Your client says your product or service—or you—fell short.
Your annual review includes some unflattering observations.
Or a random, freelance critic feels compelled to let you know you have missed the mark.
Negative feedback is part of life. And certainly part of business. But it’s not our favorite part, is it? Criticism can hurt your feelings, make you angry or anxious or both, and leave you simmering with resentment and plotting to get even.
Emotional reactions like that are especially likely if the judgment feels unfair, if it comes from a person who has some power over you, or if you’re a particularly sensitive sort.
There are physical reactions too, when we come in for criticism. Heart rate and blood pressure rise. And adrenaline goes up as the fight-or-flight response kicks in. Recent studies shows brain waves spike in response to negative feedback.
How do you describe the sensation that goes with criticism? When I got a review that stung the other day I felt a knot in my stomach. Maybe your heart pounds. Or it’s a kick in the head.
We’d all do well to get comfortable with criticism. It’s not going away. Plus, people who ask for—and accept—feedback are much more effective leaders than their thin-skinned colleagues. And research shows those who are better at handling negative feedback are more successful.
So. Here are five steps to use next time someone lets you know you didn’t measure up.
LISTEN carefully to what they say, without interrupting.
Listen for facts and try to filter out emotion or analysis. Is there something real here, or is it just their opinion or prejudice?
Listen without planning your response. Once you start thinking about what you’re going to say, you can’t fully attend to what they’re saying.
You might ask some questions. They’ll help clarify what the person’s saying, and asking questions will keep you from jumping right to defensiveness or denial.
It helps to assume positive intentions as you hear the person out. After all, they’ve paid enough attention to see something about your performance. And they care enough to say something about it.
PROCESS what you’ve heard.
It’s just information. It’s not an assessment of your worth as a human being. Think of negative feedback as one data point rather than the totality of who you are.
Can you step into the critic’s shoes? If you try to see the situation from their point of view, you’ll likely have a much easier time understanding what they said and why.
It might take you some time to think things through. You’re better off not to react on impulse; tell the person you want to ponder what you’ve heard before you reply or take any action.
RESPOND, which could include several elements.
This’ll depend on your relationship with the person, the subject of their appraisal, and your own judgment about the matter at hand.
You might thank them for their concern (remember we’re assuming positive intent) and for being willing to bring the issue to light.
Own it. Acknowledge that you fell short without excuses. No deflecting or scapegoating or what-abouting.
Apologize, if it’s warranted. Say you’re sorry, and say it once. Women, especially, have a tendency to be really, really sorry over and over again. No need to throw yourself on their mercy and beg forgiveness. A simple “I’m sorry” will do.
Make amends if you can. If you broke it, fix it. If they paid for work they didn’t get, do the work or refund their money. If you let your team down, maybe a do-over can be arranged.
In some situations, you might enlist the person’s help in addressing the problem. Their expertise could be valuable and asking them to help can turn a naysayer into an ally.
LEARN from the experience.
Assess the lessons you’ve picked up. How did you fall short? Was your performance substandard?
Or was this really a failure to communicate? If it comes down to expectations not met, what can you do to communicate more clearly in the future?
How can you apply the feedback you got to head off similar problems in the future?
MOVE ON and let the episode be one part of the past.
Maybe you can use their opinion to set a specific goal for improvement. (Emphasis on specific.)
Continue to view negative feedback as a net positive for you. Somebody wants you to get better—that’s a good thing.
Don’t let the critique echo in your head forever. Or even for long. I don’t know about you, but this one’s tough for me. I tend to forget all about compliments, while negative commentary stays top-of-mind. Know when to let go of it.
Listen, it’s not crazy to have feelings about feedback. Criticism can stir up primal fears of being kicked out of the tribe, ostracized and abandoned.
When someone’s already insecure, even relatively mild comments can hurt their self-esteem. And narcissists view the smallest rebuke as a personal attack.
You and I are healthy people, right? We know a client’s complaint or a less-than-stellar evaluation are not existential threats. So we deal.
You’ve listened, processed the input, responded appropriately and learned from what happened. Now you move on.
And as you do, be sure to post a comment below and share your experience with feedback.