How to Turn a Disparaging Comment into Useful Feedback

A disparaging comment doesn't have to derail your day if you turn them into useful feedback.

You want to grow. It’s an innate urge we all have, and we are all doing our best to improve and expand, and achieve. It’s was what we do. Our professional relationships play a critical role in our growth because frequently, we learn from others. Not usually because of what others tell us, mind you. We learn from them because we observe their behavior, try on their advice, and apply it personally ourselves. Absolutely everyone learns by doing. Because words don’t teach. Experience is our one true teacher in life.

Since you are intent on growing, you have probably noticed that feedback is coming at you all the time. It reaches you through your own successes and failures, through the results (or lack thereof) of your work, and through the comments of colleagues, superiors, and clients. But not all feedback is useful.

Here are some examples of pretty useless feedback:

  • “I didn’t like your conclusion slide.”
  • “Your comments in the meeting weren’t helpful.”
  • “You need to work on your phone interview skills.”
  • “You just aren’t good at Excel.”

People are busy. They are focused on their own work and their own development. So it’s understandable that they won’t always take the time to give you constructive comments when your work doesn’t meet their standards. Because your development is not necessarily their priority. Fortunately, it is yours, and there are concrete actions you can take to get better feedback from those you work with. Even the so-called “difficult people” you will encounter from time to time in your career.

Ideally you will take a proactive approach to feedback and gather it on a regular basis. Something we will be talking a lot about in future posts.

But let’s discuss how to handle a disparaging comment from a supervisor or colleague. How can you turn these semi-insults into learning moments? It’s a three-step process.

  1. Stop
  2. Ask good questions, and
  3. Follow up.

Let’s imagine you just got this comment from your manager:

“You really didn’t add value today in that meeting.”

Step 1: When you hear a disparaging comment, stop.

The first step is critically important, so don’t skip it. If you got a disparaging remark, a piece of useless feedback, or really any comment that makes YOU feel bad, stop. Make a note of the comment and come back to it later (Step 2).

But don’t just pay attention to your own emotion. Flex your emotional intelligence. Is your boss mad? Is he frustrated? Is he upset? Pay attention to the obvious cues. If you sense that your manager is in a bad mood when he/she spits out the comment, stop.

Human emotion is complicated. Though your boss’s anger may seem to be directed at you in that moment, it may in fact have nothing to do with you. It may be a reaction to something the client said, some disappointed expectation, or the fact that he is now going to miss his flight back to JFK because of a weather delay.

In a heated moment, the only thing you can do is stop and let it go.

This strategy is akin to this brilliant advice:


Have you ever noticed that when things seem at their worst, any attention you pay to the problem just makes it even worse? Have you experienced that rapid downward spiral of thought patterns and emotions that occurs when you try to resolve a problem when you are already in a bad mood? Have you also noticed that when you’re feeling particularly down or low, sometimes a nap can lift your spirits right back up? It’s a truism that you can’t solve a problem from the mindset that created it (these are Albert Einstein’s words, not mine). But if you keep gnawing and picking, you can turn a molehill into a mountain. So in heated moments, the very best thing you can do is stop and let it go. Come back to it again when everyone is in a better mood.

A little bit of distance will allow your boss to calm down and you to regain your composure. So if emotions are running high, resist the temptation to pick at the comment, take it personally, or try to gain clarity about your boss’s words. Make a note of the comment and then let it go. Later, you will follow up and try to turn that comment into something you can use to grow, but for now, just take a breath and go about the rest of your work day.

Step 2: Ask good questions.

Once the heat of the moment has passed and there is some distance between you and the incident, it’s time to follow up with the individual who delivered the comment and find out what you can do to improve.

In an opportune moment, no more than a few days after the original incident, follow-up:

Remind your manager of the comment: “After our meeting yesterday, you remarked that I didn’t add value and I just wanted to follow up with you about that.”

Probe for more information: Provide additional detail if needed, and then probe your manager’s comment for more detail. Ask a question like:

  • Could you say more about what you meant?
  • Specifically what did you expect that I didn’t deliver?
  • Was your comment about what I said or about my slides?

Then take whatever answers you get and probe even deeper. The idea here is to understand very specifically where the criticism is directed so that you know where to go to work.

For example, if your boss told you she didn’t like your conclusion slide, she may have been talking about logic and reason, not color and format. So you could waste a whole lot of time belaboring your next conclusion slide in terms of its layout and still miss the mark on what your manager wanted to see change.

So you can get a clear sense of how to probe for more meaningful feedback, here are some potential questions to ask based on a few different disparaging comments:

I didn’t like your conclusion slide.

  • Here is the slide you were referring to, can you say more about what you mean? What about it doesn’t work for you
  • Is it the information or the way it is arranged?
  • How would you improve upon it?

Your comments in the meeting weren’t helpful.

  • Which aspect of my comments did you find unhelpful?
  • Was the issue that I didn’t communicate clearly or was the problem the content of my comments?

You need to work on your phone interview skills.

  • Can you say more about this? Which aspect of my skills do you think need development?
  • Is it my communication style or the content of the questions I am asking that you feel needs work?

You just aren’t good at Excel.

  • Here is the model I have been working on, can you tell me which aspects of it don’t meet your expectations?
  • Are you questioning my analytical reasoning ability or the design and clarity of my model?

Engage with what your manager says, ask further follow up questions. Do not stop until you have understood precisely where your area for development is.

Seek guidance: Once you have understood the specific area for development, ask your manager her advice on ways you can develop or improve.

  • How would you encourage me to better prepare for next time so that I can a make more meaningful contribution?
  • What steps would you suggest I take to get better at this skill?
  • I’d like to really work on this, what do you suggest I tackle first?

And you can even propose concrete development steps:

  • I am going to take the slide design seminar being led next week.
  • I think it would be very helpful for me to go prep for our next two big meetings with you and think through potential comments I could add beforehand.
  • Next time, let’s review my interview script before I make the phone calls, so you can help make sure the questions will yield useful results.

Create next steps: After you have understood your area of development and brainstormed key ways to improve, align on your next steps and let your boss know precisely what you will do.

Be sure to ask for permission to follow up. “I am going to do these three things we discussed in the coming month. I’d like to check-in with you in three weeks to revisit this area and make sure I have made concrete progress. Perhaps we can sit down for 15 minutes after our scheduled team meeting?”

Then be sure to create the time to follow up – get that time on the calendar now if your manager runs a very regimented schedule. Or at least be sure that she expects to hear from you in a specific timeframe so that she can make time for you then.

Step 3: Follow up.

This last step is perhaps the most important to both your growth and development and to your ability to build deep and effective relationships with your seniors, but it is the one that people most often overlook.

Your manager, client, or colleague then took the time to give you their detailed feedback and some guidance on how to develop yourself. So, you should do their contribution justice by following up, letting them know what actions you took, and checking in to see if you have in fact improved on the dimension you are working on.

First of all, very simply: take action. Once you have planned some actions to take to improve and discussed them with the feedback giver: actually take them. People actually do want to help you grow, and they want the time they invest in you to be valuable and worthwhile. So, take those actions. Not doing so risks damaging your relationship and your credibility. Do the things you said you would and keep track of what you did.

Then circle back with your manager at the scheduled time. Let him/her know what you did and what you have learned. Discuss specific instances that demonstrate how you are improving in the relevant area.

For example:

  • I took the slide-building class online and went back through my last presentation and applied those learnings. I could definitely see that my logic did not flow as clearly as it could have.
  • Then, as we discussed, I vetted the presentation for our last meeting with you beforehand and got your comments before sharing them with the client. You made some really good points, which I implemented.
  • The last presentation went much smoother, and we both thought that the client was more satisfied.
  • I would say that have definitely developed a better grasp of the process.
  • But I still feel I have more progress to make in terms of concision. It took me 25 slides to make the case for our project this time, but I have seen your decks and they are much tighter. So this is the next thing I would like to work on.

This last comment keeps the growth moving forward. This is important because, as long as you are still working, you should always be growing. You may then decide to create another set of next steps and a follow up check point to follow up on that area for development.