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Updated 27 Sep 2020

How to take negative feedback with a spoonful of sugar

Understanding how to solicit feedback in the right way makes what you hear a lot easier to swallow and do something about.

Marshall Goldsmith, Entrepreneur, 11 October 2015  Share  0 comments  Print

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‘Soliciting feedback’ is just what the words imply. It is when we solicit opinions from people about what we are doing wrong. As simple as it sounds, it’s not always so simple. Most people have two problems dealing with negative feedback. The first is we don’t want to hear it and the second is we don’t want to give it.

The reason we don’t want to hear it is because negative feedback is inconsistent with our self-image and so we reject it. Did you know that of all the classes I’ve taught 95% of members believe they are in the top half of their group? 

Related: How to handle negative online reviews

While this is statistically impossible, it’s psychologically real. Proving to successful people that they’re ‘wrong’ works just about as well as making them change.

Shoot the Messenger

The reason we don’t want to give feedback is because our leaders and managers have power over us, our pay cheques, advancement, and job security.

The more successful a person is the more power they have. Combine that power with the fairly predictable ‘shoot the messenger’ response to negative feedback and you can see why people don’t want to give feedback.

There are some other difficulties with traditional face-to-face negative feedback. Most of them boil down to the fact that it focuses on failures of the past, not positive actions for the future.

Feedback can reinforce our feelings of failure, and our reactions to this are rarely positive. More than anything, negative feedback shuts us down. We need honest, helpful feedback, which is hard to find.

Constructive Criticism

That’s enough about what’s wrong with feedback. Let’s talk about the good stuff. Feedback is very useful for telling us ‘where we are.’ Without feedback, we wouldn’t know if we were getting better or worse.

We all need feedback to see and measure our progress along the way, and I have a foolproof method for securing it.

When I work with coaching clients I always get confidential feedback from their co-workers at the beginning of the process. I enlist each person to help me out. I want them to assist, not sabotage the change process. I do this by saying to them:

“I’m going to be working with my client for the next year. I don’t get paid if she doesn’t get better. Better is not defined by me; it is not defined by her. It is defined by you and the other co-workers involved in the process.”

I then present them with four requests. I ask them to commit to:

  1. Let go of the past
  2. Tell the truth
  3. Be supportive and helpful – not cynical or negative
  4. Pick something to improve themselves, so everyone is focused on more ‘improving’ than ‘judging.’

As you contemplate changing your behaviour yourself, you’ll need to do this same thing with your colleagues. Pick about a dozen people with whom you’ve had professional contact and ask them to agree to these four commitments. When they do, which they nearly always will, you’re ready to begin soliciting feedback from them about yourself.

Related: The blunder brigade

How Can you Do Better?

In my experience, there are a hundred wrong ways to ask for feedback and one right way. Most of us know the wrong ways. We ask people, ‘What do you think of me?’ ‘How do you feel about me?’ ‘What do you hate about me?’ or ‘What do you like about me?’ Think about your colleagues.

How many of them are your friends? How many of them really want to express to you their ‘true’ feelings about you, to you?

A better question (and in my opinion the only question that works) is, ‘How can I do better?’ Variations based on circumstances are okay, such as, ‘What can I do to be a better partner at home?’ or ‘What can I do to be a better leader of the group?’ You get the idea.

Pure issue-free feedback that makes change possible has to, a) solicit advice rather than criticism, b) be directed towards the future, and c) be couched in a way that suggests you are in fact going to try to do better.

Finally, when you get the answer, when someone gives you the gift of what you can do to be better, don’t respond with your opinion of their advice. It will just sound like denial, rationalisation, and objection.

Treat every piece of advice as a gift, a compliment, and simply say, ‘Thank you.’ No one expects you to act on every piece of advice. Just act on advice that makes sense to you. The people around you will be thrilled!

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About the author

Marshall Goldsmith, Entrepreneur

Marshall Goldsmith is an executive educator, coach and million-selling author of numerous books, including the New York times bestsellers, MOJO and What Got You Here Won't Get You There.

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