You want someone to take a look at an important letter before you send it out. Your kid left their shoes in the middle of the floor, again. Your boss makes little disparaging remarks about your Black coworker that she doesn’t make about others.
We give and receive feedback constantly as we navigate our complex interconnecting social relationships. Some environments favor bluntness, while others favor more subtle signals. In environments where everyone agrees on the unspoken rules for feedback, communication proceeds fairly smoothly. Feedback can be a mechanism for teaching, learning, and getting along better. It can also be a mechanism for status, control, and emotional abuse.
Affected by power
Feedback is heavily affected by power and privilege. People with more power (one or more of white, male, straight, cis, wealthy, Christian, able bodied, etc.) tend to give casual direct critical feedback to those with less power. Feedback given to those with more power tends to be more indirect, subtle, and carefully thought out.
Positive feedback needed
We thrive on positive feedback, with the occasional bit of corrective negative feedback thrown in. Ideally, babies and young children are flooded with positive feedback from people expressing delight in their existence. This forms the foundation for a sense of being basically okay that generates an internal flow of positive messages.
We do many things well, every day. We struggle with challenging circumstances and work within our limits as best we can. We make other people’s lives better in small and large ways. We attend to our healing, and decline to pass on harm that was done to us. We do our best to show up and live well in a complex, heartbreaking world.
We deserve positive feedback for our efforts. We deserve to hear, internally and externally, “Well done. I see how hard you’re trying. I see you are doing your absolute best.” We deserve specific acknowledgement for things that go well, even maintenance tasks we do often, like cooking or laundry. We deserve praise for persevering in our private daily struggles.
Instead, most of us get a constant stream of negative feedback from our Inner Critic, who details every imagined and actual thing we do wrong. Even if we do many things well, we can always be criticized for something else we “should” have been doing.
Choose what to let in
While we are told that we “should” have positive self-esteem independent of everyone else, we naturally take in social feedback to check if we are good enough. Despite being hungry for reassuring positive feedback, we tune our senses toward the slightest sign that we made a misstep or offended someone.
Over time, we gain a clearer sense of our strengths and weaknesses. We know which of our qualities and behaviors people object to. We know which we are working to change, and which we have accepted as part of the package of being ourselves. We learn which kinds of feedback send us into a spiral of self-hate because they touch on qualities and behaviors we can neither change nor accept (yet).
We can choose which feedback we allow to touch us inside, and which we quickly discard with, “I can’t go there,” or “I can’t emotionally afford that today.” We can prefer to spend more time with people who are generally positive toward us, and at the same time will tell us kindly and directly when there is an issue to discuss.
We can find middle ground between using privilege to shield ourselves from uncomfortable feedback, and exposing ourselves to ongoing toxicity. When we already understand that we have a weakness, flaw, or problem, it does not help to hear it criticized repeatedly. Seek environments that recognize and reinforce tiny steps toward improvement. Just as we can prefer narratives with hope, we can prefer feedback that nourishes and supports us.
Acknowledge negative feedback
When we receive negative feedback that is new to us, we often respond defensively. Our Inner Critic may join in, reinforcing the negative feedback as well as criticizing our defensiveness. We can acknowledge the feedback and the speaker’s feelings, and then take some time away from the conversation to process our reactions.
Most feedback has at least a kernel of truth. At the same time, most people are talking about themselves most of the time. When we assume we are basically okay, we can take in useful parts of feedback while leaving shame and blame behind. Sometimes, acknowledging the feedback is the only action we need to take. Sometimes, we need to stop doing harm.
Give clear feedback
When we give feedback, we can take some time beforehand to seek clarity on which parts belong to us, and which parts need to be said to the other person. What is the goal in giving feedback?
- State a boundary or need. People generally respond better to positive statements (“more of this”) rather than negative statements (“less of that”). Both are valid.
- Inform or teach. Does the recipient want to be taught? Do they already know what you want to teach? Sometimes a brief reminder works well, such as “Shoes!” to the kid who left them out.
- Reinforce hierarchy. Think twice before giving negative or explanatory feedback to someone with less power.
- Be heard. The recipient may or may not hear you. At least, you get to hear yourself saying it. Here are some tips if you are not heard.
- Appreciate. Give lots of (genuine) appreciation! It lifts spirits, fosters connection, and supports healing.
- Acknowledge. “You were right,” supports people’s sense of their own truth and competence. I try to say it whenever possible.
Sometimes, remaining silent feels like colluding with an unacceptable situation, such as a manager disproportionately disparaging Black employees. At the same time, giving feedback feels useless or dangerous or extremely delicate. There might be indirect ways of giving feedback, such as talking about microaggressions and implicit bias in general, or telling a story where the speaker realizes they were unfairly disparaging a certain group themselves. It might be possible to publicly support the disparaged employees.
A gentle direct statement such as, “I feel uncomfortable when you talk down [specific employee] more than others,” might contribute to change in the long run. There is no one way to give feedback in delicate situations. Remaining silent or waiting for an opportunity to speak are also valid options.
Feedback during bodywork
In my practice, I encourage clients to give me feedback about what they want more of and less of. It is part of the healing process to notice preferences, express them, and have them honored. Too often, we withhold feedback while receiving care because experience tells us that some practitioners do not want to adjust what they are doing based on our needs.
Entitled to kind feedback
We have a healthy entitlement to nourishing, supportive, kind feedback. We can also take care to give nourishing feedback to others. When we give or receive challenging feedback, we can do our best to skillfully speak and hear the parts that help us grow and change.
- Kate Heddleston describes the downsides of critical feedback and the upsides of supportive feedback in Criticism and Ineffective Feedback.
- Joseph Grenny advocates for frequent group feedback in How to Make Feedback Feel Normal.