The Virtues of Negative Feedback

Recently I set a woman’s hair on fire.

I was a guest on her radio talk show to discuss my book, Willing Dogs & Reluctant Masters: On Friendship and Dogs. This host—unlike some other hosts whose shows I’ve appeared on—had actually read enough of my book to find something she disliked. She found objectionable my story about how I came to nip my German shepherd Aktis on the ear. (Objectionable enough to accuse me of setting her hair on fire!) Gentle reader, I write in my book and reassured my host that I do not recommend nipping your dog’s ear as a correction. It’s almost always a dumb idea. In the book I explain why I did it anyway, and why the issues around causing another soul pain cast light on some of the most interesting and thorny aspects of friendship.

Sometimes we compassionately cause another soul pain to get their attention. That’s one reason why I nipped Aktis’s ear, and it’s why I tell such a controversial, hair-burning story in my book’s introduction—to get the reader’s attention and encourage fresh reflection.  It’s also why Zen masters may use a kyosaku, or “encouragement stick,” to awaken sleepy or slumbering meditators with a brisk whack on the shoulders. (This too is a controversial practice and has been abandoned by many in the tradition.)

The kyosaku in action

The kyosaku in action

The conventional wisdom in our culture is that deliberately causing another soul pain in the name of education is almost never justified. The conventional wisdom is dead wrong. On another occasion I’ll say more about why pain is an unavoidable part of any true education—whether of humans or dogs.

As a preface to my promised account, I recommend an excellent and informative post, Sometimes Negative Feedback Is Bestby Heidi Grant Halvorson, a professor at Columbia University’s business school. Here’s her bracing opening paragraph.

If I see one more article or blog post about how you should never be “critical” or “negative” when giving feedback to an employee or colleague (or, for that matter, your children), I think my head will explode. It’s incredibly frustrating. This kind of advice is surely well meant, and it certainly sounds good. After all, you probably don’t relish the thought of having to tell someone else what they are doing wrong — at minimum, it’s a little embarrassing for everyone involved.

The entire post is worth reading. Although her immediate concern is the relation between employers and employees, the conclusions apply to any relationship in which one person is responsible for overseeing the work or education of another. This includes the relationship between parents and children, teachers and students, masters and apprentices, and of course reluctant masters and willing dogs.

I’ll summarize her two main points. The first is that positive and negative feedback serve different purposes. Positive feedback encourages and motivates, enhancing your experience and inreasing your commitment to the work.  Negative feedback on the other hand is informative, telling you where you need to spend your effort and offering insights about how you can improve.

Her second point is that these different kinds of feedback are effective for different souls at different times. In particular,

when you don’t really know what you are doing, positive feedback helps you to stay optimistic and feel more at ease with the challenges you are facing — something novices tend to need. But when you are an expert, and you already more or less know what you are doing, it’s negative feedback that can help you do what it takes to get to the top of your game.

Halvorson backs up these observations by describing some very interesting studies showing that novices prefer teachers who emphasize what they’re doing right, while more advanced students prefer teachers who are more critical, thus enabling them to see their weaknesses and develop their skills.

These studies show that people who are experienced in a given domain — people who already have developed some knowledge and skills — don’t actually live in fear of negative feedback. If anything, they seek it out. Intuitively they realize that negative feedback offers the key to getting ahead, while positive feedback merely tells them what they already know.

For most of us, criticism and negative feedback always cause at least a little psychic pain. However, as Halvorson’s remarks suggest, that pain may diminish and even disappear when it’s the expert practitioners receiving the feedback. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates often says we should welcome correction and even thank those compassionate souls who relieve us of our ignorance!  Alas, few of us have so perfected the art of letting go of our fragile egos as have history’s philosophical saints and buddhas.

Now you also know the other and more important reason I nipped Aktis on the ear: to inform and instruct him on a vital subject of which he was already a proficient student. I didn’t resort to this negative feedback until I’d been working steadily with him for over a year and a half, using largely positive reinforcement. (It’s pretty easy to be pleasingly positive with puppies!) Aktis was well versed in the work at hand, so the occasion—if not Aktis himself—asked for negative feedback more than encouragement.

Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Dish.

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