How to Deal With Negative Feedback

“This isn’t gonna be pretty!” he said. I stopped breathing immediately.

He had said he wanted to give me feedback. But I had no idea it would go like that!

And then he went on a rant about how I created a problem for him during a workshop I had facilitated … I was shocked!

Shocked because

  1. He was a senior manager in the company … and a coach himself. I thought he knew by now how to deliver feedback that doesn’t leave you feeling like you just encountered a raging Chuck Norris.
  2. He was a senior manager in the company … why didn’t he say something during the workshop? Ask to revisit the action plan? Tell me to slow down?

(Maybe you can tell … I’m still puzzled by his reaction!)

But despite this little episode, to this day I firmly believe that feedback is the key to growth and great performance.

Depending on what type of person you are, negative feedback and criticism makes you start shouting, go quiet or start crying. When the tears subside or you punched the wall, what do you do with the feedback?

Be Willing to Be Wrong

Let’s back up for a moment.

Whether through self-reflection or hearing it from others, any feedback is an insight. Of course there’s what someone said about you, your behaviour or your performance.

But know that any feedback you hear from others not only tells you much about yourself, but also about the person delivering the feedback. They mix in their own worldviews, their attitudes and beliefs and have their very own style. Which is either kind, compassionate and helpful or not.

And even if deep down you think “he’s right”, hearing you haven’t lived up to expectations is always uncomfortable. It’s easier to dismiss the feedback you got (thanks, ego!) than consider what might be true about it. But this is not how you learn and grow.

I’d like you to put your ego aside and be willing to experience any feeling of shame, embarrassment, anger, frustration… Be willing to explore how what you just heard might be true. We’ll discern what you have to take on board and what not, but it always starts with your openness to learning.

Who You Should Listen to – and Who Not

Not every feedback needs to be taken to heart. Here’s a little matrix to help you decide what to do next:

As you can see, feedback can be more or less positive or negative and more or less accurate and inaccurate.

Positive feedback is reinforcing. It’s when people told you what you did well, what was good about your performance or what you should continue doing.

Negative feedback is corrective. Here people ask you to change a behaviour, do more or less of something or even start or stop doing things.

To assess whether the feedback is accurate, leave your ego aside and ask yourself “How might this be true?”. You can also seek a second opinion if you’re not sure.

Whether positive or negative, the trick is to only listen to and react to accurate feedback. It’s best delivered by someone who has credibility. Meaning they know what they’re talking about.

Feedback You Can Ignore

Was the feedback positive and inaccurate? It might be flattering at first, our ego and wish for a polished self-image screams loud to take this on. But deep down you may know that it won’t serve you. Be honest with yourself: Is this really true or have you benefited from lucky circumstances? It might be hard, but ignore this feedback.

How about negative and inaccurate? To ignore this type of feedback is a relief. Don’t cling on to it, even if your perfectionism, your tendency to please people and the high standards you hold yourself to tell you otherwise. This type of feedback says more about the person who gave it to you than your actual behaviour. Say “Thank you for sharing that.” and move on.

Feedback You Should Take Seriously

Positive and accurate feedback is a cause for celebration. Don’t try to minimise your success with false modesty. Be proud of yourself, enjoy that moment. Savouring these moments boosts your positive emotions which then help you think more creatively for further success.

Keep a ‘brag sheet’ of this kind of feedback for the next time you need a boost in self-confidence. You can also have a closer look how you made that success possible: What strengths were at play? What strategies did you use? Which skills supported you? Being aware of these root causes of success helps you tap into them more consciously when the next challenge comes along.

Negative and accurate feedback is a perfect learning opportunity. To seize it, make sure you listen, put your ego aside, don’t rationalise or blame anyone or anything else and don’t play it down (“This isn’t such a big deal.”). Use the conversation to discern if this feedback reveals a blindspot, a lack of understanding the other’s expectations towards you or if you literally did something wrong.

Here’s a chance for you to learn about yourself, develop new skills, try new approaches and build the relationship with the person giving you the feedback. It’s not easy to deliver these types of “bad news”, so honour the fact that they care enough about you to tell you. That they took the time and want to help you get better.

Making the Most Out of Feedback

Unfortunately, much well-meant feedback isn’t very helpful, because it’s too general. Never leave the room with a blanket statement of “You should improve your communication skills.”, because this could mean anything and everything. There are three sets of questions you can use to squeeze some value out of vague feedback.

(A) Feedback on your behaviour: “You didn’t conduct yourself professionally in the meeting.”

When you receive feedback about your behaviour, try to understand the specifics about the situation the person is referring to, what behaviour they observed in you and what the effect was on them or others. You can ask questions like:

Which specific situation are you referring to?

  • What did I do then that you consider unprofessional?
  • How has this affected you/ the other person?
  • What would you advise me to do differently next time?

(B) Feedback on a performance: “You’ve done OK in your presentation yesterday, but there’s still room for improvement.”

When you receive feedback about a performance, ask for specifics around what you should keep, improve, stop and start. Use questions like:

  • What was good about it? What should I keep doing the next time?
  • What can I improve about my presentation?
  • Was there something missing that I should include the next time?
  • What was too much or unhelpful? What should I stop including?

(C) Feedback on a result: “You seem to have put a lot of effort into this [project/ report/ …], but it doesn’t deliver the results I expected.”

Of course it’s important that you check if the expectations were clear. Did you understand precisely what you were supposed to deliver? Once you established that, look away from the end result and focus on the process you used. Ask questions like:

  • Here’s the strategy I used … What might I do differently next time?
  • Could you help me break down my approach into steps, so we can see where I might have gone wrong?
  • Who has succeeded in this/ something similar before that I can ask for advice?
  • What have I already achieved/ done well? Which skills do I need to learn to deliver a better result next time?


Asking for feedback regularly shows that you value the opinion of your colleagues and that you’re serious about your own development. It’s also a nice, non-braggy way to showcase your work, which will help you to stand out in your company.

If you’re looking for other ideas to promote your work (and get noticed in your company) in an introvert-friendly, non-awkward way … then you may like these five strategies. (Click here to get them.)