When Feedback is Abusive

Holding people accountable can be challenging. When you hold someone accountable, you are giving them uncomfortable feedback about their behaviour. You are in effect holding up a mirror to show them that what they said, did, or didn’t do isn’t acceptable. Does that feedback get easier to hear when it’s said with a smile? With kind words? With a gentle tone?

Several years ago, we did a study on feedback. We wanted to know how people responded to feedback, especially harsh feedback. We received stories from 455 people who had at one point or another been told things like:

  • “You are an evil person. You are a thief. You are scum.”
  • “Think about leaving—I need warriors not wimps.”
  • “You only want to be right. You are manipulative and selfish.”
  • “You know, you are kind of whiny.”
  • “You look great on a resume, but not so great on the job.”

Some may see these statements as examples of bullying. They are certainly direct, but they may also be seen as harsh, mean, and even uncalled for. And yet, surprisingly, while 90% said they felt shocked or stunned to receive such feedback, only 15% reacted with feelings of anger or resentment. The most common response was either silence or forced politeness. Harsh feedback simply shut people down, at least for a moment.

But we didn’t stop there. We wondered whether people would welcome feedback if it were delivered in a more careful and compassionate way. If someone said “You seem to be more concerned with your own results than the results of the team” rather than “You are selfish,” would the recipient be grateful and accepting of the feedback?

What we found is that no matter how courteous the feedback was delivered, it still left a painful and lasting impression. It was still hard to hear.

This study is not referenced to dismiss the seriousness and unacceptable use of bullying. There is no room for bullying in the workplace, or any place for that matter.

However, it does suggest that just because feedback can sting, doesn’t mean it’s a form of bullying. Any time we hold another accountable, they are likely to bristle to some degree. No matter how kind we are, feedback is usually unwelcome. And while we teach many skills on how to speak up with 100% candor and 100% respect, it’s also important to have skills for receiving feedback or being the recipient of a Crucial Conversation.

Let’s first look at why feedback can be so difficult to receive, then we’ll examine how we can receive it better.


Safety is one of two essential psychological needs. Whenever we believe it’s threatened, we respond with fight, flight, or freeze. Ofcourse, if you find yourself in physical danger, get out of the situation. But when someone is holding us accountable, we are completely safe. It is our pride that’s at risk, not our safety.

It’s not hard to see that, in the case of physical danger, we must take responsibility for our safety. And yet when it comes to psychological safety, we often assume others are responsible for it. If this is our position, the default reaction to feedback is to take offence. Remember that you are responsible for your own psychological safety. Ghandi said it best: “Nobody can hurt me without my permission.”

You may be wondering, what if the person really is mean? It doesn’t matter. If the Devil himself had feedback and there was a kernel of truth in it, wouldn’t you want to hear it? Ultimately, the motive of others holding you accountable is irrelevant. Look for the truth—that is what matters.


Our other essential psychological need is a sense of self-worth. Too often we derive a sense of self-worth from external sources—jobs, salary, social standing, material possessions, you name it. Then, when someone reveals our shortcomings through harsh or uncomfortable feedback, the house of cards known as our self-worth crumbles.

Instead, develop a sense of self-worth built on self-respect. One way to improve self-respect is to develop good values and live them. Do this sufficiently and feedback cannot harm you. You can find value in whatever feedback you were given.

Taking responsibility for your safety and sense of self-worth provides immunity to the pain of feedback. In addition, these four CURE skills can help you better respond to feedback.


If harsh feedback catches you off-guard, have a way to collect yourself. One good way is to breathe deeply and slowly, and pause to pay attention to how you are feeling—hurt, scared, embarrassed, ashamed. The more connected you are to these primary feelings, the less you become consumed with secondary effects like anger, defensiveness, or fear. Use this moment to remind yourself that you are safer than you think. You can even collect yourself by consciously connecting to soothing truths e.g. repeat a phrase like, “This can’t hurt me. I’m safe” or “If I made a mistake, it doesn’t mean I am a mistake. I get to make mistakes.”


Next, listen. Ask questions. Ask for examples. Get curious. Detach yourself from what is being said as though it is being said about another person. That will help you bypass the urge to evaluate what you’re hearing. You’ll stop worrying about whether it’s true or false. Simply act like a good reporter trying to understand the story of an informant.


It’s often best at this point to simply exit. Explain that you want time to recover and reflect and that you will respond later. Give yourself permission to feel and recover from the experience before evaluating what you heard. You don’t have to agree or disagree with the feedback in the moment. Just take time to sincerely reflect and decide on your next actions. Say something like, “It’s important to me that I get this right. I need some time. I’ll get back to you when I’m ready to respond.”


Examine what you were told. If you’ve done a good job taking responsibility for your safety and worth, you’ll reverse your natural reaction to feedback. Rather than poking holes in it, you’ll look for truth. Even if the feedback is 90% fluff and 10% substance, look for the substance. There is almost always at least a hint of truth in what people are telling you. When you’re ready and it’s appropriate, engage with the person who shared the feedback and acknowledge what you heard, what you accept, and what you’ll commit to do.

In conclusion, holding people accountable is challenging. It’s the act of telling someone something they may not want to hear. So, no matter how kindly you do it, it may hurt.

Instead of demanding perfection from the messenger, let’s ask more of the receiver. Let’s encourage people to be open to hearing hard truths, even when they aren’t perfectly packaged.

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