Feedback

The Truth About Negative Feedback: It’s Not Just About You

Feedback, Growth Mindset

Most of us mistakenly believe that the labels and judgments we get from other people concern only ourselves. Actually, they reveal a lot about the people who made them.

Criticism is people’s way of hinting at their unresolved feelings and unmet needs. A person who calls you insensitive may be (awkwardly) asking for your affection.

“Well, if that’s what they want,” you may ask, “why don’t they just say so?”

Short answer: because it’s hard. Most of us aren’t in touch with how we feel, and those of us who are don’t always know how to articulate it.

Get better at expressing your feelings

On top of that, saying how we truly feel makes us vulnerable, something we’ve learned to think of as negative. So, instead of admitting we’re sad, scared, frustrated, angry, jealous or disappointed, we talk about how bad other people, and all the things they are doing, are.

Learn to give negative feedback

With needs, it’s the same story. We weren’t trained to think in terms of needs; instead, we learned to think about what is wrong with other people whenever our needs are not being met. So, if we need peace and quiet to concentrate on our work at the office, for example, we’ll think of anyone who laughs and talks loudly around our desks as rude and obnoxious.

Looking at criticism as a reflection of people’s needs and emotions helps us deal with it more productively. It also makes us more empathetic.

So let’s imagine that a good friend tells you, “You’re the most selfish person I know.”

You may react by:

1)   Blaming yourself
“Wow, I must be a really bad friend!”

2)   Blaming your friend
“You can’t say that! I’m always doing you favors! YOU’RE the one who’s selfish!”

3)   Expressing your own feelings and needs
“I’m really hurt to hear you say that, because I need some acknowledgment for all the times I’ve considered what you wanted, too.”

Blaming yourself makes you feel guilty, ashamed, and depressed —all of which are bad for your self-esteem. Blaming the other person doesn’t help and can end up ruining the relationship. Finally, simply expressing your feelings while ignoring the other person’s won’t improve the situation.

The counter-intuitive, but more proactive way to respond is:

4)   Helping the other person express how they feel and what their needs are
“Are you upset because you’d like me to ask you about your preferences more?”

If you want to help the other person and learn something useful in the process, go with #4.

How to give good “bad” feedback

Feedback, Social Skills

We all need honesty in our lives. Together with love, acceptance, empathy, and encouragement, honesty helps fulfill our basic human need of interdependence. Yet we rarely get the kind of honesty that empowers us and helps us learn from our limitations. Instead, we get criticism.

Criticism doesn’t tend to be helpful, and it rarely works. When our mothers tell us we dress like slobs, we may get annoyed, angry, or defensive, but we’re rarely inspired to change our wardrobe.

Perhaps one of the reasons is that criticism focuses so much on the receiver. The critic rarely tries to demonstrate how his feelings and needs are connected to what he’s criticizing, so it’s hard for the person receiving the feedback to have empathy to really listen.

So how do we give negative feedback positively? How do we give the people we care about the type of honesty they need to grow?

Marshall Rosenberg’s “nonviolent communication” teaches us to include an observation, a feeling, a need, and a request in our negative feedback, as explained below:

Observation: be specific about what you see

Giving (good) bad feedback requires paying attention. You have to be able to specifically describe what the other person is doing that is bothering you, and, if possible, to say when, where, and how. Most importantly, you have to be able to do this without judging or evaluating. Saying “You cancelled our last three dates ” is an observation, saying “You’re a flake” is an evaluation.

Feeling: show vulnerability

Identify what feelings you have about the situation. When you see the other person do the specific thing that bothers you, do you get nervous? Annoyed? Sad? Scared? Furious? Most of us have trouble figuring out how we feel. We also tend to confuse thoughts with feelings —we say things like, “I ‘feel’ like a failure” or “I ‘feel’ like this person is manipulating me” without realizing we’re not really saying how we feel. Another common mistake is to confuse our feelings with how we think others behave towards us. “Feeling” rejected, misunderstood, ignored or threatened reflects how we think others treat us, not how we feel.

Spot your exact feeling on our emotional cheat sheet

Need: recognize what you are lacking

After you identify how you truly feel, ask yourself what unfulfilled need might be at the root of that feeling. Judgments, evaluations and interpretations of others are actually expressions of personal needs not being met. For example, calling your partner “lazy” may simply mean that you need more help around the house.

Request: ask for something concrete

Once you’ve figured out what you need, it’s time to ask the person you’re giving feedback to for something specific, a concrete action. Use positive language (say what the person should do rather than what he or she should not do) and be as clear and precise as possible.

With the incorporation of observation, feeling, need and request, good “bad” feedback sounds like this:

When you cancel our plans at the last minute like you did tonight —and last Tuesday—, I’m disappointed, because I really look forward to us spending more time together. Would you be willing to set a day for us to meet every week?

When giving negative feedback, remember: your goal should not be to change the other person or their behavior to get what you want, but to develop relationships based on honesty and empathy, where everyone’s needs are met.