By Karen Wright, published on March 15, 2011 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
"Snotty and boring." Those are the exact words a literary agent used years ago to describe a manuscript I'd sent for her consideration. I'll never forget her pointed critique, just as I've never forgotten the reasons a youthful crush gave when he broke up with me more than two decades ago. I was "not aloof enough," he said, somewhat sheepishly, and I didn't wear enough makeup.
Like everyone else I know, I've had some harrowing experiences with negative feedback. I can give as good as I get, too. When I was teaching writing in a university, one of my better students threatened to punch me in the face after we discussed how to improve her thesis.
Who among us can't relate to her reaction? Criticism is by definition something no one wants to hear. At best, it's annoying; at worst, it may seem to threaten our identity, even our very survival. Is there any right way to say it, or to hear it?
Negative feedback is essential for negotiating life and social relations. Despite the feel-good mantra of current self-improvement manuals, much of our growth and development depends on interactions and other experiences that feel bad. Criticism has a hallowed role in nearly every area of human endeavor.
Learning relies in large part on recognizing (then analyzing and fixing) our mistakes. In schools and universities we pay people to point them out to us. At sporting events, coaches spew diatribes-cum-feedback from the sidelines. Performance reviews are a fact of life in the work world, and spouses regularly conduct their own none-too-flattering reviews of each other. Parenting can likewise become a negative feedback loop. "I hate you" may not be constructive criticism, but it is information nonetheless.
In fact, so much of our learning, loving, and living depends on negative feedback that you'd think people would be good at it by now. Instead, criticism almost always feels clumsy, hostile, and extraordinary, even to the person delivering it. Employees and managers alike say they hate performance reviews. Spouses pay counselors to help them speak difficult truths to each other. Parents stifle disapproval rather than risk displeasing their kids. Friends and lovers go out of their way to avoid "confrontation," which is what negative feedback can too easily become.
"In our society, we're not trained in either giving or getting criticism," says Robert Sutton, an organizational psychologist at Stanford University and a PT blogger. "And we're remarkably incompetent at understanding how we affect other people. Consequently, negative feedback is very, very difficult to do well."
If you've ever deliberately prepared to give someone negative feedback, you've probably run across some familiar nostrums on how to do it skillfully: Make it about the behavior, not the person. Use "I" statements. Soften the language, or add a positive affirmation. So instead of "You're driving me nuts," say "I love you, but I'm becoming increasingly perturbed by the frequency with which you smoke cigars in my presence."
Are any of us really fooled by such sleights of tongue? Probably not. I didn't assassinate my grad student's character when I reviewed the draft of her thesis, and yet she came away mortally offended. People react strongly to criticism no matter how it's delivered. Hearts race, muscles tense, blood pressure rises; the ancient fight-or-flight response kicks in, courtesy of the sympathetic nervous system. It's almost as though our brains are fine-tuned to apprehend negative feedback in any guise.
As it turns out, they may be. There's evidence that separate circuits exist to handle negative information and events and they're more sensitive than the circuits that handle positive phenomena. Evidence for a so-called negativity bias emerged 15 years ago in experiments that showed that people weigh flaws more heavily than attributes when sizing up other people. Similarly, losses tend to loom larger than gains in financial risk-taking behavior. John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, has shown that electrical activity in the brain spikes more strongly in response to negative stimuli than to equally potent positive ones. "Most people respond more to the bad than to the good," says Cacioppo.
The negativity bias can seriously skew our interpretation of critical feedback. Shortly after I started a new job, my boss sent me an email expressing displeasure with my performance. I remembered it as a scorching harangue, but when I reread it months later, I was surprised to find that the "harangue" included strong encouragement and complimented my skills. It didn't matter; the message stung, even the second time around.
Our hypersensitivity to criticism may also lead us to see it where none exists. When a friend who teaches kindergarten recently delivered a lesson plan for evaluation, the new principal asked how she thought the plan fit into the school's formal curriculum. The implication, my friend assumed, was that it didn't. She was a confident, experienced teacher, not used to having her methods called into question. When she let that be known, the principal assured her that she wasn't doubting the plan's value; she'd simply needed some help describing it to her supervisors. Cacioppo says our brains seem to be wired to turn neutral phenomena such as a request for more information into either good or bad—usually bad. "We simplify the world by making it bipolar," he observes.
At the heart of our loathing of criticism is the fear of exclusion or loss of connection, which in turn is tied to fear for our physical survival, contends Peter Gray, a research psychologist at Boston College. If being berated at work or benched at a game doesn't seem life-threatening at first glance, consider that people couldn't survive outside of the cooperative hunter-gatherer milieu in which our psyches were forged. Isolation or ostracism was potentially lethal then, and still is. In some very real sense, our social connections keep us alive, although contemporary interdependence masks itself as reliance on electricity, the Internet, and espresso drinks, rather than on one another.
"Identity is very closely tied up to the groups we belong to," says Neal Ashkanasy, a professor of management at the University of Queensland in Australia. "Strong criticism threatens your membership in that group, and that's a powerful force."
What hurts most in negative feedback, then, isn't the overt content of the message so much as the threat of exclusion, abandonment, and ostracism that accompanies it. My ambitious student probably feared that my comments about her thesis meant she would not achieve the professional rank she desired. Although I never took the specifics of my boyfriend's criticism to heart, it signaled in no uncertain terms the loss of our connection—a shock that has apparently etched his words into my gray matter.
Once we recognize that loss of connection is the bogeyman in the closet of criticism, we gain some insight as to how we can become more skillful at giving it. For one, says Ashkanasy, we can frame such conversations to emphasize inclusion, not dismissal—even when actually rejecting someone. When he recently fired an assistant, Ashkanasy began by asking her how she thought she was doing. That lead-in gives the recipient "joint ownership" of the conversation, he says. Ashkanasy also pointed to other jobs that would better match the skills of his soon-to-be-ex employee. That promise of belonging helped relieve her anxiety about being cast out of the group she already knew.
Leading with questions always helps a person receiving criticism to feel included in the enterprise, says Gray. When he meets with a student, he'll ask, "What are your goals for this course? What would you like to learn from me? How do you think you're doing so far?" You can even ask for feedback about yourself to underscore that the other person is a partner in the conversation, not a target. "A boss could say, 'Tell me what you're getting from me that you find valuable' or 'Tell me what I'm doing that gets in the way' and follow up with 'What else do you need from me?'" says Samuel Culbert, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of Get Rid of the Performance Review.
Given how loaded negative feedback is, what's truly remarkable is that, when handled well, it works. I'm eternally grateful for my agent's blunt appraisal of my very personal manuscript (it was a memoir). In fact, the voice I'd chosen was so stilted and unnatural that it couldn't serve my aims in the telling. If she'd swaddled her sentiments in "I" statements or positive affirmations, I never would have figured out what was wrong with the darn thing. What went right? According to Gray, it helps that I asked for my agent's opinion. In decades of studying education systems, Gray has observed negative feedback at work in a variety of contexts and dynamics. The most constructive and harmonious interactions, he says, are those the student initiates by reaching out to an older peer or mentor for help and advice. Criticism is much better received when it's been invited.
"It's important to recognize that it's human nature not to want unsolicited negative advice," Gray says. "We don't want people to tell us something negative unless we ask for it and are ready to hear it."
Consider the "helpful" coworker who leans over your shoulder to give you computer tips you haven't asked for. You know the one: "I notice you're taking 10 clicks to do this task you repeat often," he says. "If you'd set up a macro, it would only take two. Want me to show you?" Even if your colleague's suggestions end up saving you time and aggravation—in other words, even if he's right, damn him—the fact that he offered to correct your wayward habits can seem like a hostile intrusion. Yet you'd likely be grateful for the exact same advice if you'd asked for it.
There's another common problem with negative feedback that's related: It often comes from people we don't consider eligible to give it in the first place, says William Doherty, a family therapist at the University of Minnesota. When we ask someone for feedback, we explicitly assign that person the role of critic. When a teacher grades a student, a coach gives a pep talk, or a parent guides a young child's efforts, there's tacit agreement that praise and correction will be part of the exchange.
"There's a mutual understanding that the person giving the corrective feedback has permission to do it," Doherty says. But uninvited negative feedback often comes from people we don't feel are qualified or entitled to give it. And, he adds, "There are few things you can do to have constructive feedback if you're not seen as being eligible to do it."
Stepparents, for example, often find themselves engaged in a struggle to wield the same authority as natural parents, precisely because children don't see them as eligible to give feedback on homework, manners, peer groups—you name it. A child confronted with criticism might respect a natural parent's requests but rebel if a stepparent attempts a correction. It's a classic problem in reconstructed families, Doherty says, commonly resolved only when the natural parent lends his or her authority in support of the stepparent's position.
At work, unsolicited advice or correction often triggers resentment because it presumes authority on the part of the critic. Such feedback tends to come across as a power play—something that's easier to tolerate in a manager who's a recognized authority than in a peer who isn't. Even a compliment from a peer can rankle, Doherty says, because praising success is something that a person in authority would do.
"A sense of hierarchy and the legitimacy of authority is probably hardwired into the human psyche," says Doherty. "But equally hardwired is competition among peers." Peer-to-peer criticism— between friends, coworkers, or lovers—is especially loaded.
Feelings are the unspoken subtext of most critical conversations. Ashkanasy's studies show that even positive feedback from a leader can create discomfort in a subject if the praise is accompanied by facial expressions that signal anger, annoyance, or other negative emotions. On the other hand, warm and upbeat facial expressions can soften the blow of negative feedback so much that the message doesn't get across. What, then, is the effective emotional tone to strike in a critical conversation?
A disappointed tone, as it is most likely to draw the recipient into the discussion. Developmental psychologist Eveline Crone of Leiden University in the Netherlands cites research showing that an angry confrontation tends to alienate people and provoke self-protective responses, whereas a critical expression of disappointment makes them more other-directed and group-oriented. That's one very good reason not to give feedback when you're angry; the anger itself will drive a wedge between you and your listener, regardless of your words or intentions.
It also helps to know who you're talking to, says Sutton. Different personality types react very differently to criticism. "Full-blown narcissists take even mild criticism as a personal attack," he says. "For the massively insecure, criticism can completely destroy their self-esteem."
At the other end of the spectrum are some rare individuals who thrive on feedback of all sorts. They tend to view their abilities as malleable, not fixed, he says, and are thus more likely to see feedback as an opportunity for improvement rather than as a damning verdict.
The very young may not even have the neurological equipment to make use of negative feedback. In imaging studies, Crone finds that areas of the brain involved in learning and cognitive control are highly active after negative feedback in adults but activate only after positive feedback in children 8-9. The brain centers responsive to negative feedback, crucial for performance adjustment, come online at adolescence.
To Crone, it makes perfect sense. The same brain areas that lack sensitivity to negative feedback in the young undergo structural changes during development. And learning from mistakes is a cognitive high-wire act. "You have to ask yourself pre- cisely what went wrong and how it was possible."
No matter how it's delivered, defensiveness is a natural first response to negative feedback. Don't expect heroics from yourself or anyone else. If you're the recipient, take a deep breath. It's probably going to hurt. Try not to talk too much. Instead, lean back and learn. Feedback "exposes you to yourself, which is why it is both tremendously unsettling and exceptionally valuable," writes management consultant Peter Bregman in a recent blog for the Harvard Business Review. It can be "an incredible gift, a field guide for acting with impact in the world."
"Snotty and boring." As soon as I heard it, I knew my agent was right. My ex was right, too: I'm neither stylish nor aloof, and even in the throes of heartbreak I wasn't willing to transform myself into the glamourpuss he wanted. For what it's worth, I was right about my student's thesis. It needed more work. The moral of the story? When you get negative feedback, be prepared to admit that it just might be accurate. And when you give it, you may want to be ready to duck.
Always lead with questions: How do you think you're doing? It gives the recipient joint ownership of the problem and helps him feel included, not excluded.
Never give criticism unless it's been invited; unsolicited negative feedback only provokes annoyance and will be discounted.
Make sure you are seen as having the authority to give corrective feedback. Criticism from those perceived as peers or unqualified to give it incites resistance and rebellion.
Distinguish whether a demand for change reflects your needs or is a valid critique of how someone is doing something. Know when "You're too demanding" really means "I wish I felt more accepted."
Never give feedback when you're angry; anger alienates the listener. Expressing disappointment is more productive.
Know who you're talking to. Narcissists take any criticism as a personal attack; the insecure lose all self-esteem.
Know yourself, too. If you're relatively insensitive to criticism, curb the tendency to be heavy-handed when delivering it, says Cacioppo, who counts himself among the less sensitive.
Expect defensiveness as a first response to criticism; a change in performance may come later.
Giving feedback in marriage can be an especially delicate affair. In developed societies, spouses tend to consider themselves equal partners, with equal rights, privileges, and—yes—authority. So when Doherty gives his wife unsolicited advice on her driving, he gets gritted teeth more than gratitude. Couples with an equal investment in parenting may find themselves locking horns over it. In contrast, spouses tend not to spar about issues in which one person has a mutually recognized expertise.
But the really tough conversations in marriage and other peer arrangements usually have to do with individual preferences and needs, not questions of fact or expertise. Here the exterior realm of authority and competition gives way to the subjective interior of emotion. My boyfriend's judgment of my deficiencies was "just" his opinion—but in intimate relations, opinions are all that matter. If your spouse tells you he feels unheard or underappreciated, there's a problem—even though you might feel like you hear and appreciate him just fine.
Such is the difference between criticism directed at externalities (driving, parenting styles) and feedback that is, essentially, an expression of longing, anger, or a complaint concerning the state of a relationship. If the former can be considered "task-oriented," the latter might be "ask-oriented," because it usually veils a heartfelt wish for something: more space or more sharing, more sex or more security. "You're needy" means "I want more time to myself"; "You're sexually repressed" means "Can we please have more sex?"
"With intimate relationships, the two kinds of criticism blend," says Doherty, making for some very messy and unproductive arguments. A spat about the planning of a family vacation can escalate into a bruising fight over whether a spouse values family time. To help avoid such blow-ups, it's good, but not easy, to be clear both with yourself and your significant other about which kind of feedback you're giving or getting. Know whether you're criticizing the way someone is doing something or instead expressing a fundamental need, fear, or desire. And remember that, rational or not, a primal dread of separation lurks in any critical discussion. A feeling of inclusion may be enough to resolve a dispute.
"The key thing for the receiver is to listen to the feelings underneath the demand for change," says Doherty. "It's a successful conversation if you can both hear each other and hug at the end."