The 7 Barriers to Constructive Feedback

February 15th, 2013 @   -  No Comments

When do children normally attract your attention? Most probably, when they do something wrong. You may yell at them, give them an angry look or some kind of penalty, but when they do something right what kind of feedback do they usually get from you? Most often, nothing. We can see this kind of behavior carried over into the world of education, work, and community. Why?

Have you ever witnessed a friend or colleague doing something wrong, but fearing their reaction, you refrained from saying anything? How many times have you postponed a difficult discussion, hoping the issue would resolve itself, only to discover that it worsened? How many times have you felt angry after receiving negative feedback?

Does this mean we should dispense with negative feedback? Absolutely not! When you suffer from a fever or feel pain, those feelings tell you something is wrong. You receive feedback from your body so that you can take corrective action (e.g. see a doctor, change your diet or exercise more). Similarly, negative feedback from others can be constructive when it aims to raise people’s awareness of their behaviour in a way that will lead to learning and positive change.

Constructive feedback may be painful but it is necessary. However, many people are so eager to accept positive feedback while rejecting the negative.  Some would rather be ruined by praise than listen to and get saved by negative feedback.

Effective people welcome both types of feedback. “If I do well, help me; and if I do wrong, set me right.” This is what Abu Bakr said in his first speech as the first Caliph. The second Caliph, Omar Ibn Al Khatab also said, “May Allah have Mercy on the man who shows me my faults.”

Giving and receiving feedback is an excellent skill to acquire. It promotes personal and professional growth. It clears up misunderstandings and diffuses conflict. However, you should be aware of the seven common barriers to constructive feedback:


Barrier No. 1 – Attacking the person, not the issue

When you see your spouse, child or employee as a problem, instead of attacking the problem, you attack the person. When the other person feels under attack, most often, s/he becomes defensive and stops listening. A simple discussion can escalate into an ugly conflict. By contrast, when you mentally separate the person from the problem, you treat the issue differently. You see him as a nice person who has a problem. You can be tough on the problem, but gentle on the person.

Barrier No. 2 – Focusing on the problem, not the solution

Imagine you felt unwell and went to see a physician. After the examination, he explained your illness. But when you asked him for a remedy, he replied, “I don’t know!” How would you feel? Similarly, when you highlight an error or wrongdoing, you should also point out a solution or alternative. Nothing is gained by pointing out what is wrong unless you offer ways to correct it.

Barrier No. 3 – Giving feedback to the wrong people

Most of us complain to the wrong people. Rather than advising the concerned party directly, we tell others. What is the result? Everybody knows about the problem but the one concerned. This often worsens the problem. If you can’t tell the person directly, you shouldn’t tell others either.

Barrier No. 4 – Giving feedback in public

When the Prophet (PBUH) commented on a wrong action publicly, he would say, “What has happened to the people that do such and such acts…” When it concerns a particular person, give constructive feedback in private.

Barrier No. 5 – Giving feedback in a state of anger

Ask yourself, “Am I simply releasing my frustrations?” If you are the least bit angry, it’s not the right time to give feedback. Doing so will make things worse.

Barrier No. 6 – Giving too much negative feedback

If most of your feedback is negative, soon, your family members, colleagues, and friends will automatically get defensive or stop listening to you.  It is important to give a balanced mix of positive and constructive feedback. In positive feedback express appreciation and in negative feedback, express concern.

Barrier No. 7 – Refusing to listen to feedback

In the famous incident where Abu Dhar called Bilal “a son of a black woman,” the Prophet (PBUH) corrected him. Abu Dhar immediately acknowledged and apologized for his mistake.

In another incident, prior to the battle of Badr, the Prophet (PBUH) chose a camp location. Hubab suggested a better one. The Prophet (PBUH) listened to him, accepted his suggestion and implemented it.

If you get angry or defensive every time people give you feedback, you sacrifice learning opportunities. Many people, fearing your reaction, will simply stop informing you of your blind spots.  So, check your reaction.

Feedback has value regardless of whether you agree with it or not. It represents other people’s perceptions of your actions and behaviour. If you want people to listen to your feedback, you should also be willing to listen to theirs.


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