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Feedback vs. Criticism: How to Tell the Difference

Feedback and criticism are words commonly used interchangeably. However, the distinction rests in the person’s intention that provides the insight and the interpretation of the one receiving it.

For instance, if someone provides insight on a product to help the creator make it better and gain more customers or business, their input is considered feedback in the eyes of the one providing the comment. However, if the product creator strongly disagrees with the ‘feedback,’ they may interpret it as criticism.

This is a perfect example of how determining what is or isn’t feedback can be tricky.

While there are ways to distinguish the two, it’s essential to realize that feedback and criticism—like many things in life that we try to generalize and place in one category or another—are not cut and dry, black or white but lie on a spectrum. And where something lies on a spectrum is heavily determined by the many factors that influence how we think about, deliver, and interpret information like our upbringing, personality, level of emotional intelligence, experiences, culture, etc. As we discuss the two primary ways to distinguish criticism from feedback, keep that in mind.

  1. Criticism carries a negative attitude detectable in word choice, vocal tone, facial expression, body language, or unsolicited input laced with judgment.

For example, words such as terrible, awful, lousy, sloppy, lazy, ridiculous; if someone huffs, scoffs, chuckles, degrades, or boasts about how they would have done it differently, these are clear signs of criticism as they offer little to no value to the receiver.

Feedback can also be detected through one’s attitude. Contrary to criticism, feedback is often accompanied by an undertone of selfless care. And this form of delivery may look different based on an individual’s traits. Some people’s tone may be more matter-of-fact and direct, while others may deliver their feedback in a subtle or nurturing way. However, the commonality rests in the genuine interest of the person being communicated to.

Exception: There are ALWAYS exceptions to the rule. Regarding the many factors we discussed earlier—upbringing, level of emotional intelligence, etc.—some people lack the awareness to convey their message effectively. While their intent may be out of love and care, it may be communicated in a more critical tone. This is where dialogue helps bring both awareness to the messenger and share the feelings and concerns of the receiver.

It’s essential to communicate how another’s message is coming across to you and ask for clarification—Gary Vaynerchuk calls this “kind candor.”

2. Criticism offers ZERO value, while feedback provides constructive insight.

If you are working on an application and someone says, “Your user interface is terrible. How do you expect people to find what they are looking for?” this does not provide helpful insight.

If we were to transform this criticism into feedback, it might look something like this: “I find it challenging to find what I am looking for on this interface. Naturally, I would look [specific location] to find that information. Have you done user testing to see if others have the same issue? What feedback have you received?”

The distinction is in the details and genuine curiosity provided by asking insightful questions.

Your level of emotional intelligence will also heavily influence your interpretation. When we lack emotional intelligence, we are often unaware of the multitude of filters we use to perceive the outside world and the internal views we hold of ourselves that we can unknowingly project onto others.

Here’s an example of a perceptual filter:

You have been raised in a culture that speaks softly and uses gestures sparingly. When confronted by someone loud and animated, you can easily misinterpret their typical behavior as disrespectful and aggressive.

Example of projection based on internal views:

You tend to be hyper-critical of yourself and others. When provided insight from someone whose intent is to be helpful, you take it as a personal attack due to your insecurities and lack of self-compassion.

Lastly, here are four helpful tips to help you more effectively deliver feedback versus criticism:

  1. Remove and replace critical words with rich detail that offers value. For example:

    • You might replace the word “lazy” with “there appears to be a lack of detail.”

2. Follow insight with an insightful question. For example:

  • “How do you feel about your efforts?”

  • “What insight are you looking for specifically?”

  • “What is your overall intent of ___?”

  • “Would you explain your vision so I can better understand?”

  • “What feedback have you received from others?”

3. Notice any judgments you may have that might be displayed through your facial expressions, tone, or body language. This is a sign you are about to deliver criticism. When we can detect the judgments in our minds first, we can prevent them from physically manifesting.

  • Pause, reflect on what you are about to say, and reframe if necessary.

4. Encourage and foster open dialogue. Not everyone will be comfortable telling you you’ve said something they found hurtful or offensive. After providing insight, follow up with “how do you feel, or what do you think about what I said?”

Whether you are on the giving or receiving end of criticism or feedback, know that effective communication and emotional intelligence—particularly self-awareness—are crucial to ensure value is the outcome.

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