It happens to all of us: no matter how much positive feedback we receive, we can’t help but focus on (and obsess over) the negative — even if it represents just a sliver of the overall sentiment.
As a speaker (and actor) I get direct feedback all the time, and initially it can be hard on the ego. But eventually I’m able to put it in perspective and even embrace it. Here’s what I’ve learned about how to deal with negative feedback.
These insights are based on the form of feedback I most often receive — the evaluation forms audiences fill out after my speeches and workshops — but they apply to any kind of feedback, whether it’s a performance evaluation, customer review or a passing comment from a colleague or friend.
But first, a story.
I Gave the Performance of a Lifetime …
A couple of months ago I gave what felt like one of the best presentations I’ve ever delivered. The words and ideas were flowing, the energy in the room was crackling, and the audience was right there with me, creating countless magical moments of spontaneity and laughter.
I compare it to riding the top of a wave that never crashes. You’re lifted up and you barely have to paddle or struggle at all. It’s almost effortless (save for the dozens of hours of preparation and hundreds of hours of thinking and thousands of hours of experience that went into it).
I really didn’t need to see the formal evaluations to know I did well. But it’s always helpful to find out what specifically worked and did not work for the audience.
… Followed by Glowing Reviews …
The other day I got the evaluations back. The quantitative rating was high — well above the average for the conference’s speakers — and the qualitative feedback was, honestly, out of this world. People said amazing things, like:
“One of the top 2 of the conference!”
“The most engaging presenter yet.”
“A rock star.”
“Give this guy the ballroom next year.”
I swear as I read through the comments I had an out-of-body experience. I felt like I was floating above the earth. One person even said my session and Seth Godin’s were among their three favorites. Seth Godin, people!
… Then the Bottom Fell Out
Then I got toward the end, and I saw these two comments (for context, the presentation was on advanced presentation skills):
“Overly simplistic … a good refresher, but not new content.”
“Would not consider these advanced presentation skills.”
Ouch. Even though this reflected a single-digit percentage of the total respondents, it still hit me hard. As is my custom, I went through something resembling the five stages of grief, skipping right over denial and going straight to depression. Then I spent some time being angry, didn’t do much bargaining, but finally, after a couple of days, found my way to acceptance.
Conventional Wisdom Says Ignore the Outliers
Now most professional speakers will tell you not to worry, that you’re never going to please everybody (and you shouldn’t even try) and you shouldn’t obsess over a few outliers.
Besides, you never know where someone’s feedback (negative or positive, for that matter) is coming from — it could be from a place of insecurity or envy or lack of knowledge. Maybe the person was having a terrible day. You just never know.
I think all of that is useful advice, especially when it comes to dealing with the emotional aspect of negative feedback. But still, after I’ve had a chance to get some distance, I almost always find some nugget of wisdom in the negative.
How to Deal With It: Content and Context
Since I’m giving this presentation again in a few weeks and on multiple occasions from there, it’s important to think about what I can learn and do differently next time.
For me, it always comes down to two things: change the content, and change the context.
The content side is straightforward: I’ll reexamine the presentation to see if there’s anything I can beef up or add to make the tips more relevant for the veterans in the audience.
As for the context, I look for any way I can improve the way I communicate my ideas. Did I frame them correctly? Did I reinforce them enough?
In many cases a few words to properly set expectations can go a long way. Here’s what I might say next time:
“No doubt some of you are seasoned presenters, and a few of you may not consider all these techniques ‘advanced.’ It really comes down to what your definition of ‘advanced’ is.
For me it means the critical lessons that the majority of everyday presenters — people who present around the workplace and at industry conferences — need to learn to take their presentations from good to great.
If you’re a professional speaker, at the point in your career where organizations are paying you to speak, some of these lessons may feel basic to you. If so, I hope they at least provide some reinforcement and reminders of what you’re doing well and right, which can be useful.”
The point is, critical comments sometimes come down to misunderstanding on the audience’s part or miscommunication on my part. Either way it’s a missed connection and I want to do my part to fix it.
There’s Always Room for Improvement
I’ve found that by stepping back and removing emotion from the equation, there’s almost always something useful to be found in any feedback I receive. For instance:
- A workshop I did received high marks — 4.7 on a 5 point scale. But when individual elements were scored (delivery style, specific exercises, etc.) one element — the written materials — consistently scored lower than the rest. Not by a lot, but it’s still worth spending time seeing how I could improve them.
- Sometimes audiences rate my “performance” higher than my substance. While I’m gratified, I want to work even harder on delivering top-notch content.
- Some participants register surprise that they were asked to do certain activities or exercises, which reminds me that most people don’t like to be surprised. So I continue to work harder on setting expectations and providing clarity up front.
I realize it’s possible I’m overly sensitive to negative feedback. I think that’s due to an experience I had years ago.
Our Biggest Blind Spot: Ego
Where I used to work we had “360 degree” performance reviews — meaning you get feedback (often anonymous) from co-workers at all levels or the organization.
One year I remember being overjoyed by all the positive comments. One person said “We need more Robs in this organization.” I was feeling pretty good about myself.
Years later I looked again at the report (yes, I hold onto stuff like this) and was surprised that along with the positive comments were a good number of “constructive” ones. Most of them suggested I wasn’t a team player — that I was mainly in it for myself.
And these weren’t just a small percentage of random comments — there was a distinct and obvious pattern to them. But I missed them completely because I was so swept up in the positive. I’m still dumbstruck by this blind spot.
But at the same time, I’m not surprised. I was definitely more self-centered in those days — a quality I probably thought was a requirement for getting ahead in the workplace.
Better to Dwell on the Negative Than Miss It
Yes, you can drive yourself crazy obsessing over negative feedback. But ignoring it is just as dangerous.
I personally would rather err on the side of the former than the latter. Not to the extent of obsessing, but looking at everything I do in an objective and clear-eyed fashion. It’s what I exhort my audiences to do — to put ourselves in other people’s shoes so we can better deliver on their needs.
And as good as I think I am, I know I can always get better.