How do you feel when you get feedback? In psychology and coaching, we see how feedback can be helpful or harmful. We took a good look at what makes the difference.
Bad feedback is negative. It’s often called criticism. There are several differences between criticism and positive feedback. They often deliver different, yet somewhat predictable, results whether the communications happen in personal or work situations.
Here are some ways that criticism and positive feedback differ. First, criticism usually focuses on the past and positive feedback focuses on the future. With criticism, people are told what they already did wrong and since it’s in the past, it’s difficult or impossible to change. They can only try to do better next time. With positive feedback, people can look at what they have control over and what they can do better in the future.
You may think that both criticism and positive feedback get the same results — doing better in the future. However, people may not respond well to criticism and yet they may welcome positive feedback. A second big difference is that criticism focuses on people’s weaknesses, while positive feedback focuses primarily on people’s strengths.
A third difference is that criticism can be quite deflating and cause people to avoid risk. Positive feedback, on the other hand, can be inspiring and motivating.
So this leads to the fourth difference between criticism and positive feedback. This difference shows up in the result. With criticism, people can feel ‘less than’ or incompetent and want to give up. They can withdraw and avoid being engaged in the process, whether it’s in personal life or professional life. When there’s positive feedback, people often feel they’re part of a team and someone cares.
Our minds are powerful and prone to grab negatives as a way to survive the stresses of life. Criticism that’s negative will generally stick in people’s minds — and sometimes they feel deeply wounded. They might not say much if they don’t feel it’s a safe situation.
There’s often a power differential. In a work setting, the boss or manager has power over the employee. In a personal relationship, such as marriage, often one person is more dependent or invested in the relationship, so there’s still a power differential. There may not be a feeling of safety to speak openly in either the work or home situations.
How feedback is delivered and received is important. When criticism is delivered, harsh words can drive the other person away. If there’s a raised voice, sharp tone, swearing, name-calling or putting the other person down, it’s serious.
When people are called “stupid” or other names repeatedly, it affects the neural pathways in their brain and they can actually start to believe it. That’s not criticism, that’s abuse. And if people try harder and harder and still get treated in the same way, they can become very anxious and depressed. This usually doesn’t end well for work or personal relationships.
So, how can feedback be given so it produces good results? The ‘sandwich method’ seems to make people receptive to making changes. This involves pointing out things the person does well, adding what could be better in the middle, and then ending with more positives about the person. This helps people be more open to change. As Judith Martin says, “When virtues are pointed out first, flaws seem less insurmountable.”
Another thing to consider is how feedback is received. The person receiving the communication can simply realize that it’s only the opinion of the other. Don’t take negativity personally. If it’s criticism or even feedback delivered in a positive way, you can consider it a learning experience.
You hope the intent of someone giving feedback is positive. If you feel that someone is trying to put you down, and definitely if they’re abusive in their comments, it’s not helpful. You can suggest to them that you respond better to positive feedback. You may not be able to change them but you can set your boundaries as to how you are treated.
You may have some difficult choices to make. Rumi said, “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.” When you change yourself, you’ll be surprised how your world will change, too.
What about you? Is the feedback you’re getting helpful or harmful? We encourage you to look at how feedback is affecting you and make the necessary changes so you can enjoy life even more as you become your best self.