Some people find it hard to give constructive criticism in a way that is effective, particularly to someone who is just learning a new skill.
It’s tempting to praise everything, or find fault with everything. Neither one is honest, but for different reasons.
Calling everything good, when it is not, is dishonest for obvious reasons. Doing so labels you as either ineffective or ignorant. Worse, most of us can at least intuitively sense when we’re not performing well, and when we’re told we’re doing better than we think we are, we correctly distrust the feedback as false and come to view the giver as uncommitted to our success. On the other hand, being overly critical is equally dishonest because the feedback is based on an expectation of mastery for someone who is an apprentice. At work, it discourages someone who is taking on a new role within the company. At home, too much criticism of a child damages his or her self-esteem.
Both positive and negative feedback have their place. Positive feedback – here’s what you did right – bolsters confidence, increases commitment, and enhances the performance experience. Negative feedback – here’s what you did wrong – is instructive for achieving improvement.
Yes, there is a happy middle ground. It is possible to give criticism – constructive feedback – in a way that is honest yet encourages improvement, while acknowledging weaknesses in a way that is also honest, without being discouraging.
I found this middle ground in music lessons.
For several years I was co-owner of a school of music that used the Mother-Tongue Approach to Talent Education – you might know it as the Suzuki Method – named for its creator, Dr. Shinichi Suzuki.
There are several aspects of this teaching approach that I love. One is the expectation that every child learns. Some children master a skill in less time, others in more time, but every child will master a skill after some number of perfect repetitions. The presumption of eventual success, and the understanding that success begins with many attempts to gain a single successful execution, and many successful executions to gain mastery, permeate every aspect of instruction, practice and performance. It communicates acceptance of the player no matter what, and expectation of skillful execution, if not today then in the future.
Another aspect I love is the way the teacher or parent gives constructive feedback to the student in each lesson or practice period. The goal is to reinforce what has been done right, while identifying what needs further work. The focus is always on the performance, not on the performer. There is always something good to be said about how the child played. It might be posture, fingering, bowing, tone, intonation, hand position, or something related to the music itself. For very young child just beginning, it might be as simple as how well the child brought the instrument into playing position, or, even, how hard the child concentrated while playing.
From that beginning comment, the teacher next may ask a question. What did you like about how you played?
The question gives the child the opportunity for self-assessment, and guards against harsh self-criticism.
Or, the teacher may simply say, That was good, can you do better?
From there, the teacher may direct the student’s attention to one specific area that needs improvement, or ask the student to continue practicing the passage or piece until it is easily played.
The lesson or practice never ends before the student has at least one more opportunity to better perform the skill, and then the opportunity to play a piece or a passage that has already been mastered. By ending with accomplishment, the student looks forward to continuing to improve the next time.
We can use this same basic approach when we must assess another person’s performance.
- Begin by praising at least one area.
- Ask for his or her own assessment.
- Ask for improvement in one specific area.
- Identify an opportunity for the person to demonstrate improvement.
If providing constructive feedback this way feels awkward to you at first, remember what Suzuki said: knowledge plus 10,000 repetitions yields mastery. In time, with practice, it will become a natural part of how you criticize and how you encourage improvement.
Life Is Honest, Open and True: When we must criticize others, we can do so with kind words and honesty, while standing next to them so together we can look towards the goal of improving overall performance.
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