How to Handle Negative Feedback

What's the best way to respond to negative feedback? How to avoid taking things personal? And how do you deal with negative reviews? All questions for expert Bart Provost.

Kevin Van der Straeten
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patrick maes [PRIVA Building Intellingence NV]
patrick maes [PRIVA Building Intellingence NV]
New|2021-08-17 - 16:55u

geweldige video hoe omgaan met negatieve feedback, waarheid !

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Hi Bart, welcome to the studio.

Hi, thanks for having me.

We're going to talk, today, about handling negative feedback.

Why is it so difficult for us to handle negative feedback, Bart?

Well, it's an interesting choice of words because you immediately put it as "negative feedback". Whereas most people, whichever kind of feedback they consider, they consider it to be something that is difficult to digest.

Of course a nice, very constructive, positive feedback, like "wow, this was a great job, you did it fantastically well", most people will appreciate. Although, even there, some people, they have a tendency, that depends from culture to culture, they have a tendency to go like: oh, but it's nothing. Oh, it's usual. That's common, that's nothing special, or whatever.

You have a nice shirt, Bart.

Right! That's...

What most people will tend to say, is like: oh, really? Oh, oh.

And literally, when you said it, I was a bit surprised. Like: is he giving me a compliment now or what? It's because we're not used to it. Just look at the education system. In the education system most things, we always hear, is like: this is wrong. That is wrong. Red markers from teachers that indicate all the points that we have missed. All the grades that we failed. So, we're not used of coping with positive feedback. Like: nice shirt. Most people, where I come from at least, will say: oh, but it was a cheap one. Or something. Or: I just got it in an outlet store. It's not so fancy. So, even there, like digesting positive feedback as well, it's a completely different and difficult thing to do.

So your question was about: what if the feedback contains some things that we consider to be negative? Negative towards ourselves. Our performance. Our work. Whatever we did. And the fact is that most people, and that's where the root cause is, of why we perceive difficult...

Let me put it like difficult feedback. Difficult to digest. Difficult to understand. Difficult to put into perspective and so on. So, if we get difficult feedback, in many cases, the reason why we get upset about it, is because we identify with something.

So just imagine: you're booking an event. And I'm your host. So I'm going to present everyone, every speaker in your event. And afterwards you come to me and you give me a feedback. And you say like: well, most people weren't that enthusiastic. And the reason for that is that they didn't recognize themselves or the core business of our company. It wasn't aligned with company culture. And so on. So, if I would receive this feedback, I would perceive it as, probably, a difficult to digest feedback. Because of the fact that I have been the one doing it. Right? So I identify with my role. As the person who is presenting everyone. And making the loops, the links, between the different speakers. I'm here. I'm performing. This is about my capacities. About my competencies. My skills. And you're giving feedback about my skills. So that is the reason why most people take feedback to be very personal. Because they have invested the best they can. In their behaviour. In their capacities. In their tasks. In their assignments. So, whenever someone gives a feedback about the assignments, these tasks, we take it personal. And that is the reason why most people get very upset by receiving this difficult kind of feedback. It's about identification with the topic at hand. That's the main reason about it.

But how do you then sort out what feedback you should take in and what feedback you could just leave where it is and take for what it is?

But that is a really interesting question. And the answer to that question is mainly how you should treat the feedback. I mean, just imagine a customer says like: yeah, people were absolutely unhappy with the service you provided.  No-one liked it. You were way over time. This was absolute non-sense. Whatever. This kind of feedback...

Probably, for most people, if you would get this kind of feedback you would take this really personal. But what can you do about it? And that's your question now: which part of that feedback should I take in?

No-one was interested. Is that something that we can use? Yes or no?

Customers didn't recognize themselves in what you did. The effects of it, people got bored. Et cetera.

What are you going to take in? And of course...

I know of a very typical technique , which comes from a completely different area of expertise, but it's a really interesting one. And it's a technique invented by a lady. Her name is Anné Linden. And she's speaking about boundaries, no boundaries and walls. And if it comes to feedback, I find this one really easily applicable to this situation about receiving feedback.

First of all it's: having walls. It's one of the three possible strategies So just imagine that a customer or a boss or a co-worker or a colleague, a supplier, tells you something. Gives you a difficult feedback. If you have the strategy of walls then you go like: whatever. Right?

So you can say whatever you want. I know my truth. And I couldn't care less about what you're telling me. You're always an obnoxious client. Well, this is typically you. As a manager, for instance. This is the way you give feedback. So I shouldn't take anything personal. Et cetera.

So that's the first strategy. You build, as a matter of speaking, a wall. So nothing comes through. Not the personal insults. Not the generalizations. Not the distortions of what the other one has perceived about your project. Or about your efforts. You don't take anything in. Right? You build a wall and you hide behind the wall.

But in that case you also don't let in the good feedback.


Or the stuff you can do something with.

Absolutely. So that's the major disadvantage of having a wall. So, whatever is underlying...

The underlying need. The underlying interest of the customer.

If the customer, for instance, says: yeah, but the people didn't recognize. They didn't feel like you understood our business reality, our business context. And that's why they didn't like it. Well, if I have a wall, I don't hear they don't like...

I hear they don't like it, but I'm not going to do anything about it. But I don't hear the underlying need as well. That apparently the people didn't feel like I got a good grasp of what their business reality was. And that is something I should do something about. For the future. Right?

So you're absolutely right. If you have the strategy of walls, there's nothing penetrating it. You keep everything out. And you might come across as cold-hearted. You might come across as someone who's not interested in the feedback. As maybe even arrogant. Because you keep it all out. So that's the first strategy. Right?

The second strategy is to have no boundaries at all. You take everything in.

Now, there's something you need to know about feedback. Like: the person providing you with feedback does that based on their own reality. On their own perception. So it's not the reality. It's not the ultimate truth or the ultimate perception. No, it's their perception.

Yes and maybe they're just having a bad day or something and are therefore being harsh.

Absolutely. Absolutely.

So you have to realize that what you get as a feedback is not the truth, capital T. It's just their truth of the moment. Right? Which doesn't mean that you don't have to do anything with it. But if you consider it to be their truth of that moment...

Truth, capital T. Right? Their perception.

You have to know that there are some psychological filters. Some psychological processes by which they process information. So if you...

Just imagine you're a co-worker and you made a fantas...

According to your own view, you made a fantastic project proposal. Right? But your boss isn't enthusiastic about it. Well, at that moment, your boss has some filters by which he perceives, processes, the information of your project proposal. There is something like distortion. There is something like deletion. There is something like generalization. These are typical things. We all do this, as human beings.

So, distortion is like: it's not 100% the truth.

A deletion means they leave something out. They see certain things but they don't observe other things.

Generalization is: they don't consider the specifics but they generalize it to some broader aspect. Just imagine your boss comes in and throws the document on your desk. And he says: what kind of crap is this? Really. It doesn't mean anything. I don't see the added value of it. Did you even invest some time in it? And so on. Question there is...

Like all the things that your boss is telling you at that moment. Well, there are some deletions and distortions and generalizations in it. Because: nothing, it's worth nothing. There's no added value whatsoever to be found in it. That is really the perception of your manager at that moment. It's not the absolute truth.

So with the second strategy, the strategy of having no boundaries, you take everything in. Oh my God. You consider this as a full-blown attack on your efforts. On your work. Your capacities. Your skills. Even on your person itself. Which will lead to either of two strat...

Well, three strategies, you could say. But in business context, mainly, two strategies.

Either you go like: oh my God. Oh, I'm sorry. Oh yeah. I probably sent you a draft version. Oh, I'm sorry. I will review it. What do you think is missing? And so on. Kind of like the flight strategy. You're trying to hide away. You're trying to come up with excuses, maybe. Or apologies why it's not so good. As what the manager expected at that moment. So you're going to be, completely, in the down position. Right? So you're going to be there like: oh my God. And probably all the feelings that go along with it will come onboard. You will feel devastated. You will feel sad. You will feel angry. Whatever. So you will be overwhelmed with emotions at that moment.

The second possible strategy is not only the flight strategy but the fight strategy. The fight where you go like: and who do you think you are? No wonder this document isn't what you expected it to be. You weren't even able to explicit your expectations to me. So no wonder. So, you're getting into the flight mode, right?


Third possible mode might be the freeze mode. Where everything is so overwhelming. You go like: oh my God, what message is it? And you completely freeze. There's nothing coming out of your mouth. You just take it in and you go back to your office desk. And you start reworking the thing. Right? Hoping that next time, feedback will be a bit more positive than this time.

So that is when you use the second strategy, namely the no boundaries. You take everything in. You take the insults in. Like: this is a piece of crap. Right? It's an insult about your work. Can't you do anything right? So then it's an insult about you and a generalization. And so on. So you take all of these things. Together, eventually, with the foundations of the feedback. Like: you made a lot of spelling mistakes. You didn't outline the objective. You didn't clarify the objective. Whatever. Right? Because that can be content. So in that moment it's like: oh my God, what's happening to me?

The third strategy is the most sound strategy if it comes to receiving feedback. It is the strategy of boundaries.

So we had walls: nothing coming through.

No boundaries: everything coming through.

And then you have the healthy strategy, which is boundaries. Where at a certain moment, you decide if you're going to open the frontiers. You could even imagine, like in the old days, when there wasn't even a Europe. When you had to pass the frontier of one country to another, you had these kind of barriers that were opened by the customs. Right? Consider it a bit like that. And you're going to decide in a very, you could say aware way, in a very conscious way. Like: what am I letting in? And what am I keeping out?

And how do you do that? Because there's the difficulty. How do you decide what to get in and what not?

Ah, but that's an interesting question. I'd say the main one million dollar answer there is...

It's a criteria. It's like: I'm only allowing the information to pass through, to take it in, when it allows me to become a better version of myself. Now that sounds a bit philosophical, doesn't it? But a better version of myself is like...

Take the first example I gave you. Like: I'm the speaker, I'm the presenter of this night. For this event. And I'm presenting every other speaker on the stage. And afterwards I get the information, like: yeah, people were bored. People were not interested. They had the feeling that you didn't know, whatsoever, what our business context is about. People are bored. Am I...

To some extent I might take it in. Like: okay, apparently this was the effect of my behaviour. You don't know nothing about...

Nothing about is a generalization. I leave that one out, so I keep it closed. Right?

The third one is: people had the impression that you didn't know enough about our specific business context. Now I'm really opening up, because this is important information. It means that next time I'm doing something like this, I really need to read in. Or get a good intake or a good briefing about the business context of my customers. Which means that my next presentation, on the next event, will be far more powerful. Because I can make comments, maybe even crack a joke, about the business context of my customers. Which will allow, as an effect, that they will be, for a longer time, more interested in what I have to say.

So I'm only taking these things in. Like: I will never recommend you to anyone else. You know what? That's the anger of the customer in front of me. I'm not taking that one in. I'm really sorry to hear that. But I'm not taking it in. Because if I would take that in, if I would open my boundary and allow it to get in. that would make me really unhappy. That would make me afraid.

If you look at this example. Now we're talking about how to take it in. What not. What do we take in? But you've also already given a first attempt to answer the person. By saying: oh, I'm really sorry to hear that. How do you continue that answer? Are you going to thank for certain feedback and also make clear that you're ignoring the other parts?

Well, that's an interesting question. Because the first thing I brought to you was the three possible strategies. No boundaries, walls and boundaries. Boundaries being the healthy version of it. Right? Now, the moment you have decided, like: this is the information I'm getting in. And then there is information coming my way. Towards my customer, my boss, my co-worker and so on, my colleague. Then we're talking about sending externally, verbalizing, how I would like to react to it.

So the first thing is: how do I take in the feedback? With the three possible strategies: boundaries, no boundaries, walls. And then: how am I going to extravert it again to someone else? How am I going to verbalize what this feedback does to me? And that is an interesting one.

There is another technique. About four steps. You can call it a ladder even. And the thing is: you can never go to a higher level on the ladder when there's still some issue on the lower ladder. Right?

So the first step is emotions. Undoubtedly this feedback does something to you. So please, say this to the other one. Really? Oh my God. This is not what I was hoping for as a feedback. I'm really sorry to hear it. And it makes me even a bit afraid if you were even able to obtain the result that you wanted. So that is really expressing how you feel about it. How you feel about this feedback. So that's the lower level. The level of feelings and emotions.

The second layer, the second run of the ladder, is about your perception. Oh, I hear you say that people were not interested and zapping out and dozing off and walking away. Okay, I hear this. And I would like to ask some more questions about it later on. On the other side: what I noticed was that the people in front of the stage, they were all laughing, they were all looking at me. So I had a completely different feeling. So, that's the reason why I would like to invite you that we dig a bit deeper into what you just brought to me. That people were zapping out and were not interested. Can we talk about that one? So, if there is an issue on the second level or layer of that ladder, namely the layer of perception. The layer of the relationship between the two of us. Because I have my perception. But the customer, they have their perception as well. And it's a really interesting one. And there you have a very good conversation. Not about the content. Not about what you said. Not about what you did. But the second one is about: how did you perceive things? And how do I perceive things? Now let's exchange these perceptions. In order to make it more clear. So just imagine the customer says: yeah, of course you didn't see. You just noticed, because of the lighting, the five first rows. But you didn't see that the last twenty rows, they were just getting up and getting to the bar. And starting to talk in the middle of your presentation. Hm, okay. That is information, indeed, I didn't have. Okay, what are we going to do about it? Right? That's the second level. It's like: how is the relationship between the two of us? How is your perception about this situation? How is my perception? Because there is not one single truth. We both have our perception of truth.

The third one, the third level, the third stage of this ladder, is: how are we going to solve this? What is the procedure? What is the process? What are the next steps? What are we going to decide in which way? Right? Okay. How are we going to do this? What might be a way to tackle this? Because after this coffee break, we're going to continue. So how should I do this? How can I, very quickly, insert something about your business context? For instance. So you're trying to find solutions together. Right? So that's the third stage.


And the fourth stage is the stage of the content. Yes, when you said this and that exactly or this specifically, then it came across as...

There were twenty rows of people that left the room and they went to the coffee bar, for instance. There were like six people that came to me and they told me that when they heard you say this and that, that...

Et cetera, et cetera. That's all the content of things.

Now, why is this four stage-technique so important? Because most people, they completely forget also they don't dare, to go to the lower two levels. The one of feelings and emotions. And the one of perception. Most people want to dive, immediately, into the content. But what was it I said that...

Instead of acknowledging the fact that the customer is angry. Acknowledge the fact that his feedback or her feedback does something with you. Acknowledge the fact that they have a perception. And you need to know more about their perception in order to become more wise. You need to open your boundary. Get your barrier, open up. And then take in the perception of the other one. Because there's a lot of truth to be found in it as well. And you have to exchange your perception. And only then you can go for solution finding. For the procedure. How are we going to tackle this? And for the content of things.

Most people are afraid to talk about their emotions. About the emotions of the customer. To talk about their perception and about the perception of the customer. But these two lower levels...

If there is an issue, you might want to talk about content. You might want to talk about procedure. They will always permeate the content discussion. Always.

We're now talking about getting feedback. Directly. In a person to person conversation.

On we also have a review platform, which is quite popular. And some companies are still afraid to start using reviews. The thing we hear the most is that they are afraid of negative feedback. Now, in practice, we see that 98% of the feedback is positive. But nevertheless people are afraid of sometimes getting a negative feedback. If you do get a negative review, you don't have the possibility, at least not online, to have this dialogue. So how do you react online, to such feedback?

Well, I'm going to mix some things that I've already said.

The first thing is: if you read the feedback of your customer, use the three strategies. And preferably the healthy of the three strategies: the boundaries strategy.

So if someone says: it was really a worthless event. Okay, the word worthless? Leave it out. Close your barrier. Keep it out. Only open your boundaries...

Keep a healthy way of boundary-keeping. When it comes to really the content of what a customer says. That's one thing.

So even when you read the review and the feedback of the customer, even there decide like: what am I going to let through and what not? Which is going to help our company to become a better version of itself?

Secondly: apply the four stages technique of the ladder. First thing is: acknowledge the fact that your customer is unhappy. Or angry even. Or disappointed. Acknowledge it. Oh, I can read the disappointment in what you write. Right? And then talk about your own emotions. We are so sorry to hear that. It's not like...

This is not psychotherapy. Right? So keep it business. It's like: we're really, really very sorry to hear that. Because our intention is...

And then...

That's a little tip & trick. Talk about your intention. Because even if you do something completely wrong...

And it might not even be you, but your co-workers doing something completely wrong. The intention is always there to satisfy the customer. To serve the customer's needs. Right? So talk about your intention. We're so sorry to hear that. And we can tell that you're disappointed and angry about the service that we delivered. We're so sorry to hear it. It hurts our professional feelings. Because our intention is really to make a worthwhile or an unforgettable event for our customer. And then you go further on. And of course you can't go into the content.

Because what I understood from your review platform, is like: the customer can leave one comment, one review. And then the event company can leave their answer to it. And then it's a full stop.

Yes, we don't want back and forth starting to happen online, because that's not constructive. Then you need to pick up the phone, I think.

Absolutely. That's a very wise decision.

So the next thing you need to do is then, at that moment: okay, it didn't come across like this, but what I read in your comment is...

That's in fact the second stage. It's the perception. What I read in your comment, is your perception, is that we didn't do this or that we weren't able to do that.

And then you go to the third stage. And the third stage is reaching out to the customer. Because that's the procedure in which we're going to find a solution together. It's like: how can we, as quickly as possible...

Can we come back to you, talk it through and see how we can find an elegant solution. There is not any customer that is angry about a supplier coming back. Acknowledging the fact that the customer is unhappy. And being open and willing to do something about it.

The worst reviews are the reviews that aren't answered. Or that are answered in a way that they become a catfight. Like: no, you're wrong and I'm right. And well, you didn't provide us with a good briefing, for instance. So, no wonder it is not what you expected. Don't ever do that because the other 98% of people reading that review will have a very good idea about how well or how poorly you do take in feedback from customers.

Yes and even more. If we see companies...

And that we see from research. It's that: you look at businesses...

Not only on our platform but also on other platforms like Tripadvisor and so on. If you see companies with only positive reviews, that's also suspicious. I'd rather go to a company that has one or two negative feedbacks, but has a very good response to it. Learned from the mistake and make sure it doesn't happen again. Because those are the companies you want to work with.

Because their response...

If you apply the four different stages and if you go like: okay, but I acknowledge your emotion. And I tell you what it does to me and my professionality. That I wish to remediate. If I listen and read between the lines, what your perception is. And if I then reach out to you to find a solution together. You see that, even when you're visiting me, even when I'm hosting an event for you or whatever, you know that this attitude of customer-orientation, will permeate everything I do. Not only answering to a complaint or a negative review. But always, in every little thing I do, this is my attitude that I bring to the table. So and that's the nice thing about reading a very constructive answer to a negative review.

Indeed Bart, thank you so much for sharing these strategies to deal with negative and positive feedback.

Thank you.

My pleasure.

And you at home, thank you for watching our show. I hope to see you next week.