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By Katherine Martinko
Chances are you’ve given many a “compliment sandwich” in your life, even if you’re not familiar with the term: a negative criticism that’s sandwiched between two positive compliments so as not to come across as being too harsh. After all, it’s good to end on a high note – or is it? Many of us are taught from a young age that it’s important to use positive, encouraging language, even when trying to make corrections, but an article in the New York Times suggests that always tossing in that happy, upbeat comment might not be as beneficial after all.
A paper called “Tell Me What I Did Wrong: Experts Seek and Respond to Negative Feedback” surveyed students in a beginner-level French class and an advanced French class. Participants were asked what kind of instructor they prefer. Beginners said they would prefer a professor who emphasized their strengths and is focused on positive progress, whereas advanced students prefer a professor who focuses on what mistakes were made and how to fix them. The conclusion is that, as people gain expertise, feedback serves a different purpose. Beginners need encouragement, whereas experts need progress.
I strive to be straightforward even with my kids. If I am attempting to teach them an important lesson that involves criticizing their behaviour, it may not come across clearly enough if I give them the “compliment sandwich.” Of course kids should get lots of positive reinforcement, but keep in mind that “many of us hear what we want to hear,” according to behavioural science professor Ayelet Fishbach; we bury unwanted negative feedback beneath the more flattering compliments. That destroys the whole purpose of feedback, which is meant to be constructive. I think the most important thing to teach my kids about negative criticism is that it’s not a bad thing, but rather a positive opportunity for growth and self-improvement. Learning how to take criticism graciously is a valuable skill.