So many people have had negative experiences with negative feedback (sometimes, very early in life) that they are ready to react defensively—even when the feedback is well-meaning and constructive.  We are all human.  We all have egos.  And all of our egos have been bruised, at one time or another, when someone was not constructive, dead wrong or extremely inelegant in offering it.

One productive technique to make sure a person can “hear” and make use of negative feedback is to presume that the way in which someone is underperforming does not represent his or her best self or ultimate potential.  The person can do better.  The person has a blind spot for how to make it happen—a resistor in the circuit of his or her best intentions.  This automatically allows you a “prejudice” in that person’s favor.  It gets you into a healing, helpful mindset that will register consciously or unconsciously with the person receiving the feedback.

By the way, this isn’t about avoiding the necessity to give negative feedback.  Giving negative feedback is often essential. It’s about making that feedback easy for the recipient to accept and act upon.

How might this work?  Take as an example someone who has submitted a report about a project.  The report is lacking in needed details.  One could either begin a meeting about the shortcomings of the report with a funereal tone and launch into its shortcomings or one could begin optimistically, even with a smile:  “I think you’re a big picture person and you like getting things off your desk.  And there’s power in that.  You can’t teach people vision.  Sometimes, though, big picture people need to slow down and sweat the details.  I do, too.  Trust me.  And this report is slim on details.  I tell you that because I know the tendency to rush to complete things and the tendency to focus way down the road.  But that tendency needs to be reined in.  Because, ultimately, we need the work to be excellent.  And, frankly, you can do better.”

Or, consider giving someone feedback about tending to cut others off as they are speaking during meetings.  Simply stating, “Joe, you have to stop interrupting people,” is likely to make Joe feel badly about himself and might well lead him to be defensive.  After all, Joe may have heard about his habit before—maybe at a much younger age when he felt much more vulnerable.  But what if you started with a prejudice in Joe’s favor by saying, “Joe, when you have an idea, you’re like a race horse at the gate.  I can see it in your eyes and the way you lean forward.  And I appreciate that enthusiasm.  What I want to help you with is avoiding running out the gate to present your ideas when it’s not the best time—like, if someone else is talking at a meeting.  And I feel badly because I see that happening quite a bit.  You don’t have to jump the gun.  Your ideas are often strong enough to take center stage, whenever you share them.  So, you can afford to wait.”

Again, none of this is meant as a prescription for avoiding or dancing around tough truths.  It is meant as a way to not only speak the truth, but to have it be heard.  Win-win.  Pain-2-Power.


Dr. Keith Ablow


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