D'Arcy from Winnipeg
Solution Architecture, Business & Entrepreneurship, Microsoft, and Adoption

Feedback Filtration–Processing Negative Comments for Positive Gains

Wednesday, October 3, 2012 6:54 AM

After doing 7 conferences, 5 code camps, and countless user group events, I feel that this is a post I need to write. I actually toyed with other names for this post, however those names would just lend itself to the type of behaviour I want people to avoid – the reactionary, emotional response that speaks to some deeper issue beyond immediate facts and context.

Humans are incredibly complex creatures. We’re also emotional, which serves us well in certain situations but can hinder us in others. Those of us in leadership build up a thick skin because we tend to encounter those reactionary, emotional responses more often, and we’re held to a higher standard because of our positions. While we could react with emotion ourselves, as the saying goes – fighting fire with fire just makes a bigger fire.

So in this post I’ll share my thought process for dealing with negative feedback/comments and how you can still get value from them.

The Thought Process

Let’s take a real-world example. This week I held the Prairie IT Pro & Dev Con event. We’ve gotten a lot of session feedback already, most of it overwhelmingly positive. But some not so much – and some to an extreme I rarely see but isn’t entirely surprising to me. So here’s the example from a person we’ll refer to as Mr. Horrible:

How was the speaker? Horrible! Worst speaker ever!
Did the session meet your expectations? Hard to tell, speaker ruined it.
Other Comments: DO NOT bring this speaker back! He was at this conference last year and I hoped enough negative feedback would have taught you to not bring him back...obviously not...I will not return to this conference next year if this speaker is brought back.

Now those are very strong words. “Worst speaker ever!” “Speaker ruined it” “I will not return to this conference next year if the speaker is brought back”. The speakers I invite to speak at my conference are not just presenters but friends and colleagues. When I see this, my initial reaction is of course very emotional: I get defensive, I get angry, I get offended. So that’s where the process kicks in.

Step 1 – Take a Deep Breath

Take a deep breath, calm down, and walk away from the keyboard. I didn’t do that recently during an email convo between some colleagues and it ended up in my reacting emotionally on Twitter – did I mention those colleagues follow my Twitter feed? Yes, I ate some crow.

Ok, now that we’re calm, let’s move on to step 2.

Step 2 – Strip off the Emotion

We need to take off the emotion that people wrap their words in and identify the root issues. For instance, if I see:

“I hated this session, the presenter was horrible! He spoke so fast I couldn’t make out what he was saying!”

then I drop off the personal emoting (“I hated…”) and the personal attack (“the presenter was horrible”) and focus on the real issue this person had – that the speaker was talking too fast. Now we have a root cause of the displeasure. However, we’re also dealing with humans who are all very different. Before I call up the speaker to talk about his speaking pace, I need to do some other things first.

Back to our Mr. Horrible example, I don’t really have much to go on. There’s no details of how the speaker “ruined” the session or why he’s the “worst speaker ever”. In this case, the next step is crucial.

Step 3 – Validate the Feedback

When I tell people that we really like getting feedback for the sessions, I really really mean it. Not just because we want to hear what individuals have to say but also because we want to know what the group thought. When a piece of negative feedback comes in, I validate it against the group.

So with the speaker Mr. Horrible commented on, I go to the feedback and look at other people’s responses:
2 x Excellent
1 x Alright
1 x Not Great
1 x Horrible (our feedback guy)

That’s interesting, it’s a bit all over the board. If we look at the comments more we find that the people who rated the speaker excellent liked the presentation style and found the content valuable. The one guy who said “Not Great” even commented that there wasn’t anything really wrong with the presentation, he just wasn’t excited about it.

In that light, I can try to make a few assumptions:
- Mr. Horrible didn’t like the speakers presentation style
- Mr. Horrible was expecting something else that wasn’t communicated properly in the session description
- Mr. Horrible, for whatever reason, just didn’t like this presenter

Now if the feedback was overwhelmingly negative, there’s a different pattern – one that validates the negative feedback. Regardless, I never take something at face value. Even if I see really good feedback, I never get too happy until I see that there’s a group trend towards the positive.

Step 4 – Action Plan

Once I’ve validated the feedback, then I need to come up with an action plan around it. Let’s go back to the other example I gave – the one with the speaker going too fast. I went and looked at the feedback and sure enough, other people commented that the speaker had spoken too quickly. Now I can go back to the speaker and let him know so he can get better.

But what if nobody else complained about it? I’d still mention it to the speaker, but obviously one person’s opinion needs to be weighed as such. When we did PrDC Winnipeg in 2011, I surveyed the attendees about the food. Everyone raved about it…except one person. Am I going to change the menu next time for that one person while everyone else loved it? Of course not. There’s a saying – A sure way to fail is to try to please everyone.

Let’s look at the Mr. Horrible example. What can I communicate to the speaker with such limited information provided in the feedback from Mr. Horrible? Well looking at the groups feedback, I can make a few suggestions:

- Ensure that people understand in the session description the style of the talk
- Ensure that people understand the level of detail/complexity of the talk and what prerequisite knowledge they should have

I’m looking at it as possibly Mr. Horrible assumed a much more advanced talk and was disappointed, while the positive feedback by people who – from their comments – suggested this was all new to them, were thrilled with the session level.

Step 5 – Follow Up

For some feedback, I follow up personally. Especially with negative or constructive feedback, its important to let the person know you heard them and are making changes because of their comments. Even if their comments were emotionally charged and overtly negative, it’s still important to reach out personally and professionally. When you remove the emotion, negative comments can be the best feedback you get.

Also, people have bad days. We’ve all had one of “those days” where we talked more sternly than normal to someone, or got angry at something we’d normally shrug off. We have various stresses in our lives and sometimes they seep out in odd ways. I always try to give some benefit of the doubt, and re-evaluate my view of the person after they’ve responded to my communication.

But, there is such a thing as garbage feedback. What Mr. Horrible wrote is garbage. It’s mean spirited. It’s hateful. It provides nothing constructive at all. And a tell-tale sign that feedback is garbage – the person didn’t leave their name even though there was a field for it.

Step 6 – Delete It

Feedback must be processed in its raw form, and the end products should drive improvements. But once you’ve figured out what those things are, you shouldn’t leave raw feedback lying around. They are snapshots in time that taken alone can be damaging. Also, you should never rest on past praise.

In a future blog post, I’m going to talk about how we can provide great feedback that, even when its critical, can still be constructive.


# re: Feedback Filtration–Processing Negative Comments for Positive Gains

Great post Darcy. One thing I'm hyper-aware of when I speak at a conference is how my talks are perceived; it's often hard to be able to discern if people are engaged or bored but we can't let that discourage us as speakers.

We just have to do our best, take feedback into consideration and be honest with ourselves about how we use that feedback to improve for the next time.

I think your 6 step process for dealing with feedback is a great guideline, and I certainly enjoyed being able to speak at PDC this year. Thanks so much for all your hard work! 10/3/2012 7:03 AM | Dave Mosher

# re: Feedback Filtration–Processing Negative Comments for Positive Gains

This person obviously should have come to my building team culture session, they would have learned some basics for how to give valuable feedback to peers. I'm glad you have a process for filtering through the feedback you receive because i'll be honest, i've done enough speaking at conferences that i'm quite confident in my ability to deliver content to people, and confident that most people are satisfied with how I deliver it, I even delivered a technical session last year that in my opinion bombed due to technical difficulties with wireless and it didn't bother me...... But if I received THAT feedback, it would bother me a lot. Particularly the comment about not coming back to the conference if that speaker is there again. That's just ridiculous.

Anybody who feels that strongly about it shouldn't be so cowardly as to leave that feedback anonymously, if it's that bad it obviously warrants a discussion.

10/3/2012 1:54 PM | Chris D

# re: Feedback Filtration–Processing Negative Comments for Positive Gains

I'll be honest, I throw away all feedback without a comment. Good and bad, it's useless to me if you don't explain your rating.

And then, I throw away the good comments - all the ones with nothing negative in them anywhere. I'm glad they enjoyed it, but there is nothing I can do to improve with 100% positive feedback. And as amazing as I am, I can still improve.

Then I focus on the negative feedback. I try to figure out what was really the problem, as it's rarely stated but if someone is negative there is a reason, justified or not. Then I consider if its something I can and want to change. For exmaple, I've been hit for not doing live code demos before, but I know that I'm better with examples than on-the-fly coding, so I'll just ignore that.

I do save all the negative feedback. It doesn't bother me, probably because I want negative feedback over positive. It's possible I have a deeply rooted mental issue - not ruling that out =).

With your Mr. Horrible, it sounds to me like he had a bad experience last year and is using this year as a chance to show a grudge. Its possible he didn't even go to your session, just saw your name and filled out the form. As a conference organizer who see all feedback sometimes, this does happen. I know, shocking to learn there are software developers who carry grudges, but it's true.

I would throw out Mr. Horrible's feedback. My last rule is there has to be something constructive, even if it's delivered it the worst possible way.

Great post! 10/6/2012 3:41 AM | Michael C. Neel

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