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Get Comfortable Giving Honest Feedback

People want constructive criticism. Here’s how to deliver it.

Mickeko Productions/Inh.Michele Vitucci/Alamy
Mickeko Productions/Inh.Michele Vitucci/Alamy

Should you alert an acquaintance to the spinach in his teeth? Or discreetly tell a coworker she’s been mispronouncing a client’s name? Many people hesitate to offer such constructive criticism, even when the benefits to the other person seem obvious. Recent research finds that a common cognitive error may help explain why—and that a simple intervention could help overcome it.

In five experiments, study participants imagined or recalled giving constructive feedback to others, both loved ones and strangers, or participated in real-time interactions in which they gave or received feedback. Those who gave feedback estimated how much the other person wanted to hear a well-
intentioned criticism; receivers reported their actual desire for constructive critiques.

Feedback-givers consistently underestimated how much others wanted to hear helpful criticism. The miscalculation was particularly pronounced when the feedback was deemed consequential, as well as when those offering the information predicted that doing so would be socially uncomfortable, either for themselves or for the receiver.

The underestimation is likely due to a human tendency, well-established in past research, to ascribe different motives and desires to others than we do to ourselves, says Harvard doctoral student Nicole Abi-Esber, who authored the study with Jennifer Abel, Juliana Schroeder, and Francesca Gino. We tend to want feedback for ourselves, she explains, but “because we’re not putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes, we underestimate how much they want it, too.”

Forgoing offering constructive criticism could have consequences. In one study, some of the subjects were asked to engage in a public-speaking contest, potentially earning money if they won, while the other participants gave feedback to the first group as they prepared. Feedback-givers again underestimated the speakers’ desire for constructive criticism, often opting to give them compliments instead. Yet it was the speakers who heard more critical feedback who showed the most improvement.

Is it possible to overcome this bias and get better at giving feedback when it’s most needed? The results of one experiment indicate that a quick perspective-taking exercise could move the needle. “Take a second and imagine you are the other person,” Abi-Esber suggests. If you’d want feedback if the roles were reversed, it’s likely the other person feels the same—and might even be grateful that you took the time to speak up.