The Remarkable Power Of Negative Feedback

The Remarkable Power Of Negative Feedback

Positive interactions are incredibly powerful and can change the world… right?

Well, maybe.

But what if there was more to the story?

What if – in our desire to create positive learning environments – we’d misunderstood something?

Something that might be quietly undermining our classroom success?

In fact – what if we’ve got this completely the wrong way around... and positive interactions aren't that powerful after all?

Let me introduce you to the remarkable power of negative feedback.

So... What do we mean by negative feedback?

Negative feedback happens when a teacher addresses a class (or an individual student) who are behaving inappropriately or being disruptive.

Most often, we'll do this through some sort of reprimand or negative statement.  Sometimes we'll try a reframing approach, where we tell the student what they should be doing.

When we do this, our feedback is carried to the student across 3 separate channels:

  1. The words we use.  For instance, “Gavin, I can see you shouting out again.” 
  2. Our tone of voice, which carries the true meaning of our words.  For instance, “Well done” said in a positive tone will have a different impact from when we use a sarcastic, disinterested or impatient one.
  3. Non-verbal communication: these are the signals, gestures (or micro-gestures) that accompany our words.  Actions like frowning, rolling our eyes, pointing, shaking our heads, shushing, sighing, putting fingers on our lips or tapping our fingers on a watch.

These different channels all work together to reinforce whether we are giving positive or negative feedback to a student.

The golden ratio for positive:negative interactions

There are famous studies (most notably by Losada and Gottman) that tell us how many positive:negative interactions we should aim for in our class.

3 positives to 1 negative is often quoted as the tipping point for positive relationships, 5:1 is said to be where relationships flourish.

So – that means positive interaction is more powerful than negative... right?

Think again.

Let’s think about what that 3:1 ratio really means.

It’s saying that one negative interaction is so powerful, it takes three positive interactions just to balance it out (so you have a neutral relationship with a student).

To have a good relationship, that negative is so powerful it takes 5 affirming comments or interactions to reverse the damage and move us back into positivity.

And there’s something else lying inside those ratios as well.  They’re not saying we should eliminate negative feedback (which would be 3:0 or 5:0), they’re saying we need to get the right balance between the two.  Because negative feedback can also be important for our development.

It’s what they hear – not what you say

Here’s an important point to remember: whether the interaction is positive or negative is in the eye of the receiver.

You may have experienced this if you’ve ever tried to give someone a compliment and they’ve taken it the wrong way.  Or – at least – they didn’t hear your words the way you intended.

So let’s imagine Gavin is shouting out in class and – trying to be positive - we say, “Gavin, the rule is you put up your hand to speak.”

Although our statement is worded positively, giving him a replacement behaviour, it’s likely Gavin will view this as a negative interaction.

We’re implicitly criticising his behaviour – however we've worded it.

A simple solution

As adults in the classroom, we need to be very intentional about the amount of positive and negative feedback we use.

Remember: a negative interaction isn’t just about the words we speak.  Every shush and frown is a negative interaction too.

But here’s a simple way of redressing that balance.

Whole class behaviour

Every time you catch yourself giving negative feedback about whole class behaviour, make it a habit to praise a pupil doing the right thing.  Or even better – make 2 other students feel good about themselves with specific, positive praise.

That will tip your whole class positive:negative balance in the right direction.

(For an example of how to do this, check out our article How To Supercharge Tactical Ignoring With Proximity Praise.)

Individual students

If you have to give negative feedback to an individual, remember you'll need to take 3 affirming actions to undo the damage.  Make it your aim to do this before the end of the teaching session.

The good news is that those interactions could be as quick and easy a smile, a thumbs up or some brief praise about their work.

But make sure those interactions are proportional and authentic - kids can smell fake praise from a mile away.

Key takeaways

So am I saying that negative interactions are so powerful we should give up on positivity altogether?

Quite the opposite.  I’m saying we need to be even more positive than we originally thought.

Positive interactions build relationships – but they only do so very slowly.  A bit like a builder, constructing a wall, laying down one brick at a time.  It’s slow work but you get there in the end.

Negative interactions destroy relationships at speed.  A bit like a car crashing through the wall. It takes no time at all to ruin what you've painstakingly built in the past.

That means the key takeaways from this article are:

  • Negative interactions are much more powerful than we give them credit for
  • Our aim isn't to eliminate negative feedback.  It's to get our positive and negative interactions in the right proportion
  • That means being intentional about what strategies we use to maintain the right balance…
  • …and make them a habitual, automatic part of our practice

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