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On Receiving Negative Feedback

Recently I realized that I really hate negative feedback. I don’t know why it took me so long to understand this about myself — when I started working I wouldn’t even look at my performance reviews because I was so scared that it would contain criticism — but running an agency business has made it unavoidable. If you run a software business and your software is buggy or your service is bad, your customers just churn or never show up. The negative feedback is implicit, and in order to get to the explicit stuff, you have to conduct user interviews and surveys, which most companies never do.

But when you run an agency business, your clients have no problem giving you negative feedback directly. On top of that, engagements are on a contract basis and clients are lot more willing to fire their agencies than their full-time employees. This raises the stakes.

To run an agency business is to see the work relationship stripped down to its essence — money in, service out. Negative feedback that has to be couched in very careful, empathetic terms when it comes to a full-time employee, can be much more blunt when communicated to an agency.

At times, this has been very difficult for me psychologically. Growing up in a Chinese immigrant household, reprimands were often severe and I still associate negative feedback with failure, fear, and being unloved.

But upon reflection, being forced to confront this is actually one of the best things that could have happened to me. People say that you should run towards the things you’re scared of. I’m scared of negative feedback, and now I’m doing a job where even if I don’t want to run, I’m being pushed towards it.

Why I’m scared of negative feedback

One of the reasons why I’m so scared of negative feedback, I think, is because I tend to catastrophize or generalize it. Part of this is that I’m a writer, so I’m very particular about words and when certain words are used, will rapidly associate them with other implications. For example, feedback that something I did was “inconsiderate”, or “manipulative”, or “lazy”, will immediately be escalated in my head. These words hold strong negative connotations due to my own values and insecurities.

I also tend to catastrophize out of avoidance/in order to not have to address the problem. Upon receiving negative feedback for a piece of work, I may immediately spiral towards thinking that my business is collapsing. Obviously this is histrionic, but it is also very convenient in that it removes the responsibility to actually fix the piece of work — if the business is collapsing, who cares! In fact, things are not nearly as dire as I think and probably the most productive thing to do is just to address the feedback, reflect on what longer term changes can be put in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and move on.

It’s interesting because in hindsight many of these thinking traps have been in place in my head for over a decade, and over time I’ve invented a number of not-always-healthy coping techniques. And while I do think I’ve been mostly functional and productive, it makes me think about what opportunities for growth, development, and joy I’ve missed out on.

Tips for dealing for negative feedback

Now that I recognize the problem is mostly in the emotional externalities of negative feedback, I’ve come up with some solutions to deal with it. These include:

  • asking for specific examples and feedback
  • cross-checking negative feedback against historical pieces of negative feedback that I’ve received — if multiple independent people have given me the same piece of negative feedback, I’ll take it very seriously.
  • putting processes in place for improvement in the future and communicating that to the feedback giver
  • separating out the feedback itself from the way it was delivered. Delivering negative feedback is just as difficult, if not more difficult, than receiving it. Very, very few people are good at it. It’s easy, if the feedback giver is a poor communicator, impatient, hyperbolic or rude, to just dismiss the feedback. But likely what they say has a kernel of truth.
  • realizing that people mean different things by different words — not everyone is a writer and that careful about the vocabulary they use. Just because they happened to use a word I’m sensitive to doesn’t mean it was intentional.
  • scoping the feedback — just because I did a bad job on a particular task doesn’t mean I’m a bad person.
  • literally physically break up my spirals of negativity by getting up and going for a walk.
  • drawing on prior experience to remember that negative feedback, while meaningful and important to take into account, is rarely the end of the world, or even a career or contract.
  • talking it through with loved ones — a lot of the bad feelings around negative feedback have to do with shame. Being transparent about the negative feedback I’ve received with people I trust releases some of that shame and also gives me another perspective as to whether it’s valid.
  • not procrastinating on addressing negative feedback — the longer I wait, the larger it looms in my head, when often it was a relatively small thing.
  • vent! go home and yell and complain to your therapist, partner, or someone else you trust. I think this process is cathartic and therefore necessary. But then afterwards, come back and try to see the situation with clear eyes.

A script for responding to negative feedback

Depending on whether the negative feedback verbally (synchronously) or in writing (asynchronously), I’ve found that having the playbooks below ready to go have helped prevent hasty and potentially ill-advised gut responses.

If the feedback was delivered verbally:

  • “Thank you for your feedback.”
  • Take a moment to breath. Stay calm.
  • If you immediately agree with the feedback:
    • Go ahead and acknowledge it
    • Ask if you guys can brainstorm some solutions for the future
    • Ask if they’d like to discuss further
    • “Thank you for letting me know, I appreciate it. Now that I have this feedback, can we set benchmarks so I know I'm achieving my goals properly?”
  • If you don’t immediately agree with the feedback:
    • Ask for specific instances/examples - write these down
    • Ask for specific solutions/action items - write these down
    • “Thanks for letting me know, I appreciate it. Can I have a few days to reflect on this feedback and then we can schedule a followup meeting?”
    • After the meeting, go through your notes. For every sentence you have written, match the relevant example. Evaluate whether the feedback was warranted.
    • At the followup meeting, go through each of the points and calmly either acknowledge or rebut the feedback. The idea is not to get into a debate, but rather to agree on expectations for the future.

If the feedback was delivered over writing:

  • if the feedback was delivered over writing, then you have a bit more control over your response since it’s asynchronous.
  • Again, take a moment to breath. Since you’re at home, release your emotions a bit. DO NOT immediately respond.
  • Follow the instructions above depending on whether you agree with the feedback or not and craft an email response. It should include:
    • “Thank you for your feedback.”
    • Responses to the specific examples given, or request for more specifics.
    • Again, the goal of the email should be to set very clear expectations that both sides can be held to in the future.
    • Reference to your willingness to change/improve.
    • Example:

Rejecting negative feedback

While it would be great if all negative feedback was given kindly and thoughtfully, with the intention of helping you grow and improve, sometimes not the case. Sometimes the feedback giver has their own problems, and is unfairly blaming you for something that isn’t your fault, or is beyond your control. I will generally reject negative feedback if:

  • the feedback giver is unable to provide concrete examples.
  • the feedback giver is unable to provide actionable solutions/improvement plans.
  • the feedback giver is someone who I don’t respect either professionally or as a person. If I do respect the feedback giver EITHER professionally or as a person, I generally try to give the feedback consideration.
  • the feedback given is concrete and actionable, but it’s incommensurate to the stated expectations of the job.

Conclusion

There are real, physical and emotional reasons why it’s so difficult to receive negative feedback. For those with childhood trauma from overbearing parents or social anxiety, it can be especially triggering. And yet it’s how we get better and grow.

One thing I’ve realized is that exposure therapy works, in that the more regularly I receive negative feedback, and the more I expect it as a default, the easier it gets. Running Frindle, my technical writing agency, has been a good forcing mechanism in this sense.

Finally, I’ve been trying to practice receiving negative feedback, seeking it out when I perceive the stakes to be lower, for instance at exercise classes or at poker. In these more educational environments, where no one expects me to be perfect, negative feedback is reframed — it’s not criticism; it’s teaching.