07/24/2014 03:32 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How to Tackle Negative Feedback and Still Feel Great

It's always embarrassing. And I guess you know the feeling. Sometimes it is hard to get feedback. And really hard if it feels negative, unfair or totally out of line. When it happens to me, my heart often starts pounding like a hammer, and I must admit that there have been times when I've (oh no...) yelled back to the person approaching me, or (and this is the worst one) left the room and slammed the door (!!). Oops. Totally awkward moments... which I never can undo. And quite embarrassing...

To give and to receive feedback is an important aspect for us to grow and change. And something all of us need. How we master it differs. I would not recommend my previous style. Luckily, we can change.


When working with executive teams and other groups, we always include practicing techniques on how to give constructive feedback. This is a quite common part of practicing leadership. The goal is to do it in a way that ensures learning and continuous improvement, instead of being met with a closed door. However, giving feedback is one thing. Receiving it is something else. Especially if it is not the positive and constructive kind of feedback. And even leaders need to practice on how to receive this kind of feedback without falling into defense-mode. After all, we are all human beings.

I am sure that you too, at some point, have been met with comments or feedback that you perceive as negative and/or inappropriate.

Usually an outburst like this results in one of two alternative reactions 1) the need to attack or 2) the need to escape.

According to two of Norway's most acclaimed psychologists, the Ihlen sisters, it is totally normal to react like this (Aftenposten, March 14. 2014). Being criticized triggers our primal instincts. We feel attacked and want to respond accordingly.

It might be difficult, but the smartest you can do is this: Do not attack. Do not escape. Stand still and meet the response with curiosity and kindness.

Well, that sounds easy. But it takes training. After all -- someone is attacking you. Rightfully or not, but you need to react.

The first move is to give yourself sufficient time to overcome your instincts. If you manage this, you are half way there.

Then you should start training your brain to follow a script like this:

  • Do not start looking for "the truth." The truth is not an objective thing. Do not start wondering or arguing if what the other person is saying is "the truth." What might be true to her, might not be true to you. Accept this.
  • What does this really mean? Ask yourself -- is there anything in what she is saying that I can explore further? What IS she actually saying? We often jump to conclusions, thinking things mean the same to others as it does to us. We forget that there are nuances, and sometimes totally different meanings to what is being said. Never assume. Ask the other person to explain further, so you can understand better. You will probably discover that the attack is not all about you. Actually it is usually a great opportunity to reflect and learn something new. Also, by doing this you usually set the 'opponent' a little off-guard. Our primal instinct is to attack, when we get attacked. And this is what the other person expects. By asking questions you open up for dialogue, instead of a verbal fight.
  • See beyond the words. What is the intention? What does she want to achieve? You might discover that you have the same intentions. If that is the case, it is mostly about practicalities. You just need to figure out a way to move in the same direction.
  • Meet your opponent with kindness. Do not argue or be ironical. This will just accelerate the disagreement. Show her that you are interested in solving the situation. Be compassionate. This alone might bring most people into another state of mind.

We know it is hard to change behavior. But trust us, you can do it. We can not remember the last time we had a fight or argument with someone. But we constantly learn new things and we end up knowing the nicest people all over the place, also if we start out on a rough path!

What about you?
  • What are your experiences with giving and receiving feedback?
  • Do you think it is hard?
  • Or do you have any smart tips or tricks to share?
  • We love hearing your thoughts on this -- remember TOGETHER we are a well of brains.