Turning negative feedback into a positive

Feedback is everywhere. Not just in the form of professional performance reviews and unwanted comments from your parents, children and partners. Social media and review sites have unleashed the critic in us all.

Eating a meal out? Post what you think of the food and waiters on a review site while still at the table. If you are reading this review online, you can leave a comment below saying just how wrong I am.

We may not be able to exert complete control over what someone else thinks of us, but we can certainly do something about what we choose to do with the feedback.

Human resources managers and personnel are trained to deliver and shape their critiques and compliments. Less attention is given to helping those on the receiving end filter through the morass of feelings provoked and find something constructive in the message.

It is this imbalance that the authors of “Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well” seek to redress. The book is published by Viking.


The writers — Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen — teach negotiation at Harvard Law School, and they are founders of Triad Consulting, which helps organizations resolve workplace conflict. Its clients have included Citigroup, Unilever and even the White House.

They say they have found few executives or politicians who are good at receiving feedback. Negative, positive and even oblique comments can spark emotional reactions in the recipient and inject tension into the relationship between the giver and the receiver.

We might think that the person delivering the feedback is an idiot, with no credible expertise; we might feel wronged, outraged and frustrated by the content of the feedback.

When we give feedback, they write, “we are offering ‘constructive criticism’ and helpful coaching. We’re confident that we’ve correctly identified the cause of the problem.... Yet when we’re on the receiving end of this kind of feedback, we don’t hear it as ‘constructive’ anything. We hear it as blame.”

In part, one of the main reasons we react so badly to any whiff of criticism at work, the authors argue, is that we feel generally underappreciated and under-praised. The good news, they contend, is that we can learn how to identify and manage the emotions triggered by the feedback and extract value from criticism.

The authors identify two extremes that can make things difficult: the blame absorbers — those who assume responsibility for the team presentation that fell flat; and the blame shifters — “people who are chronically immune to acknowledging their role in problems.”

The key is to understand which one you are at any given time and why you might be reacting in that way. Much of this book is eminently sensible. Do not become defensive or offensive in response to feedback. Do not let criticisms snowball — try to isolate each bit of feedback and analyze it for what it is. Stop catastrophizing — being told by a date that there was no spark does not mean you will die alone.

Rather than react immediately, untangle the content of feedback and see whether there is anything that resonates with your performance. If there is, wait for the emotional intensity to subside before responding. Try to learn from your mistakes rather than ignore them or letting them drag you into a trough of despair.

They also suggest an alternative to what is sometimes called the “praise sandwich,” in which criticism is interposed between two pieces of positive feedback. Instead, they suggest ditching the word “but” in favor of “and.” Never say: “I love you but you need to close your mouth when eating.” The word “and” would be less negative and more open.

In the spirit of the authors’ message, my feedback goes as follows: This is a sensible, breezily written book, and it could have been a great deal shorter.

Emma Jacobs is a columnist for the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.