Why focusing on the black almost never works…
My netball girls were driving me crazy last Saturday. They played so poorly and with such little passion for most of the game that I wanted to yell at them. Especially as they kept fumbling basics like catching and passing! It was all quite disheartening.
Of course, it was raining (a little), and the courts were damp and slippery (a little), and the sky was completely gray. But their opponents weren’t outstanding – though some of them were intimidating; we were just lackluster.
To make matters worse, nothing I said or did seemed to make enough difference to change things. Not asking them were they ok. Not suggesting strategies for play. Not moving them around. Certainly not telling them they knew how to throw and catch!
Ok, I didn’t really do that. But I wanted to! Unfortunately (for me), knowing how negative feedback works meant I chose to reign in my desire for a temper tantrum so as to create a better learning opportunity for them.
Why negative feedback doesn’t work
We’re tempted to be critical in so many contexts – after all, disappointments abound. Kids let you down? Your partner? Someone at work? How about a friend? When people or life fail to meet our expectations we can’t help but be sorry, and inclined to hit out. And since we feel things the most strongly when we’re towards the end of our sanity, going the negative feedback line’s kind of a nice way to distract ourselves from the disappointment. Sort of an emotional blood letting.
Unfortunately we don’t process the disappointment that way, merely deflect it. So it remains in our brain still needing resolution. That’s the first problem. The second is our hearers hate it. Giving negative feedback only makes people feel bad and puts them on the defensive. If you want to pick a fight, say something mean. Works every time.
When you’re feeling bad you’re not as capable of thinking up better ideas or strategies. So you saying something the other person doesn’t like triggers a reaction in them which inclines them to attack you. You can escalate the bad feelings on both sides very quickly this way.
Negative feedback (“You don’t/can’t” or “Don’t you know how to…?” or any of the others) not only limits the positivity options for the two of you, it also limits your relationship. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore uninspiring behaviour or things that are wrong. So what can you do?
Better option feedback
I’m not one for pretending that things are going well when they’re not. And I don’t subscribe to the ‘say something I don’t like and I’ll be offended’ line either. We’re all entitled to our own opinions and have to learn to live with others. But when it comes to drawing improvement out of people, there’s certainly more and less helpful ways to do that.
Start by expressing positive expectations
The start of any feedback or correction needs to focus on getting the receiver on the same team as you. Put aside your frustration and see this as an opportunity for good. Things can be improved. Higher standards can be attained. Fix that thought in your head before starting any conversation. Then approach your child/mother/team member and indicate you’re on their side. This Daniel Pink quick video tip lists out one 19 word option for what to say, but the core idea is to build trust, express your confidence in their ability and then launch into the details.
Tell them what they’re doing right
Another strategy’s to start with what was being done well. This could be something as simple as they responded quickly to your intervention, or that you could see they were trying hard. If (within this situation) you don’t think anything was done well, perhaps you can comment in a general sense about something associated with the context. So, “I know you really lost it and laid into your brother, but most of the time you manage to be patient.” That kind of thing. People like to know we see them as basically good, and will handle constructive criticism much better in that context.
Watch the positivity ratio within the relationship here. We all need at least three nice things said for every harsher one, so keep that in mind. (If you want to know more, I wrote about that here.)
And then make your suggestions!
Once you’ve set things up well, what you say’s less likely to be seen as negative feedback. Don’t encourage their same old thinking loop to strengthen – challenge the other person to become more. Give directives to a better behaviour. Suggest what you’d prefer to see happen. Keep in mind that a six year old can’t act like an adult, and an immature adult’s not going to instantly become responsible either. Hold your suggestions to things you’re pretty sure will be possible for them to do. Otherwise they’ll dismiss your ideas even if they want to please you.
If you don’t want to tell them exactly what to do, throw a few choices to get them going. That’s both more useful and more likely to get you some relief from the crying/yelling/whinging/bad behaviour than anything else.
Finally, reward attitude whilst the person you’ve spoken with upskills and learns the change. It can take a while to remember and feel comfortable with new behaviours, so cut enough slack to allow for that.
Of course, some days even that doesn’t bring about the change you’d desire. (Yes, we lost the netball.) But at least we’ll have tried. Good on us for that.