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Turning negative feedback into positive results

April 1, 2008
by Yael Sara Zofi, Susan Meltzer, and Jasmine Sasanian
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Why do so few people enjoy being on the receiving end of feedback or show such little enthusiasm for a performance review session? In the case of manager-employee reviews, of course, being critiqued by the person who can influence one's paycheck and day-to-day responsibilities is somewhat intimidating. In general, being judged by another person—even a peer—is not something most of us look forward to. Since a large part of our self-image is based on how others view us, hearing negative feedback from someone (especially someone in a position with power) can be devastating.

In our last column (“Delivering Negative Feedback in a Positive Manner,” Nursing Homes/Long Term Care Management, October 2007, p. 74), we discussed the challenging but perhaps not as difficult act of delivering feedback in a constructive manner. Receiving feedback, though, can have its own rewards—it can be a great opportunity to gain useful information and insight into what we need to develop or improve in order to grow professionally. It's a chance to see how others perceive us, how they respond to our behavior, and to decide what is and is not working well. Good feedback can encourage and motivate us to take responsibility and improve our job performance.

Receiving feedback is a skill that is developed over time. The more you practice it, the more effective you will become at making sense of important information to achieve your goals. Below are guidelines on how to turn negative personal feedback into positive results that improve your job performance and lead to professional growth.

Receiving negative feedback

Take a deep breath, sit back, and try the following:

  • Listen to understand. When receiving feedback, listen carefully without interrupting or commenting. Allow the person giving feedback to say as much as he or she needs to express. As hard as it may be to listen to, it's important to take that deep breath, suspend judgment, and hear what the other person is communicating. Telling the person why he or she is wrong will only make the conversation more challenging. Do not make excuses or deny the points made. Instead, be approachable and open so the other person is encouraged to speak honestly. Remember, your body language and facial expressions also speak volumes! If you feel you are becoming defensive, take a few more deep breaths to gain some control over your emotions. If that doesn't work, say something along the lines of, “I'm having a hard time taking in what you're saying. Could we meet on _________ when I'll have finished Project X and can concentrate on what you're communicating?”

  • Be inquisitive. When the provider of feedback has finished speaking, rather than making judgmental statements or justifying your position, ask open-ended questions for clarification. Asking for specific examples will help you to understand the feedback clearly. For example, you may say, “I'm not sure I understand. What am I doing that causes you to feel that way?”

  • Summarize what you heard. Say what you think you heard, in your own words, and ask for confirmation to make sure you understood correctly. The feedback provider will appreciate that you want to understand his or her intentions and that you take his or her concerns seriously.

  • Ask for suggestions. For example, ask, “What can I do about _____ that would alleviate the situation?” or “When _____occurs, what would be a better way for me to handle it?” Also, try to create an opportunity for additional feedback in the future so you can get validation on the changes you make.

  • Thank the provider. It helps to show that you are serious about incorporating the feedback into your behavior and actions by saying something sincerely, such as, “You've really given me something to think about, thanks.” Try to keep it concise. Since it may not be easy to show gratitude after you've heard negative comments, plan a few words to say ahead of time. By showing that you aren't holding a grudge and that you really do appreciate valid suggestions, you'll find your correspondent be more inclined to give you helpful feedback in the future.

Reflecting after receiving feedback

Once you are aware of a problem, it's time to reflect on the information and develop a plan of action.

  • Process the feedback. Immediately after the feedback session, write down the major points that you think might be valid and that you want to incorporate into your behavior and actions. However, give yourself a few days to further process the information. Don't take any immediate action to change your perceived behavior. Instead, watch what you do normally and how others react to it. After a few days, go back and look at your notes.

  • Discuss your feedback with friends. While it may be easy to have your friends invalidate negative feedback (“That's so typical of her!”), ask them not to react to the feedback. Talk about your feedback with someone whose opinion you respect, but only after you have emotionally detached yourself from it.

  • Treat yourself. Since receiving negative feedback can be tough, plan in advance to do something nice for yourself to boost your self-esteem and ease the pain. Plan a dinner with friends or engage in a favorite hobby or activity. Don't let negative feedback hurt your confidence. Remember that the feedback you received was from the personal view of just one person.

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