Five Ways to Receive Negative Feedback Well

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They’re watching you.

I don’t mean to sound creepy. But it’s something to come to terms with as a leader: Your team is watching you.

As a leader, your actions set the example – especially, when it comes to creating an open, honest environment in the workplace.

Your employees are taking note: When someone offers a dissenting opinion, do you come off as annoyed and brush it aside? Or do you calmly listen and say, “Thank you, I’ll consider that”?

How you receive feedback — especially negative feedback — sets the precedent for how welcome honest, forthcoming perspectives are in your company. Dismiss feedback on a whim or become overly defensive, and you’re not likely to hear critical feedback from that person again.

So how do you receive feedback well? Here are five things you can do…

Make empathy your mission.

How could they be saying that?” “I’m not sure that’s true…” Ever catch yourself thinking that while someone is giving you negative feedback? One of the most common, immediate reactions to feedback is to evaluate what the other person is saying… often before the other person is even finished talking! How can we truly listen to feedback and take in the parts that may be valuable, if we’re not completely listening to what’s being said? To avoid this tendency to pre-judge feedback, make empathy your mission. Decide that your role in receiving feedback is simply to try to understand the other person. You don’t need to obey or agree with them in that moment — just understand. Once you make empathy your mission, you’ll be able to hear feedback for what it is: An opportunity to learn something, in some way.

Sit in silence for 3–4 seconds.

To further mitigate your knee-jerk reaction to want to respond right away and offer a counterpoint, sit in silence for a few seconds after someone gives you a piece of feedback. While it might seem or feel unnatural initially, doing so gives you the space to digest what is being said, instead of superficially reacting to it.

Write it down.

Whether or not you are an avid note-taker by habit, bring a notebook the next time you’re in a one-on-one meeting. Having a notebook or sheet of paper in front of you, ready to take notes, physically demonstrates to the other person that you’re attentive to what they’re saying. You’re not thinking about what you’re going to say next — you’re intentionally trying to take in what they’re saying, and process it thoughtfully.

Assume positive intent.

Don’t get defensive. Getting defensive is the surest way to discourage someone from ever telling you their honest opinions in the future. The minute we become defensive is when we permanently dissuade the other person from ever bringing up feedback again. To overcome defensiveness, assume positive intent. The reason why we often become defensive is we think that the person giving us feedback doesn’t have our best intentions in mind — they’re out to “get us” or have a separate agenda. When we choose to assume positive intent in the other person, that urge to become defensive melts away. We stop questioning the “why” behind the feedback, and become more receptive to what’s being said.

Talk less.

The more talking you’re doing, the less listening you’re doing. So talk less. Talking less is the best way to show you’re listening to the feedback you’re receiving. Be conscious of your temptation to launch into full-on rebuttal mode, or to share your side of things. If you do feel compelled to say something, tell the other person, “Thank you — I’m going to think on what you said. Do you mind if I get back to you by X date?” That way you give yourself more time to think about what you do want to say, and you’re showing that you’re listening by saying fewer things.

Of course, writing about “talking less” is much easier to do than actually “talking less” in practice. Particularly, in the heat of the moment, when someone is telling you something you don’t want to hear, it is not easy to just shut up and listen to them :-)

To internalize these tactics, just try one. No need to go after all five. Pick one. Perhaps you try bringing a notebook to your next one-on-one meeting. Or remind yourself to assume positive intent the next time you read an email from an employee that contains some criticism.

Regardless of which tactic you choose to try first, merely choosing to try to receive feedback well in the first place is a significant, positive step toward building an open, honest company culture. 

Your reaction to feedback is a test for you as a leader. What example will you set for your team of how critical or dissenting views will be handled?

Remember, they’re watching.

Want to learn more about receiving feedback well – especially on how to not take feedback personally? Subscribe to our next chapter in our Knowledge Center.

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