Dealing with Negative Feedback

Negative feedback is inevitable, but how we deal with it is up to us.

Getting negative feedback, especially from those we respect and trust, can quickly become an emotional train wreck that leaves us feeling hurt, helpless, and even a little bit hopeless. And when critical feedback is repeated over time, researchers have found that it can diminish our productivity, motivation and even our prospects for employment.

The good news? We can flip the script on negative feedback by changing the story.

While we can’t control what happens to us, we can certainly change what happens next. Whether negative feedback causes us to become depleted or determined may have to do with something psychologists call “explanatory style” — the way we explain the things that happen to us. It’s essentially the story that we tell ourselves after hearing it from others.

Explanatory style takes two forms: optimistic and pessimistic. Pessimists blame failure on themselves and attribute success to external causes. Optimists do the opposite: They attribute failure to circumstances beyond their control and success to their own efforts. 

People with a pessimistic explanatory style receive negative feedback and believe that their shortcomings are simply part of who they are, while individuals with an optimistic explanatory style think about criticism in terms of growth and opportunity. 

Your style is your story

For example, after receiving negative feedback about a sales presentation, the pessimist takes a defeatist attitude (“I’m terrible at explaining things and this won’t change”), while the optimist adopts a developmental approach (“Here’s what I will work on next time to get better results”).

How can we develop an a more optimistic outlook on negative feedback? By determining whether the negative feedback is personal, pervasive and permanent:

Is it personal?

Key question: Do we bear responsibility for what’s happening? (Me vs. them)

Pessimists treat failure as stable. They assume it’s a function of their own limitations and expect it to happen again. They regard negative feedback as a natural consequence of their character. Optimists think of failure as fluid — it’s more likely the result of external conditions, not internal characteristics. For them, getting negative feedback may say more about a set of circumstances than personal traits.

Is it pervasive?

Key question: Is this affecting other aspects of our lives? (Local vs. global)

Pessimists tend to believe that negative events are cumulative and spill into other aspects of their lives. They’re more likely to think of negative feedback as a feature, not a bug. Optimists believe that failures are isolated, not inevitable. They’re more likely to see negative feedback as a bump, not a bridge.

Is it permanent?

Key question: Will this continue to happen? (Always vs. sometimes)

Pessimists tend to adopt a fixed, permanent view and believe that bad outcomes will endure indefinitely. With negative feedback, they assume there’s no end in sight. Optimists take a more fluid, temporary view of setbacks and believe they can be resolved with the right actions. Negative feedback is a catalyst, not a crucible.

A more positive path

In a perfect world, we’d always choose the more optimistic explanatory style and think of tough feedback as something that’s only temporary, limited in its scope and within our ability to change. Then again, critical feedback has a way of throwing us into doom and despair. What can we do to change the narrative?

(1) Impose a “cool down” period: Let negative feedback sit for a day or so before responding. When the initial sting of criticism wears off, we’re in much better position to evaluate the message with greater calm and clarity.

(2) Widen the feedback loop: Ask a trusted colleague, family member or friend to help interpret the feedback. Getting an outsider’s perspective can provide much-needed distance and detail, helping us separate facts from feelings and find the signal in the noise.

(3) Revisit the issue with the giver: While we’d like nothing more than to bury bad news in the past, it’s more constructive to engage in future dialogue with the person who gave it. Let him or her know you’ve thought about the feedback and want to craft a plan of improvement. If you disagree with premise of the feedback, ask for an opportunity to present your side of the story.

We don’t choose the feedback we get, but we always get to choose where it goes. By understanding how the mind processes feedback and then consciously shifting our view, we can turn negative feedback into positive results that lead to real and lasting improvement.

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