Giving and Receiving Negative Feedback
How to do it respectfully and in a way that improves your relationships rather than harming them
One of the most challenging aspects of giving and receiving negative feedback is understanding how people can respond to it. While some prefer more direct feedback, others can feel personally attacked by it. You need to know the person on the other side to assess that correctly. If you don’t, be extra cautious because the same message can be interpreted differently depending on who’s the feedback receiver and how and when the feedback is given.
Receiving feedback can be difficult, too. Many try to justify or argue with negative feedback rather than just taking it.
Giving negative feedback
To give negative feedback in a positive way, it’s often recommended to do it:
- Privately — don’t give negative feedback publicly; you can give praise in public, but don’t criticize in public; otherwise, it can damage that person’s reputation and your relationship with them.
- Not about the person — good feedback is action or outcome specific, not about the person and their character flaws.
- Respectfully & professionally — choose the words carefully, use a professional tone, and don’t be too direct; otherwise, the feedback receiver can get defensive. If something is not a fact, you can use the language “I feel like…” or “It seems like…” showing that this is only your impression, which might be wrong.
- Thoughtfully & prepared — instead of giving it impulsively, better to thoroughly think through whether this person should receive that negative feedback, when, and in which form.
- Sincerely — don’t give (fake) praise about something else to compensate for negative feedback. A commonly accepted form is to start with something positive before bringing up negative feedback — this can work well if both the positive and negative aspects of the feedback are related and if you do it honestly.
- Constructively & forward-looking — don’t blame for the past; help correct for the future; discuss how you can work together to prevent similar issues in the future.
- Specifically — instead of: the project X didn’t go well, better: you could improve the Y aspect of X by doing Z; or if your feedback is about a behavior or pattern, share some hypothetical examples that clearly illustrate what’s wrong and how something can be improved. Even better if you can leverage real examples from the past.
- Timely — don’t delay constructive criticism until performance reviews; if you give feedback too late, it’s difficult to act on it.
- Unbiased — stay rational and objective, and avoid personal bias as much as possible.
- Unambiguous — don’t leave any chance for your feedback and its intent to be misunderstood.
- With good intent — make sure the receiver understands that you are giving that negative feedback to help them succeed.
- With clear next steps and a follow-up when possible — give that person a chance to improve and later validate whether they did.
Receiving negative feedback
When it comes to receiving negative feedback:
- Actively listen to what this person is trying to communicate— try to understand their perspective, and don’t jump to conclusions.
- Understand their motives — why does that person give you that specific feedback? Is that something they deeply care about, and you precipitously disagreed with them or haven’t supported them enough in that area?
- Thank that person and show appreciation, especially if the feedback is negative. Giving praise is easier. Negative feedback requires courage. Consider that someone cared enough about your success and growth to start a potentially awkward conversation. Acknowledge them for it, even if you don’t agree with the feedback.
- Stay calm, and don’t take it personally. Feedback is rarely meant to attack you personally but rather to make you consider something that didn’t go well and could be improved.
- Refrain from trying to explain why you did something. Don’t argue with feedback because you don’t like it. Take it and decide what you do with it.
- Make sure you understand it; if not, ask for concrete examples and ask clarifying questions to ensure that feedback is actionable for you as a feedback receiver.
- Reflect on that feedback and how you can use that to improve your actions and behavior.
The advice shared here may not be applicable to every situation, but those general principles often help give and receive negative feedback constructively.
Is something important missing? Please add in the comments.
Thanks for reading!