Getting smart with giving feedback

A few simple changes that could transform your relationships

“Your meals are disgusting!” she shouted.   A look of deep hurt flashed across his face before anger kicked in.  “You don’t need to be cooked for anyway,” he retorted.   “Your bottom’s gone way beyond cute!”

Does anything familiar echo here? What about in the following exchange?

“Darling,” he said, repeating his familiar compliment, “You’re beautiful.” The mirror reflected dark bags under her eyes from sleep deprivation, a face pale from stress, and a head of dirty hair.  Beautiful? They both knew that this was far from her most beautiful moment. Why did he tell her this when it was so obviously false today?

Most of us would prefer to be party to the second exchange than the first one, yet the two scenarios have something lethally in common for relationships:  they contain evaluative feedback.

We often give little thought to the comments we make to others in our life sphere unless, as teachers, coaches, counsellors or the like, we are giving that feedback professionally and in an asymmetrical relationship (e.g.  teacher/student, supervisor/employee, professional/client, or parent/child).  But we can also use feedback effectively in our “equal” relationships - that is, between partners, friends, or equal co-workers - to build a strong and nurturing relational base founded on respect and genuineness.

The comments you make: descriptive or evaluative?

We probably don’t even think about comments we make to others as being “feedback”. Chances are, we generally just react to whatever is happening in the moment, as in the above examples.  Yet feedback it is, and most of it can be divided into two categories:  descriptive and evaluative.  You may well wonder what the difference is – or why we should even care.  Let me explain.  

“Evaluative” means judging

Anyone who’s been schooled knows about evaluative feedback.  We cheered when we got an “A” or felt bad when the teacher wrote “sloppy work”.  Evaluative feedback is for the purpose of measuring achievement with a score or grade:  great for schools, perhaps, but not as effective in interpersonal relationships.  The nature of evaluating is that we are making a judgment.  The first woman above judged her husband’s cooking as “disgusting”, and he made an equally potent judgment about a part of her body.  But even in the second example, the loving husband telling his wife she is “beautiful” is also judging.

All judging creates problems

We can easily get why negative judging comments are problematic for our relationships, but it’s harder to understand how the positive version -- evaluative praise – also undermines our interactions. Think of it like this:  evaluative feedback tends to be general, not specific, and is often directed to our person rather than our behaviour (i.e. who we are rather than what we do).  Because it is subjective, it fosters approval-seeking:  a sense of being beholden to others’ opinions.  This can trigger both perfectionism and shame in us.  It can, even when positive, make us feel worse, or that we should have done better.  It doesn’t increase our confidence or self-reliance.  Moreover, we may feel doubtful or even manipulated when, in cases such as the second one above, we know the feedback is being given because the person cares -- or wants something -- not because we are truly “beautiful”, “excellent”,  or whatever quality is being ascribed to us.  Whether negative or positive, we feel “thinged” -- rendered less than fully human -- when we are judged.

“Descriptive” tells it like it is 

Descriptive feedback, on the other hand, describes a behaviour, situation, or incident as the feedback giver sees it.  Because it is a description, it is based on something specifically observed and therefore able to be objectively verified.  Often delivered in a calm, casual voice (as opposed to evaluative feedback’s exclamatory style), it is about noticing what someone does:  his or her effort, process, and behaviour.  It can be used to reinforce values between two people and emphasises steps in the right direction; improvements in behaviour, habits or attitude, or the absence of undesirable behaviour.  Regular use of it increases a person’s self-esteem, capacity for cooperation, and ability to accept disappointment.

Two parts to descriptive feedback

To engage this relationship-building form of commentary, include two parts, a description of:  (1) what you see and hear and (2) what/how you feel.

Feedback in action

Let’s set a few examples to make it clearer.

1. Evaluative: You’re so strong!

Descriptive: Thank you for your help in carrying that heavy load. 
2. Evaluative: Your cooking is disgusting.

Descriptive: I notice it’s almost always hard-boiled eggs and microwaved peas on your nights to cook; I feel bored with this and wonder what else you might be able to create.

3. Evaluative: You’re fabulous.

Descriptive: I feel deeply met when you give me your full attention and show empathy for my problem.

4. Evaluative: Your desk is a pigsty.  

Descriptive: When papers from our several projects are strewn over your desk, I feel anxious that we will not take needed actions in time.

Someone once compared feedback to fats in the body.  Evaluative feedback is like the dangerous fats that clog our arteries, increase our cholesterol, and shut down blood flow.  Here, it’s the healthy flow of relational energy being shut down. Descriptive comments are like the fats which lower our cholesterol , helping nourish heart and brain with blood flow.  In our analogy, they keep the communication zone from getting clogged, nourishing our relationships.  Which would you prefer?

Dr. Meg Carbonatto

Meg completed her B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in the United States before moving to New Zealand. In Auckland, Meg gained her counselling and psychotherapy diplomas and worked in private practice. She has written two books, the more recent one, published in 2009 and entitled Back From the Edge, is a collection of stories celebrating resilience in adversity. Meg started at the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors in 2011, where she has been happily writing counselling and psychotherapy courses.  She also sees therapy clients privately. Meg brings to all her professional activities a commitment to helping people manifest their full potential, creating lives infused with meaning and joy.

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