Hints for receiving and giving critical feedback

Bad news isn’t like wine, it doesn’t improve with age – Colin Powell

By Paul Hutcheson

When Listening to Negative Messages

Few of us enjoy receiving critical feedback. Yet, ironically, our ability to at least hear unpalatable news (if not relish it) goes to the heart of improving everything we do in life.

When you are receiving “bad news” try dropping your defences, at least momentarily, by adopting some of these suggestions:

  • Avoid focusing on what the speaker’s intentions may be. The reality is that we will never exactly know why someone is being so critical of us and why they are saying it so badly. Very few people express difficult messages well and the chances are that whatever their motivation is, it won’t be as bad as it seems. We need to remember that and cut the person some slack!
  • Remember, no-one is perfect! If we can all blithely admit this self-evident truth, why do we need to be so resistant to hearing something about our own imperfection? Receiving negative feedback is part of being human.
  • Hear it for what it is. Feedback is generally someone’s opinion rather than established verifiable fact and usually it is about one aspect of us or what we do. However, rather than immediately discounting everything, focus on placing that negative information in some kind of proportion.
  • Listen, listen and listen. And when appropriate, only ask clarifying questions rather than cross examining questions.
  • Try embracing something. Regardless of the “what and how” of the message, invariably there is somewhere concealed within it, a kernel of truth.

How To Express Feedback

One of the most difficult and courageous activities of our daily routines is saying something critical to someone. So unenviable is this task that most people just avoid the challenge altogether. However, the unexpressed tension is guaranteed to build and ensure the problem behaviour continues.

On the rare occasions that people attempt to express critical feedback, they often only give indirect hints or use humour or dramatic outbursts. These forms of expression are not strong forms of communication and are usually ineffective at changing behaviour. Try these suggestions:

  • Choose your moment. Sometimes there is never the right time or place to say something but there are often better occasions than others. (Note 1)
  • State your intent. Commence any difficult conversation by stating your overall intension for raising the topic. There is a reasonable chance that even if your subsequent message is delivered imperfectly the listener may recall your stated intension.
  • Be honest. Expressing feedback is absolutely about honesty – above all, you need to be honest with yourself as the speaker. Ask, ‘what is my real intention here of criticising someone else’s behaviour or performance?’ Giving feedback will never be effective if we are trying to mask some real, though unpalatable, feelings like retaliation, insecurity, envy etc.
  • Choose the Right Medium. Never use emails as your first means of conveying negative feedback.
  • Be specific. The behaviour, performance or attitude which is the subject of the feedback needs to be particularised.
  • Focus on impact rather than intention. Talk about the result of the behaviour or performance of a person, rather than focusing on assumptions about what the person’s intentions may have been.
  • Be succinct. Few people will tolerate listening to long critical speeches about themselves.
  • Don’t send mixed messages. Sometimes in conveying negative feedback it is tempting to include some positive information. The reality is that the listener will often interpret any affirmation as manipulative or insincere. If the critical information is important enough, it is best just to state it on its own.
  • Be constructive. Suggest an alternative to what is being complained about.


  1. Chapter 7, Bernard Mayer, The Dynamics of Conflict Resolution: A Practitioner’s Guide, (Wiley and Sons) 2000, isbn 13: 9780787950194″