25 Oct Feedback vs. Criticism: Does it matter? Spoiler alert: Yes, it does!
Which would you rather listen to: useful feedback or constructive criticism?
Think about this question in two different contexts:
- You have just had an argument with your partner/spouse, and are trying to resolve the issue.
- You’ve spent weeks preparing a presentation you have delivered to a high-profile client. When you are done, your team is keen to discuss and dissect it for future use.
Is your answer still the same?
The differences between feedback and criticism extend beyond mere semantics: there is a profound emotional and psychological component which separates these two words.
Language is powerful: much more powerful than people realise or sometimes care to admit. Your ability to choose words and to use them artfully and meaningfully can make or break relationships.
I eliminated “help” from my vocabulary several years ago when I realised that it denied people learning opportunities: by helping someone, you’re suggesting that you think they are inept — at their duties, their responsibilities, and in general. It signals helplessness. I use “support” instead. In offering support, you acknowledge that the person is already on the path to success and self-empowerment.
Support offers encouragement and fosters growth — of individuals and relationships. It’s the icing on the cake. Help, on the other hand, places the person offering it firmly in centre stage — they want to control the baking of the cake and measure out all the ingredients themselves — they believe that they’re the only person who can complete the process correctly.
Giving and receiving support is an important facet in so many spheres of our lives, and one of the most crucial is offering feedback.
We’ve all experienced, to varying degrees, an internal wince when we’ve heard someone criticise another’s perceived shortcomings. Criticising a person is not a constructive way to provide feedback — and constructive criticism is a bombastic, self-important term that is a bald-faced lie.
Criticism is criticism no matter how much you dress it up. Feedback is a loop and a two-way street. If you attack someone when you provide it, you’re indicating that you’re not interested in seeing them learn or succeed. You’re simultaneously devaluing them.
Individuals who provide negative and demoralising commentary show that they’re not even listening. As Stephen R. Covey asserts in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”
In other words, the critic’s ego becomes more important than the collective growth and harmony of an organisation, team, or group. In personal relationships, this kind of behaviour can sometimes be abusive — so why hide behind the concept of constructive criticism in the boardroom?
To ensure you give useful feedback — in a personal or professional context — consider the following:
· Honest communication is not harsh. The key here is tact. Take the time to listen to what someone is saying (regardless of whether you agree with them or not), take note of problem areas, and take stock of all the good points they make (and yes, you can do this even in the heat of an argument).
· If you aren’t sure, clarify. If you don’t follow what a person is saying, ask them what they mean. Rephrasing uncertainty and presenting it in the form of a question demonstrates that you’re genuinely invested in what your interlocutor is saying. For example, say something like: “You mention that xis a challenge. I’m not sure why — could you explain that again?”
· Lead with the good, and end with it too. Use positive points to begin your feedback loop, transform the criticisms into points for improvement, and round off your contribution with a few more highlights and a compliment or two.
There are several key aspects in delivering meaningful feedback: connect ideas rather than problems, be open to discovering and recommending new ways of doing things, become adept at spotting wrong questions instead of wrong answers, embrace possibility, and be flexible.
Next time you’re required to provide feedback, picture yourself on the receiving end. Is what you’ve noted useful or is it condemning? Will others learn and improve, or do you risk ruining relationships? Effective communication is the pivot around which so much of our lives oscillates — make sure that this tool is in your wheelhouse.