How to Give Negative Feedback Well

4 psychological principles

Nick Wignall

Giving negative feedback is a challenge in many areas of life:

  • Maybe you’re a manager and have to give one of your direct reports some tough feedback about their recent performance on a project.
  • Or maybe you want to give your spouse some constructive criticism about your sex life but you’ve been procrastinating on it because it feels awkward and you don’t want to hurt their feelings.
  • Or maybe you’re worried about a good friend’s increased drinking habit but aren’t sure how to bring it up without making them feel worse about themselves.

Life is full of situations where we need to give negative feedback.

Unfortunately, we often end up avoiding giving negative feedback altogether because it’s uncomfortable. Or we end up acting impulsively and doing it in a way that’s unhelpful — even damaging.

Of course, this shouldn’t be a surprise…

Giving negative feedback well isn’t something most of us are trained on how to do. So of course we struggle with it!

Luckily, with a fe mindset shifts and a little practice, just about anyone can become much better at giving negative feedback in a way that is both effective and compassionate.

What follows are four psychological principles for giving negative feedback well.

In my work as a therapist, probably the biggest mistake I see over and over again when it comes to giving negative feedback is this:

*People quickly get distracted from the actual issues and end up getting critical of each other.*

Here’s an example:

I had a client recently who was trying to give her husband some negative feedback about some of his chores around the house — taking out the trash, cleaning countertops after cooking, sweeping up the patio after doing a project, etc.

Her main piece of feedback was that her husband often cleaned up 80% of the way, but still left a bit of a mess or didn’t quite finish.

For example: he would take out the trash but then not replace the trash bag. Or he would clean all the countertops but not clean the stove-top.

When she finally did give him some feedback about it, the conversations started well enough… She told him something like: “Hey honey, I really appreciate that you help out with so many chores around the house, but you often don’t quite finish them up or leave little bits of messes…”

So far so good.

But at this point, her husband would interrupt her (probably because he was feeling defensive) and say something like, “God, why are you always so critical? I’m helping out, aren’t I?”

Now, this is the critical juncture….

When the other person starts to get defensive and criticize us (usually unfairly) we inevitably start feeling hurt and upset. Unfortunately, all too often, we end up acting on that defensiveness we’re feeling by being overly critical back — usually in the form of a personal criticism of them as a person or their character.

In my client’s case, the way she responded to her husband’s criticism of her was to say: “That’s just so like you isn’t it. Blow up and get defensive anytime anyone gives you feedback. Why can’t you just be mature about it?”

Now, I’m inclined to basically agree with my client that her husband’s defensive and hypercritical response was emotionally immature. But here’s the thing…

Responding to a personal attack with your own personal attack is almost never helpful, even if you think it’s justified.

Unfortunately, we all get defensive sometimes. And worse, we end up acting on our defensiveness in unhelpful ways.

Which brings us to an important point:

Before giving negative feedback, prepare yourself for the likelihood that they will get defensive and consider how you would like to deal with it.

My theory is that the reason most of us end up getting defensive in response to other people’s defensiveness is that in large part we just get caught off guard and surprised. And this surprise and disappointment leads to some impulsive, rather than intentional, reactions.

On the other hand, if you anticipate that the person you’re giving negative feedback to will get defensive, and make a plan for how you would like to handle their defensiveness, you’ll be much more likely to succeed.

And what does that success look like?

The best way to handle defensiveness after negative feedback is to stay specific to actions and avoid getting personal.

For example, in the case of my client, she and I generated a few examples of how she could have more effectively responded to her husband’s defensiveness by staying specific and focusing on his actions rather than getting general about his character or personality.

Instead of /That’s just so like you isn’t it. Blow up and get defensive anytime anyone gives you feedback. Why can’t you just be mature about it?/ here are a few of the alternatives we came up with:

  • First of all, I don’t think I’m always critical. I’m just letting you know that as much as I appreciate what you do — and I really do appreciate it — I would also appreciate it if you could pay a little more attention to finishing these tasks all the way.
  • I’m not being critical of you — I appreciate how much you do help out. I’m just asking if you could work on remembering to replace the garbage bag after you take out the trash.
  • I know it can come across like I’m criticising you, but really I’m just trying to point out one small thing I’d like you to work on. I think you’re incredibly helpful in general.

The benefit of keeping your negative feedback focused on specific behaviors is several-fold:

  • It will lower their defensiveness because it reinforces that you’re criticising a specific action — and by implication, not them as a person.
  • It gives them time to cool off a bit.
  • It gives them a concrete vision for what they could do better. No one can actually “be more helpful” because that’s not a specific action. You can, though, get better at remembering to “replace the garbage bag” because it’s a specific action.

Now, all this is easier said than done, of course. But keep these two points in mind, and I think you’ll be on your way to more constructive negative feedback:

1. Prepare yourself ahead of time for defensiveness and have a specific plan for how you’d like to handle it ideally.
2. Keep your feedback focused on specific behaviors, not character attributes or personality traits.

We’re all control-freaks at heart.

Which means that when someone we care about is doing something we perceive as wrong, we want them to stop. And we believe that we can make this happen.

Of course, most of us realize we can’t physically make someone spell-check their TPS reports or remember to replace the garbage bag. So we end up resorting to what feels like the next best strategy: giving them advice about what they should do.

But here’s the thing:

The trouble with advice is that people resist it.

Occasionally someone will come to you from an honest and well-thought-through position genuinely asking for advice. In which case, there’s a decent chance your advice will be heard and perhaps acted on. But this is like 1% of the time.

Most of the time, people can’t even hear your advice — much less act on it — if they’re not ready and willing to receive it.

A good analogy here is gardening…

Suppose a friend gives you a packet of seeds for an extremely beautiful and rare Jerusalem Orchid. And because you’re so excited to see this flower bloom, you tear open the seed packet, crack open one of the seeds, and try to pull the flower out.

Okay, obviously this is ridiculous. No matter how much of a Jerusalem Orchid aficionado you are, you can’t make a flower bloom. The best you can do is provide the right conditions and let it get there (or not) on its own. You can plant it in good soil, water it, give it access to the right amount of sunlight, etc.

Well, in this case, people and orchids aren’t all that different. You may want them to change or behave in a certain way, but no matter how much you believe it’s right and would be good for you, them, and all of humanity, you can’t make them change.

And more often than not, that’s what advice is. It’s you trying to make someone change by telling them what they should do.

But again, that’s not how people work the vast majority of the time.

People change when they’re ready to change.

This means that if you really want someone to change, the best thing you can do is stop giving advice (because that usually just backfires and makes them dig in their heels even more), and instead, help foster the conditions that will make it more likely that they change on their own.

In the language of gardening, start fertilizing the soil and get on a good watering schedule.

So what does it look like to “foster the conditions that will make it more likely that they change on their own”?

A good place to start is by providing relevant information, ideally in a nonjudgmental way.

For example:

Suppose you’ve got a coworker with whom you’re responsible for completing a project. But you find that they repeatedly come to meetings late and disorganized. And that this behavior is negatively impacting both you and the quality of the project.

Now, your inclination might be to tell them that they need to start showing up for meetings on time or that they should “get organized” (advice).

A better alternative, though, might be this: Provide them with information that would help them understand that it’s important and in their best interest to show up to meetings organized and on time.

So, you might start with something as simple as this:

  • Hey Jenny, I know you’ve got a bunch of other projects you’re working on, but for our project, I think we really do need to be giving this a full hour’s worth of our time and attention.
  • Or: Jenny, I think our meeting for Project X would go faster if you could have the list of file data prioritized ahead of time.

*Giving people specific, useful information helps them to make better decisions on their own.*

The other benefit of the information, not advice approach is that it helps you avoid judgmentalness. And the less judgmental you come across, the less likely the other person is to get defensive.

Of course, there’s a time and place for giving advice straight up. But I think you’ll find that a much more effective approach is to start by giving better information — specific, concrete information in a nonjudgmental way — and giving the other person the opportunity to make the change themselves.

So far, a theme that runs through everything we’ve talked about is the importance of being mechanical, not moral, in your feedback.

And the reason is simple: The more judgmental or moralistic you come across, the more likely the other person is to get defensive and then not take your feedback well.

Well, here’s a related principle:

Effective negative feedback frames things in terms of helpful or unhelpful, not right or wrong.

Here’s an example from my own life:

I frequently find myself needing to give my young kids negative feedback about the fact that they keep playing with toys despite plenty of reminders from their mom and me that it’s time to put their pajamas on and get ready for bed.

Unfortunately, my default approach to giving negative feedback in this scenario is to be moralistic:

  • Why can’t you just listen the first time?
  • You need to listen when your mom asks you to do something.
  • Stop playing with Lego and put your pyjamas on. It’s not that hard.

All of these are moralistic in the sense that they imply that my kids aren’t doing the right thing or are behaving badly.

The problem is, even if this is true, it’s not helpful. And it’s not likely to actually get them to receive my negative feedback well.

On the rare occasion that I get this right, my approach would be more pragmatic rather than moralistic:

  • Honey, remember that the faster you get ready for bed the more time we have for reading.
  • If you want to practice brushing your teeth by yourself, you need to clean up your Lego.
  • Let’s see how fast you put on your pyjamas. I’ll time you with my phone…

See the difference?

The feedback is the same, but in the second set, the framing is pragmatic and constructive rather than moralistic and critical.

Of course, the hard part with framing your negative feedback constructively, rather than critically, is this:

Being critical is easy. Being constructive takes creativity.

So whenever possible, try and give yourself some time ahead of the actual feedback session to think creatively about how you could frame the negative feedback constructively rather than critically.

I think you’ll find the upfront investment pays off in the long-run.

I saved this final principle for the end because it’s both the simplest and potentially the most powerful way to give negative feedback well, but also the most ignored. Which is weird.

Reinforce the positive!

Here’s an example:

Suppose you’d like to give your best friend some very tough-to-hear negative feedback about their drinking habit. It seems to you like it’s really starting to get excessive and you’re worried that they’re close to going down a really dangerous path.

In a situation like this, I think a lot of us (myself included) would have a gut instinct to focus on the negative — all the bad things that could happen if they don’t stop, all the people they need to stop hanging out with, all the other people in their life who are concerned, etc.

Now, these may all be perfectly valid concerns. But the tricky things to see here is this:

By focusing too much on what’s wrong, you actually make it harder to help them do what’s right.

For example: a common unintended consequence of this type of negative feedback is that it leads to a lot of guilt and shame in the person you’re trying to help.

You bringing up all sorts of negatives associated with their drinking habit is a trigger for them thinking about how much they’re hurting other people in their life. And the pain that comes with this shame may end up leading them into the very habit you’re trying to discourage — more drinking — as a coping mechanism.

Now, I’m not saying it’s morally wrong for you to focus on the negatives — that just because you bring up some negatives and they feel shame as a result that you’re responsible for them feeling shame and the negative behaviors that may follow.

I’m just saying that that might not be the most effective way to help them change — that focusing on what they have done well or could do well may be the more pragmatic approach to this dilemma.

For example:

  • You might remind them of that time 5 years ago when they kicked their habit of smoking cigarettes.
  • Or you might invite them to do healthier activities with you during times when they tend to drink a lot as a way of illustrating and reinforcing alternatives to their drinking.

Of course, you shouldn’t ignore the negatives when you’re giving negative feedback. Especially in situations where there’s a real possibility for danger — obviously those do need to be addressed!

The point I want to get across is that you should think more carefully about the ratio of discouraging the negative to reinforcing the positive.

And what’s more, you should be open to the possibility that in many cases, the best way to discourage a negative behaviour is to encourage a competing positive behaviour.

But in order to do this well, it takes a lot of self-awareness…

When confronted with a problem, it’s easy to fall into a mindset where all we see are problems. But it’s extremely helpful if you can stay balanced and mindful of the many positives and strengths the other person has as well.

Remember…

Often the best way to correct a weakness is to build a strength.

Most of us struggle with giving negative feedback because it’s a skill we were never taught. But with a few mindset shifts and a little practice, it’s definitely something you can get much better at.

  • Focus on the behavior, not the person.
  • Give information, not advice.
  • Be constructive, not critical.
  • Reinforce the positive.

Thanks for reading,

— Nick

How to Give Negative Feedback Well