Receiving negative feedback is never easy but by managing your thinking and your emotions it is possible to use it positively.  It’s all about perceptions and what you make it mean.  If you think about it, all of the most successful people have simply made more mistakes and had more negative feedback than others . . . but they never let it get them down.

Negative feedback can take many forms but in many ways it is an important part of life; things don’t always run smoothly, we aren’t always right and there are always lessons to be learned – even if we don’t always like it.

Resilience is key
Developing resilience is the key to success in the rough and tumble of being in business.  In equestrian circles they say that if you fall off your horse you need to get back on it right away so you don’t dwell on it and let it destroy your confidence.
There is something very powerful about being able to turn negative feedback into a positive lesson but it takes courage and a willingness to accept that we aren’t perfect, and that it is OK not to be.  Success is not about avoiding negative feedback, it’s about responding effectively to it. 

One way to avoid negative feedback is to avoid having any aspirations or ambition and to never try anything new.  But even that may produce negative consequences because these days if you stand still you will be rapidly taken over by the competition; be that for a job role, a promotion or winning a new client.  Playing safe is no longer an option!

It’s not what happens but how you respond
Back in 1994 my first escapade into self-employment had to fold because I had only two main clients.  One died owing me money and the other was sold by its parent company so the major project I was working on was ditched and I was left with no work and no client base.  That was very tough, especially when I had to take a loan from family to pay my rent.  But I didn’t dwell on it.  I had to take on board that my first business didn’t work out as planned.  My ego was a bit bruised but it was also feedback to ‘do something different’ so I looked in the mirror and recognised that I needed to establish a steady cashflow and get more experience as a Trainer . . . so I got a job!  After all, in reality there is no failure only feedback, and it’s not about what happens but how you respond to it.

It’s not personal
Part of responding effectively to negative feedback is not to take it personally.  This is particularly true when it’s your boss or a client giving you the feedback.  When we take it personally our brain goes nuts.  This is because our status is undermined and that creates a Primary Threat.  A Primary Threat triggers an ancient response in our Limbic system (the old reptilian part of our brain) and we are pumped up with a cocktail of neurochemicals like adrenalin, cortisol and norepinephrine.  This potent mix has us make accidental connections and jump to erroneous conclusions that we feel we have to defend ourselves from.  It also stirs up very old memories where we made mistakes or got scolded in the past, so we get defensive and feel that it is very unfair.  This makes it almost impossible to hear the feedback, the real intention behind it or to learn from it.

If someone is taking the time to give you feedback, even if it is negative, it shows that they are interested in you, feel that you are not meeting their expectations and they care enough to tell you.

Empower yourself
Reframing negative feedback as an opportunity to improve can be very empowering but it takes some effort.  It’s far easier to blame others and see the person giving the feedback as unreasonable, unfair or just stupid.  But it is their perception and something in your behaviour has caused them to perceive you differently to how you perceive yourself.  This can be very useful if you want to be the best you can be in all situations.  It’s not personal; it is just commentary and opinion about your behaviour, not who you are.

Over the years I’ve had plenty of negative feedback and I’ve explored some ways to use it positively.  If you are willing to put in the effort it can help you to grow and become even more successful.  Next time you are in a situation where you are receiving negative feedback here are some tips to consider and practice:

– Calm the neuro-chemical rush by noticing your breathing.  If it is shallow or rapid take a few slow deep breaths.  Focus on making the exhalation longer as this has a natural calming effect. 
– Assume good intentions. The person giving you the feedback wants you to be even better.
– Own it. Admit responsibility for your actions, lack of action or your behaviour.  This demonstrates that you are listening.  Making excuses, blaming others or avoiding responsibility will only make the person giving the feedback more insistent and frustrated because they want to make sure you ‘get it’.  In fact in my experience Managers get very upset when people don’t take responsibility – however, once people take responsibility they go into a supportive solution-oriented mode.
– Use the feedback to clarify the standards, goals and expectations they have of you.  If there is something you are not clear about or surprised about use this as an opportunity to explore what it is that they want or need you to do.
– Say what you have learned from the feedback and what you are going to do about it. 
– Make notes and put together an action plan of what you are going to do.  Ensure you follow up and let them know once you have done it.
– Thank them for bringing it to your attention so you can recognise what is a priority for them. 
– Keep things in perspective. Remember that it is not personal.  It is about your behaviour not who you are.

It’s worth keeping in mind that it is better to go through the discomfort of receiving negative feedback so you can do something about it than to remain ignorant and get a more serious consequence further down the road.

So . . . Stay Curious!

It would be interesting to hear your experiences of the lessons learned from receiving negative feedback and or any opinions you have on this topic. 

With best regards
David Klaasen

David Klaasen is director and owner of the niche HR consultancy, Inspired Working Ltd.  (
If you have a communication or performance problem and would like some objective advice drop him a line at
[email protected].