How Do You Receive Negative Feedback?

Updated: Jan 18


Most of us don’t enjoy receiving negative feedback; it can threaten our identity.


We all have stories we tell ourselves about who we are. When we receive information that doesn’t mesh with how we see ourselves, we can either update our stories or ignore the new information. Of course, if we want to grow and learn, we should always be updating our narrative identity. However, doing so can be difficult.


One of the workshops I offer requires participants to complete a behavioral self-assessment and have their coworkers complete the same assessment about the participant. Participants receive their feedback during the workshop. More often than not, we see ourselves differently than others see us. When this happens, I see people respond in one of two ways:


1. Embrace the feedback. These individuals understand that in order to improve, they will experience some short-term pain. The prospect of long-term gain helps them reconcile the threat to their identity. Ultimately, learning takes place and they update their personal narrative.


2. Ignore the feedback. These individuals feel that the threat to their identity is so great that they disregard the constructive information. Rather than looking inward, they make sense of the information by pointing to external factors. Processing this way feels good because their personal narrative stays in tact, but it doesn’t lead to learning.


Let’s look at an another example. Most of my students arrive to the university with excellent standardized test scores, strong high school grade point averages, and, in general, they see themselves as effective communicators.


When students receive constructive feedback on their written work or presentations in my business communication courses, they have similar reactions to professionals in my workshops. Some will tell themselves, “This is valuable feedback and I am going to work hard to improve this important skill.” Others struggle to process the constructive feedback; they might tell themselves, “I am a good writer/presenter; my professor’s expectations are too high.”


Individuals I coach who don’t see themselves as strong communicators often have a much easier time processing the feedback they receive. Similarly, they can choose to continue that narrative or update it. Those who choose to learn might tell themselves, “I haven’t been a strong communicator in the past, but I am here to develop new skills, so I am going to put in the effort required to improve.”


What is the opportunity cost - or missed benefit - when we ignore feedback?


If individuals ignore information that can help them improve their effectiveness, they may later wish they had embraced the short-term pain for the long-term gain. In the context of my workshops and courses, we know that stronger communication skills lead to a variety of positive outcomes including greater workplace satisfaction and career success. Staying the same is a choice. That path is fine, but the outcome may not be the same as those who embrace the feedback and willingly change.