Use Negative Feedback to turn Critics into Supporters

Use Negative Feedback to turn Critics into Supporters

I used to think I handled negative feedback pretty well. And I use the term negative feedback pretty loosely. Most of my experience receiving negative feedback has demonstrated that it is really poorly delivered, both in timing and content, which probably makes it closer to criticism or even an insult than to negative feedback. I think this little process is a great way to take advantage of negative feedback, no matter how delivered, and turn it into an actionable task that builds your rapport.

In the past I used to accept the criticism, perhaps with a half-hearted thank-you, and then try to mine the tidbit of truth from it to help me move forward. Seems logical, and it appeared to work reasonably well.

What I have begun to learn lately is that there is an even better way. You see, I’ve always believed that there is a grain of truth to such feedback but now I see that the truth is rarely present in the persons initial comments. So attempting to extract anything from this brief conversation is next to useless and suggestions that come from this process are more likely to be internally generated than to actually arise from the other person. Therefore any action coming out of it, although it may be positive, will not usually address the real concern.

Now you have to give the critic some slack. Most people delivering feedback are (a) upset and (b) uncomfortable delivering it. Providing useful feedback is not something that seems to be taught in school. The question is, what can we do to help them get their point across?

I now try to do four things. First, I ask some gentle probing questions. Second, I think it over. Third, I go back to the person and ask if I really understand the problem. Finally, I make some change to show I really value their feedback.

1. Gentle Probing

After the person has let me have it, I politely ask some simple follow up questions. Some generic examples would be:

  • What makes you think that?
  • How did you come to that conclusion?
  • What did I say or do that made you feel this way?

The idea is to try to get to the heart of the problem. Does the person not like your manners? Was this just final straw in a series of complaints they haven’t told you before? Has there been a misunderstanding? I never defend myself at this point as I am only trying to really understand the persons complaint.

2. Mull it Over

Then I wait; typically a day or two while I mull it over. If the initial conversation was reasonably successful there should now be something for me to chew on. I’m still not trying to look for solutions or justifications, but just to understand the problem.

3. Confirm the Problem

Once I feel I have boiled the problem down to its core I go back to the person and ask them. I would say something like:

“I’ve been thinking about what you said the other day. What I think your saying is _____ . Does that sound right?”

If I’ve got it right I am now in a place to make some really positive change. The great thing is, by this point I have usually already begun to win a supporter. First of all, accepting their feedback and doing some initial questioning demonstrates I am serious about understanding the issue. Then, when I go back to them, they are typically surprised. This is when they realize that I take their feedback extremely seriously and really want to use it for the better. Almost always, this conversation is much more relaxed and more insightful.

4. Make a Change

The final step is to consider the meat of the feedback and to make some change that reflects the criticism. If you accept my initial premise that there is always some grain of truth, then you should be able to find something to improve. In many cases the communication up to this point may have resolved the issue, but it is still wise to do something to further clarify the issue.

What I’ve found is that most people are impressed with the respectful response, and the consideration given. I also think they unconsciously feel better because I have helped them understand what is really bothering them. These three things will often work together to move the critic toward being a supporter.

An Example

I’d like to finish with one example from my work with my Church board. One Sunday, just prior to my playing in the Sunday band, I ran into a person I’d known for some time. I could see they were uncomfortable with the small talk and quickly made the following comment.

I’ll just say this now. What you sent out as minutes from the last board meeting was useless. It looked to me like an agenda. If that’s what your going to send out you might as well not send out anything.

You can see right away the timing was terrible; I played awful that Sunday as I struggled to get the thoughts out of my head. The feedback was very pointed, critical, and lacked any actionable detail. Fortunately, I had been mulling over the ideas in the post recently and just barely had the wearwithall to bite my tongue and ask a few simple questions:

  • What did you see that made you think it looked like an agenda?
  • What would you like to see in the minutes?

I missed it at first, but as I began to think it over the next day, I realized we had recently made a change to the meetings and were now including a consent agenda item as the first piece of business. For those not familiar with board work, or Roberts Rules of Order, this is simply a list of recent report and actions that the board is accepting without any discussion. They are typically just routine business items. As I thought about it I began to realize what was probably happening. First this person saw the word “agenda” in the minutes. Then they saw a list of reports that had no discussion noted in the minutes. Their conclusion: The board was hiding the details of the discussion!

Once I realized this I gave the person a quick phone call and told them I had been thinking over their feedback. They immediately began to soften. I asked if it related to the first item and sure enough it did. It didn’t take long to be able to confirm that this was actually the source of the problem. A simple misunderstanding about what was taking place at the board meetings. Once I described the consent agenda, and explained that we use it to give us more time to tackle the more important issues they really began to come around. Finally I ended by committing to describing this process in the next board minutes so others would understand as well. This final commitment on my part was just the icing on the cake to demonstrate that I took the feedback seriously and wanted to ensure the issue was properly dealt with.

So what started out as someone believing I was leading a group of people to hide information from the members turned out to be a simple misunderstanding, but gave me a great opportunity to demonstrate our true concern and commitment to consider all members feedback. That is, one critic was converted to a supporter. At least for now…


I am now beginning to look forward to criticism no matter how poorly delivered. These ideas have demonstrated to me that any feedback is an enormous opportunity for improvement and relationship building that should never be wasted.

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