3 Things You’ll Want to Blurt Out When You Get Bad Feedback (But Shouldn't!)

Getting negative feedback is never fun, especially when you don’t see it coming. And when it seemingly comes out thin air, you’ll say things that you don’t mean to in response.

And if you’re like me, many of those things are simply counterproductive. As tough as it is to hear that you were wrong, or could improve at something, here are a few things that you should probably avoid saying in response—plus, what you could say instead.

1. “I’m Sorry! It Won’t Happen Again, I Swear!”

This is one I tend to lean on in almost any situation in which I’m receiving negative feedback. It’s one of my most trusted defense mechanisms because I hate finding out that I messed up. So in an attempt to put the other person at ease, I blurt out that I’m incredibly sorry and that even though I’m a failure, I’m not going to let it happen again.

What to Say Instead

The problem with this response is that it’s completely impossible to live up to. You can’t assure anyone that you won’t make the same mistake again, even if you take meticulous notes and do everything you can to never, ever do that thing in the future.

So instead, try responding with, “You’re totally right. I see how that could be improved, and will make a note for the future—but if you notice it again, please let me know!”

2. “Wait, What? I Didn’t Realize That Was the Wrong Thing to Do!”

Here’s a typical result of the mentality that you should ask for forgiveness instead of permission. And as admirable as that approach is (while also being something I’ve never been able to do myself), it’s totally off-putting for someone to hear that response when all they’re trying to do is give you helpful feedback for the future.

What to Say Instead

It’s OK to not wait around for someone to give you their blessing to try something out. But when that person tells you that your approach wasn’t exactly right, don’t go on the defensive. Instead, say this: “Ah, I see what you’re saying! I’ll definitely keep that in mind for the next attempt!”

3. “No, I Didn’t Do That! Oh, Wait. Maybe I Did, But I’m Not Sure.”

The worst kind of co-worker is often the one who doesn’t realize what’s going on, especially when you try to tell that person something that could help them be better at their job. This response is typically indicative of the fact that you’re so aloof, that not only did you make the mistake, but you’re not even sure why it was wrong in the first place.

What to Say Instead

The good news is that the fix to this is fairly straightforward. It’s not the worst thing to realize in the moment that you messed up, but it’s also important to own up to the fact that you might’ve dropped the ball.

When this happens, make this little edit to your response: “I didn’t realize I did that! Regardless, I’m sorry for the trouble and I’ll get it corrected ASAP. Let me know if there’s anything else I should know before I start fixing it.”

Nobody’s ever going to enjoy getting negative feedback on their work. We all think we’re going to nail every project on the first attempt, and when we realize we haven’t, it’s easy to just blurt a few things out and hope it all goes away.

The reality though is that the mistake is real, and the feedback will not always be positive. But your response in the moment can make an awkward situation a little more comfortable for everyone involved, not to mention help you improve and become better at your job.

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About Richard Moy

Richard Moy
Richard Moy is a Content Marketing Writer at Stack Overflow. He has spent the majority of his career in talent management, including a stint as a full-cycle recruiter and hiring manager. In addition to the career advice he contributes to The Muse, he also writes test prep and higher education marketing content for The Economist. Say hi on Twitter @rich_moy.

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