This is an article about giving and receiving constructive feedback and critiques. As this can be a very sensitive area of communication, it is important to first provide some necessary theoretical background. This will give context to, and help make sense of, the information specific to giving and receiving constructive feedback and critiques. Although the concepts presented in this article are targeted specifically to giving and receiving constructive feedback, it can certainly apply to other aspects of your life, as well. Our goal is to provide you with the knowledge to successfully, and effectively, give and receive constructive feedback, and to help create a positive and productive environment for these often difficult types of conversations.
The first concept to examine is the idea of self-image. The self-image is the way in which we each wish to be perceived or seen by others. When we think about how we want others to perceive us, we are thinking about the kind of image we want to project about ourselves. There are several components to this process. In this section, we will look at how image management is collaborative, multidimensional, and complex.
Image management is collaborative in that it relies on the cooperation of others. Managing your image certainly depends on you, to some extent, but it also depends on the cooperation and influences of others. When other people accept the image we are attempting to portray, they reinforce and encourage that image. When others see you as competent, for example, they will treat you as though you're competent, thus reinforcing and strengthening that part of your identity that you would like to project for yourself. If others don't see you as competent, however, this can lead to their perception of you as less credible or trustworthy. They may see you as phony or trying to be something you're not, and find it hard to take you seriously.
We also manage multiple identities simultaneously. We are different people with our best friends, our parents, and our colleagues and peers. Each context in which we find ourselves demands distinctive role expectations. For example, if you behaved with your best friends as you behave with your colleagues, your friends would wonder what was up. The reverse is also true. This multiple identities management is particularly challenging for those with non-mainstream abilities, conditions, and lifestyles. For example, the HIV-positive person must decide with whom to share that information. Non-heterosexual individuals face a similar challenge. Concealing a non-heterosexual orientation can create severe stress for the individual, but revealing it can have adverse consequences, as well. Not all environments are "gay friendly."
Managing your image and your multiple identities is complex and not always easy. Sometimes our worlds collide, and we find ourselves with competing goals for interactions with others. For example, you may need to stay with a family member during a struggling time, but in an effort to demonstrate yourself as competent and independent, you may explicitly offer to help around the house.
Self-image creation and management is not a simple or easy process. We all have a certain image that we wish to portray in certain situations and with certain others, and we rely on others to some degree in developing and maintaining our self-image. The following discussion can help enlighten our needs as individuals and lend insight to the complexities of image management.
Needs of the self
As individuals, we all have certain needs. We tend to seek relationships and situations that fulfill our needs, and we act with others in ways that we hope to have our needs met. These needs are the need for control, the need for inclusion, and the need for affection. When these needs are not met, they can have adverse effects on our self-perceptions and impact how we interact and communicate with others.
The need for control is the need to maintain a degree of influence in one's relationships. We need to feel that we are playing a decisive role in the course of our relationships. To illustrate this idea, consider a relationship you might have or you feel that you have no control, and consider how (dis)satisfied you are with that relationship. Our need for inclusion reflects our need to belong and to be included in the activities of others. This need varies by individuals, but we all have it to some degree. Sometimes people are motivated to join social groups, religious organizations, or sports teams in order to have this need met. Our need for affection is the need to give and receive expressions of love and appreciation. We must have people in our lives that love and appreciate us and communicate their affection to us. Some research has even shown that the more affection people have in their lives, the healthier and happier they are.
Each of these needs is fundamental to being human, according to some researchers. We all have these needs in varying degrees, and are motivated to seek relationships that meet these needs.
In the context of giving and receiving constructive feedback and criticism, it's useful to remember and understand these fundamental human needs that we all experience, ourselves and others.
The concept of face
Researcher Erving Goffman developed the concept of face to reflect our need to project a positive self- image. Goffman broke down this concept into various components. "Facework" is what we do in efforts to maintain our desired public image. "Face needs" are the elements of one's desired public image. Embarrassments and humiliations fall in the category of what is called "face threats," because they threaten our positive self-image that we attempt to project in public. Such an act is known in this theory as a "face threatening act" – it threatens one or more of our face needs.
Goffman identified three types of face. These are fellowship face, competence face, and autonomy face. Fellowship face is the need to have others like and accept you. This liking and acceptance shows that we have the ability to get along well with others, which is important for succeeding in a society. This component of face motivates us to make friends, join clubs or social groups, and behave pleasantly around others. Autonomy face is the need for a certain level of independence and to avoid being imposed upon by others. It is this face need that motivates us to maintain control of our own time and resources, and to make our own decisions, rather than allowing someone else to make them for us. Competence face is the need to be respected and viewed as competent and intelligent. This need also demands that others acknowledge our abilities and intelligence. It is competence face needs that provoke us to seek careers in something we're good at and to avoid embarrassing situations.
We each have all of these face needs, though we may each possess each individual need in different degrees. For example, some people have a greater need for fellowship face which motivates them to surround themselves with many others and get along well with people all the time. Others of us have a greater need for competence face, and a recognition of our abilities. This might be summed up by the proverbial question "would you rather be right than liked?" which reflects that people possess these needs in different degrees. Some require a great level of independence while others are comfortable with less.
In terms of giving constructive feedback and criticism, it is useful, or perhaps even necessary, to keep in mind others' needs for control, inclusion, and affection, and face needs of fellowship, autonomy, and competence. Receiving feedback and criticism can easily be perceived as a face threatening act – one that threatens competence face for sure, and perhaps autonomy face, as well. Depending on the context, if it involves getting along with others, fellowship face can also be threatened. Recall that a face threatening act is, by definition, an embarrassment or humiliation. Thus, feedback and critiques for improvement can certainly be perceived as embarrassing and/or humiliating, even when delivered with the best intentions; they point out a weakness or something that is wrong. The fundamental need for control might also be challenged if we feel that the critique threatens our ability to be in control of our relationships. For all of these reasons, it is important when delivering feedback and critiques, that we keep in mind everyone has the same face needs, and that we each possess these needs in different degrees. This helps explain why some people are so very sensitive to critiques, while others are fine with it – the more sensitive ones have higher needs for competence face. It is a delicate balance to deliver feedback and criticism in a way that is not perceived as face threat. Similarly, it can be a challenge to receive feedback and criticism without perceiving it as a face-threatening act.