How to Handle People Who Reject Feedback

Giving feedback is hard for many people. And it’s frustrating to have your feedback met with resistance or hostility.

​The good news is you can do a lot to make it harder for someone to respond negatively to feedback, through preparation and delivery.

Reflect on the following before you ever say a word:

  • Have I made my expectations clear? When my oldest son reached a certain age we had different expectations around level of freedom while living at home. One weekend our expectations didn’t align and I realized I hadn’t done a good job setting forth expectations up front, or seek to understand his. Once I did, we had smoother sailing.
  • Are my expectations realistic? Ask two trusted and reasonable people if they have an alternate perspective for you to consider.
  • Am I being too sensitive? Give yourself a cooling off period to consider other perspectives. Announcing “I’m offended” is akin to saying I’m not able to manage my emotions. Yes, people say and do offensive things, but there is a space between something that happens to me, and my reaction to it. Within that space lies choice. I’m a big believer the world would be a much better place if we all had thicker skins.
  • What is my motive? Are you giving feedback out of genuine care and concern for the relationship, or with their best interest in mind? Be honest with yourself. What does your head say? What does your heart say? What does your gut say? If all three are aligned on pure motive, proceed with confidence.
  • Am I making assumptions? Things aren’t always as they seem. I recall many times I assumed and was wrong. The late, great Dale Carnegie wisely compels us to “assume the nobler motive” in others. To guard against assumptions become curious, asking questions in a neutral tone. “I think I might be interpreting what you said in a way you didn’t intend. Can we talk so I can better understand your perspective?”
  • Is this an appropriate time/place/medium for feedback? Feedback should be given privately, at a fitting time, in person. Use the phone if face-to-face is impossible. Dive-bomb feedback given before someone is about to deliver an important presentation, or when fighting a fire for a customer is ill-planned. Feedback shouldn’t be given in email or text messages. It will be misunderstood, and things will go sideways in a New York minute.

Give neutral, objective feedback.

  • It’s crucial to omit assumptive statements in feedback. You’re trying to do this, or You did this because…, or, I know you think/feel, etc. Unless you’re a mind reader, stay far away from assumptions and reference observablebehavior only. Example:

NO: “It really bothered me when you reassigned my project to Ellen. It concerns me you don’t trust me to do my job.”  ASSUMPTION ALERT!
YES“Reassigning the Acme project without providing the rationale has left me wondering if I’ve done something to lose your trust. Can you help me understand the reason behind the decision?”

  • No hyperbole, please. Magnifications and over statements such as You neverdo this, or You always do that are a problem. First, they aren’t true; they’re an exaggeration. Second, they’re inflammatory, setting the stage for our feedback to be ignored because people know they don’t always or never do anything, which weakens credibility of the feedback.

Calmly handle resistance

If you’ve provided objective verbal feedback, at an appropriate time and place, with pure motive, on observable behavior only, in a calm, neutral tone, it’s harder for someone to respond poorly. However, if it is met with rejection I recommend this approach:

  • Explain providing feedback was difficult, you reflected on the situation prior to coming to them, and you’re concerned their reaction will make it harder to come to them and have open communication in the future. You might add that positive communication and conflict resolution is critical to your collective success.
  • Remain silent. Maintain eye contact. Wait for a response.
  • If they respond favorably and soften, success! 
  • If they continue defensively, explain perception of the situation remains. Ask for their opinion on how the situation should be resolved. Remain silent. Maintain eye contact. Wait for a response.
  • If they continue to operate from a negative place, simply thank them for their time and part company.
  • Immediately document the conversation, its outcome, including their response to the suggested resolution question. Use exact phrases if possible.
  • Follow up a couple of days later and ask them if they’ve had time to reflect on the discussion, and if anything has changed. You want to allow them time to come around if they were having a bad day, or going through something you were unaware of.
  • If the original situation was serious (e.g. you were giving feedback about inappropriate behavior) and their stance has not changed, consider escalating to Human Resources or the person’s manager, along with your documentation of the conversation (which, in their own words, will demonstrate their unwillingness to resolve conflict).

Some people cannot admit their mistakes. You may have to cut your losses with these people, but don’t assume they aren’t coachable until you try. Unwillingness to accept feedback will catch up to them eventually. Congratulations, you should now be a feedback ninja!

All the best to you!

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