How do you react to negative feedback?

We all generally love receiving positive feedback, it’s electrifying to hear that we have achieved something, we have built something, it worked and someone is happy with us for our input.

It is human nature to want to be liked.

It’s that other feedback, the one where we feel attacked, that we don’t enjoy.

“You didn’t do x”, “You caused x”, “You’ve disappointed me”

These are the words that cause our stomachs to clench, our hearts to pound in our ears, our thoughts to race and scatter and our faces to redden.

We usually wish that these reactions would just go away, so we can get down to fixing the problem, or simply moving on and to stop talking about it.

However, it is exactly these reactions that we should be paying attention to.

What is it about the words that were said that triggered those reactions in us.  Was it because of the person giving the feedback.  Was it because you disagreed with their feedback.  Or was it because you feel lacking in some way, and this person has just outlined our deep fears about your own ability.

It might be a bit of a relief to explain here, that although there is an abundance of different types and levels of feedback, and our shortcomings at times can seem boundless, there are only three triggers that cause the above reactions. *

Truth Triggers – these are set off by the substance or an element of the feedback itself.  It’s somehow off, not telling the whole story, unhelpful, or simply untrue.  Which makes us feel annoyed, wrong and exasperated.

Zack sat in on a new client meeting with his manager Sarah.  During the meeting, Zack observed that the client appeared to be somewhat nervous and anxious to put across their side of the story.  So he decided to sit back and listen, take notes and allow Sarah to ask the questions.

Later in the day, he received feedback that Sarah thought he was too nervous to speak to the client and felt frustrated because Sarah had not recognised that he was allowing the client to speak and there would be time in the future for him to respond.

There are many good reasons not to blindly accept feedback.

A valuable skill we need to apply here is a ‘sorting and filtering’ of feedback.  We need to be able to evaluate the feedback and decide whether it is something you may wish to apply and take on board, whether it is just the other person’s opinion, or whether it is utterly unhelpful to you and you can let it go.

Relationship Triggers – these are sparked by the particular person who is giving us the feedback.  It is not so much the material in the feedback, it is coloured by the relationship that we have with the giver.  Our reactions are based more on what we believe about the giver (i.e. they have no credibility on this subject) or how we feel treated by the giver (i.e. after everything I’ve done for you, this is what you think of me – this petty criticism).

The majority of feedback is given in a human form, one person providing feedback in some way or shape to another.  So, it is only natural for our perception of the feedback to be influenced by that person. 

Our history with that person can shadow the actual feedback, in which case, we need to be careful to try and dis-associate the feedback from the person.  This can be incredibly difficult, however we will talk about a few techniques in another article.

Identity Triggers – in contrast, these are not about the substance of the feedback nor the giver.  These are all about us.  Something about the feedback has trigged something deep and our identity, that sense of who we are appears to unravel.  When we are in this stage, everything looks desolate, we take the feedback personally and deep, and find it difficult to look past this.

So why should we look deeper and work out just what our triggers may be… well, firstly, we need to accept that these triggers are completely reasonable.  Then depending on which trigger is being pulled, we can learn to look at the reasoning behind the trigger.

Once we know and understand our triggers, we will be able to recognise them for what they are and engage more deeply in conversations.

You may even like to look at the feedback you are giving to others, watch their reactions and consider if there are alternative ways to offer your feedback.


* Adapted from Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen’s book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well

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