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As a newspaper columnist, Nancy Devlin, Ph.D. has written over 700 articles on subjects related to education and parenting. Welcome to her Classroom!

Giving Constructive Feedback

The social sciences have borrowed the term “feedback” from engineering. In electronic and mechanical systems, a bit of the output is “fed back” to the input in order to provide information about how the system is performing. Be careful, as in engineering “negative feedback” is the good kind. Systems with no feedback or “positive feedback” tend to run wild. In the context of human relations, it is probably better to speak of “constructive feedback” and “destructive feedback”. To keep our relations with other people from running wild, we use many types of feedback: facial expressions, body language, spoken words, tone of voice, written messages.

It is important to get into the habit of giving people constructive feedback. This can take the form of encouragement or, if given with the right spirit, constructive criticism. In human relations, as in engineering, lack of any feedback can be destructive.

Have you ever had the experience of sending someone a gift or special card with a heartfelt message and receiving no acknowledgement? You expect some kind of feedback. If your gift is money, your only feedback may be the canceled check. Most people do not expect a letter, a short telephone call would do. Sometimes you do hear from the person, but your card, message or gift is never mentioned. The result is resentment and strain on the relationship.

In many cases, this kind of breakdown in feedback happens because the person does not know to express appreciation for the concern and caring of another. It seems to be something which must be taught and once learned must be practiced.

Some people never catch on. Some cannot read facial expressions or body language. For some, feedback consists entirely of disparaging comments. “Your new hairdo looks awful, you looked much better with it long.” “Why did you buy that dress, you know black makes you look washed out?” This is often said after the person has cut off the ticket and cannot return the dress.

It is appropriate to give honest feedback to a person who is asking your opinion about something that can be changed. “Do you think I look good in this color?” There are several ways to respond to this. You could say, “No, it looks awful.” or you could provide constructive feedback by saying “Blue is better for you because it brings out the lovely color of your eyes.”

Some people are avoided because they are always partly cloudy, whenever they give feedback, it is destructive. If you find that this is happening in your family, it would be appropriate to point it out to the person doing it. You might have to give that person other sentences to day. Or even help him correct his own negative statements to positive ones. This is especially helpful for children. Some children get into this habit and find to difficult to find and to keep friends. They usually do not know why.

Schools sometimes get into the habit of giving feedback to students only by pointing out what they have done wrong. They tell them where they are deficient rather than where they are successful. Most of us can handle critical feedback if it is given by somebody we trust and if it is given in the spirit of hope. That is, when we are how we can improve our performance. We also need to be told some of the things we are doing right. We tend not to trust or listen to someone who only gives us destructive feedback. This person is avoided because he does not help us.

Knowing how, where, where to give constructive and critical feedback is very important. Think about how well you manage this skill and then think about how you are modeling this skill for your children.

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