It’s common sense—though not always common practice—to fully explain negative feedback. To fix mistakes and improve habits, people need to truly understand what wasn’t right the first time around. Sometimes, however, it’s just as important to clarify what you mean by your positive feedback. Here’s an example:
One semester in college, I worked in a psychology lab for credit. I worked under a Ph.D. candidate who had designed a behavioral psychology experiment to test whether certain emotional activities affected people’s short-term empathy. Because I was in a teaching program at the time and was used to instructing students, she asked me to lead the experiments. My job was pretty simple: I handed out the materials and explained the instructions to the participants, sticking to a script.
After the first experiment, the Ph.D. candidate was very positive about my performance: “Yes, that was perfect! Your teacher mode is perfect for this!”
I was happy to have done well and tried to emphasize my “teacher mode” during the next experiment. Unfortunately, she wasn’t nearly as impressed that time. She told me “You weren’t as teacher-y this time. Try to get into that teacher mode you used last time.”
Inconsistencies in administering the test were a big deal because they could skew the data, so I wanted to get it right. But I was confused. I thought I’d really brought out the “teacher mode” this time, so I asked her for clarification.
“You know, you acted like a teacher. You weren’t mean, but you seemed stern and in charge.”
Well, that explained it. Our definitions of “teacher mode” were completely different. I had assumed that she meant that she liked my warmth and inviting nature—qualities that were stressed in my teaching program—but she actually was referring to attributes that were practically the opposite.
Once we got on the same page, I was able to act the way she wanted, and the rest of the semester went smoothly. But the whole issue could have been avoided if we’d spent a little time discussing that first piece of praise.
If the circumstances had been different and she hadn’t been there to observe my second experiment, I could have gone on doing the wrong thing for weeks, all the while assuming I was right on target. Think about that the next time you offhandedly praise an employee or co-worker. Follow up a vague “I like the way you handled that” with some specifics, or risk the person misinterpreting your intent.
Do you have a good miscommunication story? Share it in the Comments section!