What Makes Feedback So Superior to Criticism?

It's hardly a coincidence that the word criticism--though many of its synonyms are not in themselves unfavorable (such as analysis, appraisal, or review)--almost always carries negative connotations. The term feedback, on the other hand, is as likely to refer to something positive as it is negative. However, in the effort to compare apples to apples, I'll be focusing here only on negative feedback (just as earlier my attention centered exclusively on negative criticism).

In personal, non-business situations, giving someone negative feedback isn't about calling attention to flaws in their performance, but explaining to them how their behavior has adversely affected you. Consequently, any such statement is primarily about yourself, which is why such communications typically begins with the pronoun "I" (rather than "you"). For when you're giving feedback, you're not actually blaming the other person for your reactions--whether they be hurt, anger, or disappointment--but informing them that their actions do in fact relate to your negative feelings. Still, in your willingness to take some responsibility for the feelings evoked in you, you're reducing the possibility of their reacting defensively. And you're also increasing the odds that they'll show more of a desire to listen to, understand, and empathize with the distress their insensitive behavior may have caused.

An example of this might be telling your spouse about their obviously bored reaction when you shared with them the specifics of a lunch date you had with a friend. You might tell them that even though you realize you may have gotten carried away in confiding so many details of what transpired during the get-together, their response of looking away, and audibly sighing and yawning, left you feeling hurt, uncared for, and even insulted. At the same time that you're more than willing to own up to your possibly straining their patience, you're seeking to make them aware that their dismissive response was still emotionally painful to you.

 Your motive here isn't to get them to hang their heads in shame, or abjectly confess that their behavior was reprehensible, only to increase their awareness of the negative impact their behavior had on you--and, of course, to prompt them to be more considerate and responsive in the future. To the degree you're able to circumvent their defenses and prompt them to empathically enter into your world, you stand a much better chance of achieving these worthwhile "educational" goals. They'll also be more likely to reflect upon their behavior and engage in some sort of self-confrontation when they're not being actively derided as obtuse, selfish, hardhearted, or callous. Name-calling, after all, is rarely effective in promoting positive behavioral change.

To help pinpoint the distinctions between giving criticism and offering feedback, I've compiled the fairly comprehensive list below. Examining it carefully should make it clear why feedback--even though it may be negative--is far more likely to impel another to re-think and, hopefully, to change their behavior than is criticism.

• Criticism is judgmental, negatively evaluative, and accusatory. As such, it can involve diagnosing (as is psycho-analyzing), labeling, lecturing, moralizing--and even ridiculing. Feedback, on the other hand, focuses on providing concrete information that could be helpful in motivating the other person to reconsider their behavior. Rather than being judgmental, it's descriptive.

• Criticism typically involves making negative assumptions about (or "mind-reading") the other person's motives. Feedback, however, generally avoids speculating on the other person's intent, focusing instead on the actual results of their behavior. If the person giving feedback shares their impression about the other's motives, it's clearly stated as such.

• Criticism is more general and diffuse--it can include negative appraisals of the other's character, even temperament. Feedback doesn't engage in such "character assassination," but rather centers more on the particular behaviors relating to the speaker's present-day frustrations or annoyance. The examples given aren't meant to illustrate the other person's personality defects, but rather to exemplify what is specifically experienced as troublesome or problematic.

• Criticism tends to exaggerate and over-generalize the behavior being objected to, and liberal use is made of such hyperbolic words as "always" or "never." Feedback attempts to be precise and delimited, and to aim attention only toward those behaviors that give offense.

• Criticism can have an unrestrained, all-inclusiveness about it--and it can revolve around things that aren't really changeable (e.g., criticizing another for being so allergic). Feedback doesn't indulge in overwhelming the other through "kitchen-sinking" complaints. And, typically, it engages the other person solely on behaviors that can be changed. (Note how common the phrase "destructive criticism" is--and how comparatively rare is the term "destructive feedback.")

• Criticism can come across as invalidating, condescending, preachy and authoritarian--and the person delivering it as arrogant, with a clear sense of superiority. Feedback, by confining itself to detailed descriptions of what is bothersome, is far less likely to imply that the person on the receiving end is somehow inferior, defective, or "less than."

• Criticism can make the other person feel under pressure, or at risk, because the angry tone in which it's typically delivered is frequently experienced as demanding, intimidating, or threatening. Feedback, offered in a calmer, more tentative, and low-keyed manner (ideally, at least), is designed to inform rather than attack--and so is far less likely to make the other person feel in jeopardy.

• Criticism commonly includes giving advice, commands, injunctions. Feedback, however, is less likely to center on how the other person should change than (by focusing on the negative interpersonal effects of their behavior) to prompt a discussion about the possible benefits of change.

• And--finally--as I've already emphasized, criticism prompts defensiveness because it's blaming and disparaging (at times, almost daring the other to refute it). Feedback, assuming that the other person is reasonably open to it, is much more likely to lead to self-reflection and re-evaluation of the behavior that might have been hurtful or provocative. It can hardly be overemphasized that, in essence, feedback has nothing to do with winning an argument, only with resolving a problem.

Many readers may recognize from all these characterizations that what I'm describing as feedback in many ways overlaps with what is more familiarly known as assertive (vs. aggressive) communication. So anyone wishing to develop greater proficiency in expressing their frustrations and complaints in ways that would optimize their getting the results they want would benefit greatly by exploring one or more of the virtual "library" of books available on the seminal subject of assertiveness.

Note: In case you missed it, here's a link to Part 1 of this post. Additionally, because I've done many other posts that center on improving relationships, you might want to take the opportunity to review some of them. Here's a second link, which will get you to my other writings for Psychology Today.

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