Managing Difficult Responses to Feedback


closeup portrait of unhappy, angry, mad,. upset woman

Have you ever felt like your feedback to a co-worker just wasn’t getting through?

Recently I gave someone feedback that did absolutely nothing. In fact, the second and third time I gave the same feedback the behaviour didn’t change.  What was I doing wrong?

I followed the five steps outlined in my last blog:

  • I had an assertive mindset.
  • I prepared.
  • I was specific about the behaviour of concern.
  • I aligned the feedback with our work objectives.
  • I did a lot of listening.

But after three conversations, there was no change! I realized that although the person seemed to be taking in the feedback, they needed support to implement the required change.  I call this the “nod and smile”, and it is one of several difficult responses to feedback.

Feedback is information provided to someone about how they are doing in their efforts to reach a goal.  Within the workplace, feedback is often offered in the context of evaluation or coaching.  However, research indicates that the most effective feedback is timely, consistent, and ongoing – not just occasional.  I use feedback as a way to acknowledge the contributions of a co-worker and to provide positive messages that demonstrate appreciation and increase motivation.

Feedback is also used to deal with areas of concern. It can facilitate important dialogue about performance, expectations and needs of employers and employees.  This is the context where I have experienced some difficult responses such as the “nod and smile.”  Here are five difficult responses to feedback and some ideas of how to deal with them.

1. Tears

Shame, confusion, and sadness can occur when hearing feedback.


Do not let strong emotions derail your objective.  Reassert yourself and either allow time for the crying to subside or set another time to talk.  Remember to acknowledge the strong emotion by saying something like, “I can imagine this is difficult to hear.”

2. Silence

Sometimes people do not know what to say or are overwhelmed.


Acknowledge the silence, give some space, and reassert your feedback.  You may offer to give them some time to process and revisit the conversation at a later time.

3. Debating

Defensiveness is natural.


Do not be intimidated, nor engage in debate.  Simply re-state the feedback and acknowledge that this kind of information can often be hard to hear.

4. Deflecting

It is easy for people to bring up past or unrelated/unresolved issues.


Keep calm and remain focused on the behaviour of concern.

5. Agreement

Also known as the “nod and smile”. Some people may appear to agree with the feedback and even make commitments to change, then fail to take action.


Be sure to establish what change will be made and make a plan to follow to ensure that change has taken place. If it hasn’t, enquire what supports are required to ensure the feedback can be implemented.

In my case, the “nod and smile” was the result of a lack of confidence and competence.  During the fourth conversation, I identified the lack of change from the original feedback as an issue and asked open-ended questions to explore the barriers that existed.  I learned that although they were clear about what they were NOT to do, they didn’t have a vision or support to implement a different behaviour. I used some techniques from our Coaching Strategies for Leaders course, which worked really well to support the change requested.

By working through difficult responses to feedback, I have learned a lot about how to give feedback more effectively and the importance of follow-up.  Have you ever experienced the “nod and smile,” tears, or debating? If so, what has worked for you?

Timely and regular feedback is an important tool in your leadership kit. As you learn to use it well, you will find it helps your workplace run smoothly and builds good work relationships.

Alana Abramson
Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance

To receive notification of a new blog posting, subscribe to our mailing list or follow us on Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.

© ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance (
Content of this blog may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to the ACHIEVE Centre for Leadership & Workplace Performance.