Tell yourself a new feedback story

Feedback tells a story, but it’s the story we tell ourselves that matters more.

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 frame on negative feedback by changing the story. While we can’t control the plot, we can always write the ending.

The stories we tell

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 an experience or encounter with 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. 

For example, after receiving negative feedback about a sales presentation, the pessimist takes a defeatist attitude (“I’m terrible at explaining products and this will never change”), while the optimist adopts a developmental approach (“Here’s how I’ll tweak my sales pitch to get better results”).

Flip the frame

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

First, ask yourself if the negative feedback is personalDo you bear responsibility for what’s happening? Or it is beyond your control? 

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 have more to do with a set of circumstances than their personal traits.

Next, ask yourself if the negative feedback is pervasive. Is this action affecting other aspects of your life? Or is it more localized?

Pessimists tend to believe that negative events are cumulative and spill into other areas. 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 byway.

Finally, ask yourself if the negative feedback is permanentAre the causes or effects here to stay? Or will they only last temporarily?

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 become starting points for growth. For them, negative feedback is a catalyst, not a crucible.

A more positive perspective

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 casting doom and gloom. So what can we do to flip the frame?

Here are a few tiny adjustments that can help you change how you receive and respond to criticism:

  • Impose a cool-down period: Let negative feedback sit for a day or so before responding. When the initial sting of criticism wears off, you’ll be in much better position to evaluate the message with greater calm and clarity.
  • 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 you separate facts from feelings and find the signal in the noise.
  • 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.

Every feedback story deserves a happy ending. 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.

Leave a Reply