Positive vs Negative Feedback: How to Handle Even the Worst Feedback with Wisdom and Grace

October 15, 2022

by Pam Boney


Positive vs Negative Feedback

Think back to the last time you were given some feedback that made you think “ouch”! Or worse, maybe you received feedback that even cost you your job or resulted in the loss of an important personal relationship. Life lessons such as these are tough to handle in the moment, but if you think back, they often engender positive change in your life. A good friend of mine recently said “things don’t happen to you, they happen for you!”. 

Wait, what? It took me a few minutes to digest that. And then…

What if we could choose to shift our mindset about all things negative by remembering that adverse outcomes always have the potential to make us stronger (or better). Would this mindset moderate the coping process?  

There is an old saying that “After every storm, there is the potential for a silver lining after it rains. Sure enough, when I look back over my life, I can readily cite evidence that my friend (and the old analogy) are both pretty spot on. 

For example, earlier this year, my husband and I made plans to move to our dream city and build a beautiful new home over the winter. We sold our house, packed our treasured belongings, and put them into storage while we waited for the home to be finished. On the last Friday in April, we finally closed and were waiting for the moving truck to arrive on Sunday morning when we received a shocking phone call. Apparently, the movers had worked late into the night packing the semi-truck and had rigged up some lighting that was never turned off. It sparked and caught fire, burning everything we owned during the night. When the driver awoke the next morning, there was very little left but ashes and a mess. 

In the moment, I think we were both in shock. The next day we moved into our lovely new home with nothing more than four suitcases and a new mattress on the floor. All of our dreams for this chapter in our lives had quite literally gone up in smoke. It was a daunting time, as you can imagine. My friend's voice and her quote was the thought I clung to during one of the more difficult times in my life. It is now 120 days later as I write this post, and I can share that it changed our lives forever - in so many good ways. 

Yes, there were losses to process emotionally. But we learned that things don’t matter as much as we thought–it’s the meaning we make of them that causes us to drag them around through life. We learned that we don’t need old keepsakes to remember the people we love because they live on in our hearts and are etched in our minds forever. We could have reacted from fear and panicked. Instead, we were wise enough to respond with grace and a general trust that we would find some good outcome in all of the turmoil. 

This story will hopefully help you remember that unpleasant feedback or anything negative that happens in your life is something you can handle. You will do what is needed because you have to. The following life lessons can help you navigate challenging times. 

Life lessons about feedback:

  1. Feedback is unavoidable:  Life brings you feedback every single day, whether you realize it or not. Unless you are a hermit, you are interacting with people and natural elements in your environment every day.  As a result, you are getting both positive and negative feedback and processing it in your mind so you know what to do in the future when similar situations occur. 
  2. Your brain will react in certain patterns:  Your brain is always searching its database to see if you’ve previously experienced what you’re currently encountering. If you have, it knows what to do and you’re wired to handle it like you always do. If not, your brilliant brain will drive you to search for answers. 
  3. Reactions will be underpinned by fear or grace: Your automatic response deserves a good examination in new circumstances. What may have worked for you in the past is ONE consideration, but you may find new ways to respond that work even better. The key is to notice whether your automatic response arises from fear or from grace. If it’s from fear, then question your automatic response and then tweak it. If from grace, then proceed. 
  4. Tune into your feelings and honor them:  In order to move forward, we must identify the feelings created by negative feedback and let them sink in before we move on. Only then can we truly understand what is causing them. It also carves a deeper path of compassion in our hearts, so that we truly understand the pain of others as well. Our empathy muscle grows every time we evolve after negative feedback. 
  5. Don’t hold on too long:  The indicator of unhealthy patterns underpinned by fear is that you hang on to them, and they keep re-appearing. It’s ok to feel fear in the moment, but be sure you learn the lesson and move on. I could have held on to the losses of all of my life’s belonging for years if I had wanted.  But we chose to move on and love life. 
  6. Take responsibility for your impact or lessons:  Negative feedback arrives at our doorstep when we are unaware of something about ourselves. We would never know how we are showing up unless someone cared enough (or was courageous enough) to tell us how we impacted them. 
  7. Be willing to experience discomfort and angst:  We cannot grow if we are not willing to examine the consequences of our choices and look carefully at what we could have done differently. The fire was very informative feedback for me, believe it or not. I tend to be too quick to move forward and avoid examining the details. The contract we signed gave us an opportunity to declare the value of our belongings, and I missed that. I also get restless easily and am known to move every five years. I won’t be moving anytime soon and have decided to be content.  
  8. Ask for honest feedback:  We all have weak points where we need to learn and grow. The best people in our lives are those who will trade this precious gift with us. When we are low, they will help us discern the truth, not placate us with flattery or agreement that might make us feel better in the moment. Flattery or shallow agreement actually does us a disservice because we lose the lesson. Give others the gift of honest, respectful feedback, too, even when it’s hard. 
  9. But, only ask people the right people:  This means people you can trust to have your best interest in mind.  Do not trust people who are known to manipulate you or make you feel bad about yourself. Keep the circle of feedback loops to a sacred few whom you admire and respect. Only then will you truly listen and learn. 

The same lessons are true with positive vs negative feedback, but I would add three more:

  1. Keep it real:  When giving or receiving positive feedback, be sure to keep it in perspective and ensure it’s realistic, so you don’t unwittingly encourage the lack of growth in yourself or others. Learn to give honest feedback in a way that helps others see how things look to you or feel for you, but don’t be disappointed with the truth. 
  2. Deliver the message & be silent:  Saying the truth isn’t easy, so don’t apologize for it or expect others to do the same. Be quiet and wait. Let them sit with the observation. 
  3. No one is right or wrong:  Feedback is almost always something that varies from person to person. The person offering feedback is telling you how you affect them, but only them. No one needs to be right or defend being right. It is a personal interaction between two very different people. So treat it as a sacred desire to get along better. Only then does any kind of feedback result in honest exchanges between people who care about each other. 

Receiving feedback can be difficult at times, and often causes people to become stressed. Knowing how you react under stress can help you better understand how to handle feedback from others. To learn more about your stress reactors, feel free to get started with our strengths assessment and learn "why" you do what you do.