14 Tips on How to Handle Negative Feedback (infographic)

Bosses – who needs them, right? After customers, they’re just about the biggest nuisance you have to deal with at work. If only it was just you in a bubble, you might actually get something done!

Only joking. As challenging as it can be to work with other people, deep down they’re what makes it all worth it. Your professional world is a symbiosis of competing yet complementary needs, desires, and capabilities. So learning to cope with the demands and suggestions of those around you will ultimately benefit all involved – especially you.

In fact, if you never receive feedback you’re in trouble. The world of the digital professional moves forward pretty fast. Without prompts on where it’s going or where you’re lagging, you’re on your own to figure out what’s next and where to improve.

But while constructive feedback is always welcome and usually practical, there’s another type of feedback that digital pros need to learn to deal with: negative feedback. That’s what happens when your boss or client has no ‘bedside manner’ – they don’t know how to speak kindly and constructively in a professional setting.

On the one hand, you shouldn’t have to accept this. If you’re spoken down-to because you’re outranked, or because of your gender, race, or other attribute, it might be a case of workplace bullying. It’s certainly not cool, and you should make a note of each event, and consider reporting the guy who made the comments. If you feel capable of it speak to them directly about how you would prefer constructive rather than negative feedback, and how they might go about it.

(Or, because it’s not your job to fix the broken system, and bullying and systematic degradation are never the victim’s fault, you could just burn the system to the ground. But that’s for another article.)

But on the other hand, sometimes you’ve just got to bear the fact that the person paying your wages doesn’t know how to say ‘do better’ nicely. How can you do so without a) screaming in their face? b) screaming into your pillow at night?

Let’s take a look at how to zoom in on the ‘feedback’ of what is said, rather than the ‘negative.’

The stance

Like so many things in life, how you deal with negative feedback has a lot to do with your physical and mental preparation. Because feedback often arrives with very little warning, you might need to do that prep even as the first gusts of hot wind are issuing from your boss’s mouth.

In the first place: slow down. Slow your breathing to reduce your stress levels. This will help prevent you from reacting with anger or upset. It is also good for your health to know how to manage incoming stress.

Slow your reactions. Don’t respond immediately. Listen through to what the other person is saying, and only speak up to clarify the message by repeating it back to them if necessary. Let them get to the end because if they’re not good at giving feedback, there’s very little chance they’ve structured their speech effectively. Hear it all before you judge.

And even if their feedback is basically on the money, don’t rush into an apology until you’ve had a chance to think it through and you know what to say, how to say it, and you mean it (and don’t say it more than once). This is for your dignity; it is also to indicate to your critic that you’re genuine.

In fact, the first thing you might say is ‘Thank you.’ This helps to set the tone. It may sound like you’re giving in, but by thanking your boss for negative feedback, you actually adjust the power balance a little bit. They are the ones that have given you something valuable. You are the one that bestowed the value on it. Now you are on an even level talking about something that is useful and practical, rather than a telling-off or insult.

(Keeping your body language open and maintaining eye contact will likewise establish an atmosphere of maturity and equal ground. This is one of those rare situations where teenager-style sulking will not help you).

Processing power

Negative feedback can often come as a shock, so don’t be afraid to ask for time to process it. It helps to wait for at least one minute before responding so that you have a chance to control your anger and suppress hostility. If you need longer to process the feedback and to come up with a plan on how to improve your performance or whatever was criticized, ask for it. You might need an hour, you might need one day.

“Unless the negative feedback concerns something that is right-on-the-spot fixable, it’s good to ask for time to consider what your informant has told you,” management consultant Dick Grote told Harvard Business Review. “This provides several benefits. It defuses the immediate situation. It tells the other person that you consider their feedback important enough that you want to consider it carefully and calmly. And it allows you to think through the accuracy of what you’ve been told, perhaps testing its validity with others.”

Write down the feedback as closely as you can to what was said. Don’t add in negative words that weren’t used. A memory aid like this will help you to concentrate on exactly what was said, and not add areas of improvement or insults that you imagined because you were in shock! It will also be helpful if there is ever a case against the person who delivered the feedback. But mostly it is to help you process the feedback objectively.


Once you get past the heat of the feedback session, it’s up to you to put the burn of the negativity behind you and concentrate on applying the lessons learned from what was said.

Check over your notes about what was said, and clarify with your boss if there’s anything you’re unclear about. It can be very helpful to get some specific examples. Good, constructive feedback will include examples, but if your boss or client delivered angry, negative feedback broadly criticizing you for what you ‘are’ rather than what you ‘do,’ you might need a bit more clarification.

If you agree with the feedback (from what you could divine from the torrent of negativity) then create an action plan to improve the way you do things. Note down, as a series of small steps, everything you need to do in order to get back on track. Negative feedback doesn’t just make you feel low because it is badly stated; it can also make you feel incompetent if you realize that doing things better is going to be very difficult for you. Keeping those tasks simple and manageable can prevent things from becoming overwhelming.

And if you don’t agree with the feedback, speak to somebody neutral about to get an objective point of view. That might be a friend, a trusted colleague, or a mentor. If the feedback was not applicable, you might need to arrange a meeting or arbitration with your boss or client to ensure you both fully understand what is expected of you, and you can work out the way forward together.

Sounds doable? Getting negative criticism is never fun. But bouncing back can be relatively straightforward with these 14 tips for handling negative feedback.

How to process negative feedback (without triggering a stress response)

We’ve all been there:   “Am I about to get fired?”   Your boss begins by giving you a handful of compliments. You aren’t actually listening, though — you’re too focused on what’s coming next.   "I’ve been so impressed with blah, blah, blah and how you’ve done an amazing job of blah and blah. But…”   There it is — as soon as she says the word “but” you feel your mind and body brace for impact.   Here’s the deal:   No matter how well you do at your job, receiving negative feedback from time to time is inevitable.   That’s why we are sharing this guide with actionable tips to help you focus on the feedback and not on the negatives:

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Featured Illustration: Freepik
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