Face up to Feedback (Giving and Receiving Constructive Criticism)

Face up to Feedback (Giving and Receiving Constructive Criticism) Image by: Ed Yourdon

Criticism is often seen as a negative thing – look it up in any Thesaurus and you'll find it right there alongside such choice words as condemnation, disapproval, nit-picking and fault-finding. This is solely down to the fact that most people only ever criticise in a negative way. And we only ever refer to criticism as criticism when it's negative – positive criticism becomes 'approval' or 'praise'.

The truth is, criticism, when given in an appropriate way at an appropriate time, can have many positive effects – both for the giver and the recipient. The trick is to learn how to criticise in a positive and constructive manner, and to watch out for the pitfalls of negative criticism.

What is the Effect of Negative Criticism?

The simple answer is that negative criticism has a negative effect – both for the receiver and the giver of criticism. It doesn't matter whether it is an adult or a child receiving the criticism - although children are often more vulnerable to the effects of criticism.

Negative criticism typically only looks at the mistakes and not the good things a person has done/is doing.

Think of the last time you were criticised... you may have done many things well, but the criticiser chose to pick on the one area where you made a mistake, ignoring your good actions or behaviour. You probably felt attacked - as if the criticiser did not see the whole of you, but instead only saw your mistakes. This is upsetting, difficult to hear and hard to act upon.

What are the negative effects of negative criticism? Criticism can lead to:

  • A loss of self-esteem
  • A loss of motivation
  • Negative feelings towards the giver of criticism

Children who are criticised develop low self-esteem. That is, they think they are useless, worthless and not good enough. Of course this is understandable if the child is constantly criticised for the same thing. For example, if a child is constantly criticised for not doing well at school, or for not hitting the ball correctly with the bat, the child soon starts to believe that she or he can't get it right. They believe they are too stupid or clumsy to ever do it right. This belief can stay with them all their lives.

The criticism does not have to be constant to be damaging. I have had clients who were harshly criticised as a child just once, and it had such a powerful negative effect that the child never forgot what was said or how they felt - having a negative impact right into their adulthood.

If someone is never given the opportunity to succeed at something – that is, they are never praised - they learn that they are useless and can't do it. Nobody likes to fail, so the person being criticised loses motivation, stops enjoying the activity and may stop doing it altogether. For example, the husband who is constantly criticised for never getting it right, soon stops even trying. The boys in the school cricket team who are constantly criticised for not playing better don't want to try harder because they know they won't 'get it right' anyway.

If parents and coaches want children to succeed, they need to stop the negative criticism and start looking for things to praise. Both children and adults will be more motivated to try harder, if they believe there is a chance of success. We all enjoy doing what we are good at doing!

Criticism often has a greater impact on a child than corporal punishment. Children want to please -and not getting the chance to do so leaves them feeling upset and guilty. Knowing that their parent is disappointed in them is often a far greater punishment than the smack they receive. We have all seen children bawling after a small smack on the back of their legs. It is not the physical pain they are crying about, but the emotional pain of having disappointed their parent.

Criticism does not only have a negative impact on the receiver of the criticism. It also has an impact on the giver of criticism. The receiver of the criticism can harbour negative thoughts about the giver, especially if the criticism was not asked for. Critical people tend to be negative; always finding fault. Other people do not like being around a critical person; they are not popular and tend to get fewer invitations.

When Does Criticism Become Positive?

Criticism can be positive when it is given in the correct way. If we abide by a set of guidelines, our feedback is more likely to be constructive.

Constructive criticism does not only mean giving positive feedback. Negative feedback, given skilfully, is just as important. Constructive criticism leaves the person feeling good about themselves, but with new information about how to improve. Destructive criticism leaves the recipient feeling bad with seemingly nothing to build on.

Criticism becomes positive when we think of it as feedback, rather than as criticism, and follow the guidelines for giving constructive feedback.

Guidelines for Giving Constructive Feedback

  • Be clear about what you want to say in advance
    Practise what you want to say beforehand with someone else if necessary. It may be useful to write down what you want to say. (Prepare to tell the person three things you liked, two things you want them to improve on, and one more thing you liked to end on a positive note).

  • Start with the positive
    Don't always focus on the negative. For example, if a child gets 3 'A's and one 'B', don't put all your focus on the 'B'.

Most people need encouragement and need to be told when they are doing something well. When offering feedback it can really help the receiver to hear first what you like about them or what they have done well.

Start by telling them three things you liked - and be specific.

For example, when giving feedback to a speaker about his speech: to say, "I liked your humour" is fine, but to say, "I liked the joke you made about falling down – it got a laugh and made your serious message easier to hear" is much better.

Think of the last time you were acknowledged for the positive things you do, rather than just receiving critical attention for your mistakes. You probably felt wonderful and motivated, and had positive feelings towards the giver of the praise.

  • Do not give people too much feedback
    If you overload people with feedback, it reduces the chances that they will use it. When you give people more feedback that they can understand, you are satisfying some need in yourself rather than helping the other person become more self-aware. Don't save it all up and give the person one huge bundle, especially if there is considerable negative feedback to be given.

Select two priority areas and mention only two things they should improve. In this way, they won't feel attacked and overwhelmed. Two actions are easier to keep in mind, correct and follow through with. More than two may become overwhelming, and it is then more likely no changes will occur.

It's even more important in this step to be specific. If you can, demonstrate what you mean. For example, when giving feedback to a speaker, demonstrate the voice you think might be more effective, or the body language or whatever other improvements you think could be made. This feedback, with clear demonstration of an alternate way to act, is positive and clear. "Don't wave your arms" does not help and can be seen as just a criticism (What do you mean? What do I do instead?). Rather say, "When you wave your arms it is distracting to me. May I suggest that next time, you hang your arms at your side (physically demonstrate), then you can use them to powerfully make your point when you need to."

(Note: You did not say "You made me feel ... ", because they didn't make you feel. You felt it; they did not force you to feel).

Pay attention to the wording. "I feel" rather than "you should". This is far more effective and useful.

End with telling them the one thing you liked most. Leave the person feeling good about something they did really well. Again, the more specific your feedback, the more motivational and useful it is.

  • Focus on the behaviour not the person/personality
    Refer to what the person does, not to what you imagine his/her traits to be. Thus, you might say that you think the person, "talked too much in that meeting" rather than say the person "is domineering". The former is an observation of what you saw and heard and the latter is an inference about the person's character.
  • Be descriptive rather than judgmental
    Refer to what occurred, not to your judgements of right or wrong, good or bad, or nice or naughty. You might say, "You do not pronounce your words clearly, and you speak too softly to be heard" ,rather than, "You are a terrible public speaker".

Judgements arise out of a value system. Descriptions represent neutral reporting.

  • Focus on a specific situation rather than on abstract behaviour
    What a person does is related to a time and place. Feedback that ties behaviour to a specific situation increases self-awareness. Avoid abstract, broad impressions such as "You were brilliant", or "It was awful", or "You don't listen to other people". Rather say, "I really liked the way you looked after Tracy when she was upset yesterday". Or "When you and John were talking just now, you looked out the window and seemed to be thinking of something else."
  • Focus on the "here and now" not on the "there and then"
    The more immediate the feedback the more helpful it is. Instead of saying, "Last year you didn't speak to me in the hallway" say, "Hey, I just said hello and you didn't reply. Is something wrong?"

Note: The only exception to this would be when you are so angry that you would be unlikely to give constructive feedback. In this case, rather wait until you have calmed down before giving feedback.

  • Share your perceptions and feelings, not advice
    Feedback which demands change, or is imposed heavily on the other person may invite resistance, and is not consistent with the idea that we are personally autonomous. Skilled feedback offers people information about themselves in a way that leaves them with a choice about whether to act on it or not.

When you give advice, you tell other people what to do with the information and thereby take away their freedom to choose for themselves what to do. You can give feedback such as "You look away and blush whenever Joe says hello to you, so he just continues walking," without giving advice such as, "You are too shy. Just stop and talk to Joe - give him a break!"

  • Focus on behaviour that the person can change
    It does no good to tell a person about something that they cannot change.

For example "I really don't like your face/ your height / the fact that you are male, female" etc. Rather focus on the effectiveness of their actions. For example "I would prefer it if you looked at me when we speak," can give the person something to work on.

  • Own the feedback
    It can be easy to say to the other person "You are..." suggesting that you are offering a universally agreed opinion about that person. This is not the case. You are probably only expressing your own opinion, or perhaps that of just a few others.

It is important to take responsibility for the feedback we offer. Use the golden "I" here. Beginning the feedback with "I feel... " or " In my opinion..." rather than, "You should...or You are...." is a way of taking ownership of the feedback and avoiding the impression that you are giving 'universal judgements' about the person.

  • Do not force feedback on other people
    Feedback is given to help people to become more aware and to improve their effectiveness. It is not given to make you feel better. Feedback should serve the needs of the receiver, not the needs of the giver.

Do not give feedback if the receiver is defensive, upset or uninterested in it. Even if you are upset and want more than anything else in the world (at that moment) to give some feedback, do not give it.

When is Positive Criticism Appropriate?

Positive criticism or feedback is a way of learning more about ourselves and the effect our behaviour has on others. Constructive feedback increases our self-awareness, offers us opinions and the opportunity to change our behaviour. It is appropriate when it is:

  • Given when asked for;
  • Given in the correct way; (see above guidelines for constructive feedback)
  • Used for the benefit of the receiver.

When is Criticism not Appropriate?

Feedback is all too often not constructive. For some people 'feedback' simply means telling someone what you think of them. Criticism is not appropriate when:

  • It has not been asked for;
  • It is used as a threat, punishment or to hurt the receiver;
  • It is used to benefit the giver (make them feel better), rather than benefit the receiver.

Guidelines for Receiving Feedback

If we are on the receiving end of feedback, we can help ourselves by encouraging the giver to use some of the skills outlined above. That is:

  • Ask the person to tell you what you do that is positive.
  • Only receive as much feedback as you can understand and work with.
  • Ask for feedback on your behaviour, not your person/personality.
  • Ask for feedback about your actions in a specific situation, not on abstract behaviour.
  • Ask for feedback that focuses on the 'here and now' not on the 'there and then'.
  • Ask for feedback that is descriptive rather than judgmental.
  • Ask for perceptions and feelings, not advice.
  • Only reflect on feedback on aspects of yourself that you can change.

Other things you can do to make receiving feedback a positive experience are:

  • Listen to the feedback rather than immediately rejecting or arguing with it
    Feedback can be uncomfortable to hear, but we may be the richer for hearing it.

Remember that people do have their opinions about you and will have their perceptions of your behaviour, and it can be helpful to be aware of those. Do, remember, however, that you are also entitled to your own opinion and you may choose to ignore their view as being that of little significance, irrelevant, or referring to behaviour that, for some reason, you wish to maintain.

  • Be clear about what is being said
    Avoid jumping to conclusions or becoming immediately defensive. Make sure you understand the feedback before you respond to it. A useful technique can be to paraphrase or repeat the feedback to check that you have understood. You could start with. "So what you are saying is..."

  • Ask for feedback if you want it
    Feedback is important, so ask for it if it does not occur naturally. Sometimes the feedback we do get is restricted to one aspect of our behaviour – again you may have to request feedback that would be useful regarding the other areas.

  • Check the feedback you have received with others, rather than relying on only one source
    If you rely on only one source of feedback, you may imagine that that individual's opinion is shared by everybody, whereas, if you checked it out with others you might find that other people experience you differently. This will allow you to have a more balanced view of yourself and to keep the feedback in perspective.

  • Decide what you will do as a result of the feedback
    We can use feedback to help our own development. Each of us needs to know how other people experience us to extend our self-awareness, (which is incomplete if it is merely our own version of ourselves). When we receive feedback, we can assess its value, the consequences of ignoring or using it, and finally decide what we will do as a result of it. In the final analysis, it is always your choice whether to accept or reject the feedback.

  • Thank the person for giving the feedback
    Thank the person giving you feedback for the following reasons:

    • It may not have been easy for the person to give you feedback;
    • You might benefit from it; and
    • It is a valuable practice to reinforce in any organisation or relationship.

If you can demonstrate that you can receive feedback well, you will encourage people to continue giving you feedback. This can only benefit you in the long run, provided you ensure they follow the guidelines of giving feedback.

Should We Always Give Feedback?

Giving feedback is similar to being assertive - you can choose whether or not to be assertive, and you can choose whether or not to give feedback. You should not feel that whenever you have a thought or feeling about someone it is your duty to tell them. The crucial skill of appropriateness is relevant here.

As a guide to help you to know when to give feedback, ask yourself the following questions:

  • When - Is this the right time, am I feeling too upset or is s/he feeling too angry? Is this a caring thing to do right now? (Be careful that caring is not simply a euphemism for procrastination!)

  • Where - Is this the right place? Should I wait until s/he is alone? Should I spoil this occasion by giving feedback during it?

  • Who - Am I the best person to give it? Perhaps someone else is more appropriate. (Be careful that you do ensure that someone else does it, rather than non-assertively hoping that it will happen).

  • How - How can I do it most effectively? (Look him/her straight in the eye, avoid nervous gestures and follow the guidelines set out earlier).

Note: Giving feedback should become a way of living. We should be alert to people's strengths and achievements and inform them of our observations. We should be prepared to tackle undesirable behaviour as soon as it occurs, but to do so in the way outlined earlier. We should also remind ourselves that we have no right to expect people to act on our feedback, but we do have a responsibility to point out the consequences if they do not.

If giving positive feedback becomes an automatic part of everyday life, it becomes easier for you to give and for others to receive negative feedback.