Can negative feedback, or criticism, provide you with useful information for improvement and development? It may seem counter-intuitive, but there is potential to benefit more from criticism than praise.

The vast majority of us learn very early on that we are expected to deal with facts. In and of itself this might not be such a terrible thing. The trouble starts when we combine with this the idea that we also learn very early on where these facts come from. Typically we are not learning that facts come from testing hypotheses and finding evidence for a piece of information, but rather that facts are synonymous with statements. As we have learned that facts are true, when we are provided with a statement that is held up as a statement of fact, we tend not to question it. Obviously there are times when taking this approach to dealing with the world is hugely advantageous.

“The stove is hot”

“It’s raining”

Provided with these statements and taking them to be facts our understanding of the world, at an emotional and cognitive level, adapts appropriately and we can tailor our behavior to deal with the implications of these facts, for example, “stay away from the stove”, “get a coat”.

Such statements don’t need to be questioned. This of course doesn’t mean that they can’t be, but for practical purposes taking them at face value is unlikely to cause any of us anxiety or distress.  We are not bound by those implications, just as one is not bound by visual perception, but they provide opportunities and information for decision-making in the widest sense, including thinking, feeling and behaving. Crucially, such statements are neutral, they are not weighed down with values and this might explain why we tend not to question them. However, the situation is not so simple. If we consider statements that are valuable there still is a tendency to treat them like they afford the clear understanding of their meanings, and we don’t question them even though there may be a broader set of possibilities behind them.

Let’s consider some positive statements.
“You’re performance today was brilliant”
“You have a nice way of dealing with people”

Social convention dictates that positive information stops there, and this means that other than being a sense of comfort, reassurance and fostering good relations, it isn’t particularly functional. That isn’t to say that it isn’t pleasant and enjoyable, and can have strong motivational influences, but what do you learn?

Now think about this- How much do you trust compliments and positive statements? 100%? Do you completely and absolutely take everything positive said to you without a tiny pinch of salt? Does your critical voice ever speak up and place nagging doubts in your mind, either about the speaker, or about how their opinion might be different if they knew you better? Let’s pretend that there are sometimes doubts. So, positives are not particularly informative, you can’t really learn from them and you can’t be entirely sure that they are 100% truthful. As far as personal growth goes perhaps they are not quite the bargain the might be. Feel good, yes, and that is powerful, but their power is coming from someone else. You haven’t increased your power from them, your personal understanding of your talents, skills, biases, weaknesses etc. Someone else is in a position of power to convey these blessings upon you, and as we’ve begun to suspect, they may not be 24 carat gold.

If neutral statements aren’t going to help us in our quest for personal growth and understanding, and positive statements aren’t, the only thing left would be the negative statements.

How could negative statements help us develop, after all, the negative statements that we are so good at keeping in our heads, that running commentary that intervenes and deflate us, probably couldn’t be considered to be a source of vital information that leads to our self-growth? That’s true. But it is through what we can learn from the negative reactions of others – the things they say, the way they respond, – that we can start to challenge the voices in our minds, and the voices outside.

If you know what it is that you are doing wrong, you can change it if you decide to do so. The great thing is that people are only too happy to let you know what it is that you are doing wrong. Probably the only thing people like better than talking about themselves is telling other people what’s wrong with them. Remember that you aren’t obliged to change to satisfy anyone, but if you want or need to develop in a certain area of your life, then knowing where you are now, and how that isn’t as good as required, and knowing the specifics of where you are going wrong, it’s almost like you have been given a map of how to develop. Now that’s a map worth having, and you’re getting it for free. Whilst someone else might feel that they are getting to vent at you, you can collect useful information and use that to build up an understanding of what is expected, and develop strategies to get there.

Who benefits, the person criticizing, or the person criticized?

To Your Health & Success,
Monica Bundy