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Putting Negative Feedback into Perspective

This is the sixth part in a series on giving and receiving feedback.

Part 1 – How to Make Feedback Fun (Really!)
Part 2 – How to Decide If and When to Give Feedback
Part 3 – Feedback: The First and Most Important Thing to Say
Part 4 – The Difference Between Flattery and Appreciation
Part 5 – How to Deliver Feedback Effectively
Part 7 – How to Receive Feedback Graciously
Part 8 – Disagreement ≠ Defensiveness
Part 9 – Feedback and Ethnicity

We’ve discussed some of the art of delivering feedback well, but now we turn our attention to the other half of the equation ‒ how do we receive feedback?  How should we respond to criticism?

This brings us to Feedback Principle #4:

We need to learn to receive feedback well, and grow from it without losing ourselves in the process.

I learned this lesson after writing a blog on a popular website about ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. It was a unique time when the media was filled with news about NBA player Jeremy Lin, and there was unprecedented interest in what Asian American leaders had to say. Well, the first comment that came in was extremely critical to say the least. To paraphrase loosely, it basically told me to “suck it up and stop complaining.”

I’ll be honest that the words stung, and largely because I had written something that was personal and meaningful to me. I felt a lot of emotions, from anger (Who is this guy, and what does he know anyway?) to doubt (Wait a minute … maybe I shared too much or could have written things in a better way). I felt the temptation to go into self-protective mode, and defend myself whether through a response or through no response at all.

We all are prone to these kinds of feelings or thoughts when we hear negative feedback, especially when it’s not delivered in a respectful way. But through that experience and others since, I’m learning to view negative feedback in a different light. Here are a few things I’m learning:

  • Indifference can be worse than negative feedback.

I know this may sound crazy, but even criticism is a way that someone is trying to connect with us. Even if it’s delivered in an awful and invalidating way, criticism means that someone has noticed you or something you’ve done, and has made an effort to respond.

Not everybody goes that far. In fact, if you’re in the business of writing or putting yourself out in front of other people, you know that the vast majority of people do not even see you or think about you (or what you’ve done) at all. It’s not necessarily because they don’t like you, or because what you did wasn’t valuable. There’s just too much out there to keep track of it all!

It’s kind of like this:

  1. Most people don’t read or notice. 
  2. Out of the few that do, most of those skim. 
  3. It’s the tiny minority that take the time to respond or write in. 

So in this day and age, if people write in, they probably have been moved in some way by you, or what you’ve done. And that’s usually a good thing!

  • Negative feedback doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve failed.

Of course, negative feedback often means we need to reevaluate and see where we need to improve or grow. However, there are certain times when a negative response is actually a sign that we’ve succeeded, not failed. For instance, there are times when we need to confront destructive behavior in people, or even challenge the “way things have always been done” with hard questions. At times when we do these things effectively, it’s normal to expect a negative response. People don’t like being confronted, and there’s usually resistance from the status quo when it’s challenged.

As a writer and creator, I am going to be involved in projects that challenge people to rethink or re-evaluate things. If I do that successfully, shouldn’t I expect there to be some who disagree and dislike those ideas?  Even if I write with tact and clarity, this can (and will) happen. But that’s what I want … I’d rather create something meaningful that goes deep into peoples’ minds and souls, rather than write a hundred articles that are risk-free, but never scratch the surface of people’s hearts.

I recently stumbled upon an interview with mixed martial artist Ronda Rousey, and something she said stuck with me:

“I don’t need crowd approval, I need crowd passion … [Mixed martial arts] is an art. And art isn’t supposed to be nice, it’s not supposed to be liked. It’s supposed to make you feel something. So I don’t want to specifically make crowds cheer or boo. I just want to make them feel.”

Sometimes we can assume that success means that people like us, but that’s not always true. We do want to improve our leadership and work to not offend people out of insensitivity or carelessness, but sometimes even when we do things well there can be negative responses or reactions. And that’s okay.

  • Negative feedback isn’t always about us — even if it’s sparked by us.

Not everything is about us, and we have to remember to not take everything personally. Sometimes when someone reacts negatively to something we’ve done, it’s because they are wrestling through something else that’s unresolved in their minds and hearts. God may be doing something in their lives that’s bigger than just whether or not they like us.

As I work on projects that are meaningful to me, what I’m learning is to accept the journey that people are on, as they react honestly to something I’ve done. Humans are emotional beings ‒ and their feelings and reactions are important, even if they don’t seem to make sense at first.

When I wrote the article I mentioned above, one of the other bloggers on the site told me, “I love real talk, even if it includes strong emotions or offensive language sometimes. Raw is okay if it’s honest, because that’s real.” 

I love that. I’d rather hear where people are at ‒ in all the messy parts of their journey and process ‒ than hear something that makes me feel better, but is manufactured or fake.

  • Don’t forget “we signed up for this.”  Each of us.

If we want to grow and to lead well, there’s simply no way to do that without putting ourselves out in front of other people. And as we’ve seen, that inevitably will expose us to negative feedback. Yes, we can try to avoid people and hide, but that will also lead to consequences that will eventually come back to us. There’s really no escaping the reality that we will have to face negative feedback. It’s part of the deal of life and leadership. The only question is, will we face it so we can learn and grow from it?

I frequently read sports articles, which are filled with criticism and second-guessing of nearly every decision of the leaders. After every lost game or season, a thousand blaming fingers point in every direction.

The most successful players, coaches, and executives respond not by dodging, but by facing the criticism head-on. Last year, I remember reading about a college football offensive coordinator who was asked, “Do you think there’s something about your job that makes fans feel more justified in criticizing?”  He responded:

“The quarterback gets it, head coach gets it, offensive coordinator … they’re going to get it. It’s part of the deal, and that’s what we signed up for.”

We are all in the “feedback business.”  That’s part of the deal of life and leadership. The good news: if we learn to face it, we can take big steps of growth as leaders!  And it all starts with putting negative feedback in perspective.

In the next post, we’ll cover some specific steps that will help us receive feedback more graciously.

Adrian Pei
Adrian Pei
Adrian's passion is to make leadership connections about topics that matter. His current job is to oversee leadership training and content development for an Asian American ministry organization. Adrian consults, writes, speaks, and designs content. He loves innovating, collaborating, and seeing a project through from start to finish. Adrian graduated with degrees from Stanford University and Fuller Seminary and lives with his family in sunny southern California.


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