What makes negative feedback palatable and what makes it harder to digest? In my public life as a mediator, author, speaker and blogger, it comes down to this: The kindness of the delivery.
Recently, a mediator emailed to tell me why she was unsubscribing: “Too many fluff words / paragraphs. Write like a journalist, terse and concise…You’re a giant in your field and have been for some time so please take these comments to better your craft.”
Her feedback arrived only two days after another reader sent me this: “Please, please, please write longer posts with more detail so I can know all there is about each subject your [sic] writing about. I am so eager to learn more and really want more information from your articles.”
Both readers wanted me to change something about the way I write here. Why, then, did I find the first so irritating and the second not so? They differed substantially in their kindness quotient.
When negative feedback is delivered positively
When a reader sends feedback, I am always grateful for their attention and usually grateful for the feedback itself, even when I decide not to accept it. I will almost always give negative feedback a fair shake before deciding what to do with it.
After 14 years of putting myself and my work on the line in public ways as a speaker, author, and blogger, I’ve learned that:
- It is easy to criticize from outside the arena (Brené Brown’s helpful measure).
- When I find myself reacting badly to negative feedback, it’s not the feedback itself that is usually the problem.
- Unkind delivery is the problem.
- Before I conclude something is unkind, I must test my reactive read.
It is not very difficult to respond to negative feedback that has been delivered in a kindly manner. I like to say, “I’m grateful for your feedback. I send these articles out into the wild and wonder what they will do. Thanks to your kindness, I have some sense of that now.”
When negative feedback is delivered unkindly
Even with my thick mediator skin, I sometimes have a brief internal struggle when I receive negative feedback that is unkind. In those instances, I must remind myself to look for the useful nugget amidst the nasty words. I can often find it eventually.
Here’s my typical process for digesting and handling unkind negative feedback:
- I read the unkind feedback through twice. My first reading usually gets blurry from a flash of anger or hurt, so the second reading is necessary.
- I try to do the second read as though the message has come from someone I know and love, and I try to read it with a kind tone of voice. Occasionally, I forward it to my husband and ask for his assessment — he is reliable when it comes to kindness because he will always give someone the benefit of the doubt.
- Sometimes when I take these steps, I discover that the feedback is not so unkind after all; my own mood or initial reading caused me to misinterpret.
- If the email fails my kind-tone test, I set it aside and do not reply right away. I find that 2-3 days is a good delay for me.
- Once I no longer feel quite as wounded or angered by it, I return to it and write an abbreviated reply with as much appreciation as I can muster.
I have become quite a fan of Carl Sandburg’s response for instances like these: “I shall try to do better.” It is inevitably true.
I try to avoid Shirley Jackson’s response, though I would very much like to use it now and then.
Does unkind feedback deserve its own feedback?
On very rare occasion, I see that an unkind feedback giver also happens to be a mediator. I struggle a bit more in these instances because I believe mediators should try to walk our own talk (even while I know we cannot possibly always succeed).
In these instances, I sometimes write back with messaging along the lines,
Since you have been so generous with your feedback, I would like to be generous in return. I thought it might be helpful to you as a mediator to understand the impact of your words…“
My own jury is out on this approach. Some days it feels right, some days I think I should have deferred to Carl Sandburg.
Sometimes, it just brings more nastiness in return. I don’t continue the conversation when that happens. Life’s short.