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How to respond to the negative feedback that’s most-frustrating to hear

Here are some sample responses to the 3 types of negative feedback that are most infuriating to hear.

The feedback we receive can sometimes feel like bullshit.

I recently spoke with a CEO who told me she received feedback from an employee who proclaimed, “This company doesn’t care about parents.” The employee then proceeded to gripe about the lack of maternity and paternity benefits.

Admittedly, the CEO agreed that the company’s maternity and paternity leave policies could be improved… But she was livid about the broad accusation that “this company doesn’t care about parents.” What an unfair generalization. The CEO was a parent, herself!

The CEO was conflicted about how to react to the feedback: She didn’t want to come off as being defensive to her employee. But she also didn’t want sweeping, inflammatory remarks to be seen as well-received by the employee. How was she supposed to take this feedback? It felt like bullshit.

Bullshit feedback usually comes in one of three forms…

The feedback is true — but the delivery is off.

(This is case of the CEO’s situation I just described). The other person complains and makes it a bitch-session. Or she or he is overly snappy, harsh, and rude.

The feedback is flat-out untrue.

The other person doesn’t have the full picture or was misinformed about something. Or she or he may even be lying.

You can’t tell if the feedback is true or not.

The feedback is vague, unclear or supremely subjective. There aren’t any examples or specifics to back up what she or he is saying.

These three types of bullshit feedback — the poorly delivered, the untrue, and the unclear — are insanely frustrating to be on the receiving end. How in the world are you supposed to possibly receive them well?

Given that how you receive feedback as a leader sets the tone of openness and honesty in your company, this is especially challenging. If you dismiss the feedback too readily or respond negatively to it, you’re likely to discourage that person (and the rest of your team) from ever voicing their honest opinion to you again. But, if the feedback goes completely unchecked, then untrue, rude, or vague feedback could become normalized, accepted behavior in your company.

What should you do?

Here’s exactly how you can receive each type of bullshit feedback well as a leader, and still encourage an open, honest company environment…

If the feedback is flat-out untrue, say this:

“Thank you for letting me know. Can I think on what you shared, and get back to you?”

When we receive feedback that is inaccurate, misinformed (or even a straight-up lie), it’s important to not just blurt out, “I think you’re wrong.” Such a knee-jerk response — even if you are in the right — will come across as defensive to the other person.

Instead, take a little time (be it 30 minutes, or a day or two) to verify that the feedback is indeed false, before letting that other person know. This way, you can first make sure you do have your facts straight, and more calmly point out and share why you think their feedback is untrue.

You may also want to acknowledge your own role in why they may have been misinformed, and how you could have contributed to the issue. Rarely does an employee independently give incorrect feedback (unless they are maliciously lying). Usually, as leaders, we haven’t done our role well enough to shine a light on something — hence their misinformed feedback.

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If the feedback is true, but poorly delivered, say this:

“Thank you for sharing what you think and feel. This is helpful for me, and I’m going to think on and act on it right away. Also, not to detract from the merit of what you’re saying — in the future, it may be worth considering that you came across as ____ when delivering your feedback to me.”

When someone blows up at you or goes on a complaining rant, no matter how true the content of what their feedback may be to you — you’ll want to make aware to the other person that their delivery was off. Again, to make sure you don’t come across as defensive, you don’t want to say: “You’re a complainer” or “That was rude.” Instead, use this as an opportunity to coach them. Show you’re not resentful by saying, “not to detract from the merit of what you’re saying,” and be forward-looking by saying “in the future” or “next time.” You want this person to continue to speak up and give you their candid perspective… just not in how they delivered it. Communicate this to them calmly, kindly, and directly.

If you can’t tell whether or not the feedback is true, ask these questions:

“Can you give me an example of what you’re talking about, just so I can better understand and improve for the future?”

“Going forward, what’s the one thing you’d like to see done differently?”

“Was there a specific moment or occurrence that triggered what you’re describing?”

“What would success look like to you in this situation?”

Unclear feedback is perhaps the most frustrating type of feedback to receive because it can feel like a waste of your time to try to unpack. Asking questions is the key to learning and getting to the truth of the feedback. Questions can also serve as guideposts to your employee, encouraging them to give you more clear, specific manner next time.

Handling these three types of untrue, rude, and vague feedback require a bit of patience and self-discipline. Our natural reaction in our inner monologue (for instance, “WTF?!”) must be quelled and placed aside.

How you handle bullshit feedback is a test for you as a leader. Handle it well, and you’ll set an important precedent for your team.

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Written by Claire Lew

CEO of Canopy. My mission in life is to help people become happier at work. Say hi to me on Twitter at @clairejlew.