co-founder of Applied Change, a Business Change consultancy based in the UK. Simon is also an Ambassador for Gloucestershire business. Simon is an Associate Member of the Chartered Institute of Professional Development.

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