Criticism vs Feedback : They are NOT the same!

business criticismOver the past 25 years, I have frequently noticed that there appears to be a tendency by trainers, coaches and other “Talking Therapy” specialists to confuse the meaning of these two terms and to use them interchangeably. I propose that this usage is incorrect and the purpose of this article is to clarify the use of these two commonly misused words.


It is important to note that the dictionary definition of the word “Criticize” is one thing while in the real world where we all live it is something else because of the implictions communicated by our verbal and non-verbal communication based on our experiences, values and so forth.

It usually occurs when someone has not met the, often unspoken, expectations of another person. The receiver is usually expected to have read the mind of the other person, known what was expected by/of them and then (deliberately) not complied. The intention of criticism is NOT to help or improve the receiver, but more to induce a feeling of guilt in them for their actions. The criticism and its cause is often repeatedly used by the supposed “victim” as a way to continue chastising the receiver for their behaviour as a form of emotional blackmail.

Frequently it appears that both the verbal and non-verbal communication of the critics are at opposite end of a spectrum: At one end is that of a “Victim” and at the other end is that of an “Aggressor”. It is not unusual for a person to move along this spectrum from their starting point as a victim who, moved by their emotions, move along the scale to become much more aggressive.

The verbal language of a victim is often:
– Full of emotive language.
– Questioning (“What did I do to deserve this?” or “How could you do this to ME?”).
– Blaming / accusing (“Because of you XYZ has happened!” or “You always do this!”.
– The word “YOU” is used frequently.
– The speed of speaking is often slower.

The Non-verbal communication of a victim often includes, but is not limited to:
– Hunched shoulders.
– Lowered head.
– Gaze directed downwards.
– Protective gestures / postures.
– Changed orientation.
– A desire for proximity, etc.

As mentioned above, 0n occasion, the communication may be that of someone being aggressive or so angry that they are willing/wanting to physically fight.

Their Verbal communication often involves among other elements:
– A raised voice.
– Violent / aggressive or foul language.
– A higher register.
– A faster speaking speed.

Their non-verbal communication usually includes:
– Standing upright.
– Threatening postures.
– Fists clenched.
– Rapid gestures.

NOTE: Some people use the phrase “Positive criticism” in an attempt to soften their message which is still basically based on the concept of meeting expectations. The belief is that by using the word “Positive”, it somehow negates the negative perception of the word “Criticism”.
E.G., “You did much better than I expected!”
(Expectation: you were going to do it much worse!) This begs the question: How badly was the critic expecting the person to be?

Criticism usually appears to based on emotional reasons rather than logical ones. It also tends to come from family members, friends or people who feel that they have a “special” relationship with the receiver which gives them the right to make these types of comments. In other words, it is frequently based on assumptions!

Some example of “Criticism” are:
– “You only care about yourself!”.
– “I did not expect that from you!”.
– “You sound like you are full of yourself”.


The objective of feedback is usually to provide meaningful, relevant and useful information designed to help someone improve in a specific area.

“Negative Feedback” is used to correct undesired behaviour by pointing out what was done badly and the implications of continuing the same activity and ‘providing a definite plan for improvement.

The alternative is known as “Positive Feedback” and is designed to reinforce desired behaviour by recognizing exactly what has been done and encouraging its future use in appropriate contexts.

While many people like to give feedback, quite often it is based on the giver’s own perception, values and experience which might not be valid or appropriate. This often occurs in a business context where a Senior Manager might dictate the norms of behaviour expected- for example, in a presentation – and insist upon compliance: “My way or the highway!” even though science or logic disagree with his ideas.

Examples of feedback include:
– “To make your presentation even better next time I would ….!” (Specific advice)
– “While replying to certain comments it might have been more advantageous to do X, Y & Z”.

To be effective, feedback:
– Should normally be given by a specialist or someone experienced in the area being dealt with.
– The language used should be emotion-free, based on data, clear, concise, and limited to the area being discussed.
– Needs to be given immediately after the event has occurred. If delayed, it loses value.
– Should always be based on observed behaviour and never on reported behaviour or mind-reading.
– Must be given by a person who is properly prepared. The Critical Incidence Log is a very useful tool to use. Clck here to see the relevant article.

The structure and procedures used in providing feedback differ if one is giving it to correct undesired behaviour or to provide help to improve someone’s skills with positive intent. This article is only concerned giving the latter type of feedback.

When talking about feedback, it is interesting to note that there are basically three types of people to consider when giving it.

1. People who prefer their own Internal feedback:
These people do not normally need to receive feedback from an outside source based on external evaluation sheets and so on. They implicitly trust their own feelings and evaluation of their own behaviour. They KNOW when they have done a great / terrible job and respond accordingly. They tend to reject feedback in general.

2. People who need External feedback.
Other people need to receive feedback from outside sources to validate themselves & their actions / behaviour. These can be written evaluations, face-to-face interviews or any other formal or informal type of feedback. A simple hand-on-the-shoulder combined with a “Well done” from the boss or other “authority” figure will function as reliable feedback for them as will a detailed analysis of the end-of-course reports from a training session or the annual performance appraisal. They are also more comfortable with a formal, schedule feedback session and tend to react positively to feedback.

3. People who need both Internal & External feedback.
These people tend to vary the type feedback they require based on the context of the activity, the audience, their knowledge, experience and skills related to the activity.

When to ignore feedback:
There appears to be some unwritten rule that when one is given feedback, it is important to pay attention to it and automatically apply it in similar situations or contexts. However, there are times when it may be less productive to apply it and MORE productive to ignore it. Some examples of time when the application of feedback should be considered are:
– When the person giving the feedback is not a specialist or has not received specific training in the area.
– Only one person gives the feedback: You can never please everyone so if only one person is “unhappy” or gives this feedback, maybe it is ONLY their perception.
– Outside factors – often unrelated (the giver is having a “bad hair day”!)
– Hidden agendas of the feedback giver: the desire to belittle the receiver, etc.
– Unknown factors that influence feedback.
– Not all feedback is well-intentioned.
– Not all feedback is “true”.

A clear understanding of the difference between criticism and feedback is vital in today’s world and our daily life: from parents educating their children who often need feedback but only receive criticism to teachers / trainers or business people in a work context or “Talking therapy” specialists such as coaches, NLPers, psychologists, psychiatrists, etc.

In training courses given by Brownlee & Associates, we normally videotape ALL the participants TWICE so that they are required to prove that they have learnt the material covered: the first time they are required to use the material and then they receive feedback from their classmates and the trainer, after being given time to apply the feedback, they are videotaped again. The second videos are not reviewed on the course but each student receives their on DVD which contains both activities for self analysis at home.

It is VITAL to remember that there are many cultures where feedback and criticism are frowned-upon and great care must be taken not to offend the receiver.

Partial list of sources ¨:

F.Y. H. Kung, A.A. Scholer: “Message Framing Influences Perceptions of Feedback (In)directness”

M. Kamins, C. S. Dweck, “Person versus process praise and criticism: implications for contingent self-worth and coping.”Developmental psychology, 1999

D.L. Chambless, K. D, Blake, “Construct validity of the Perceived Criticism Measure.”
Behavior therapy, 2009

A. Rabinovich, T.A. Morton “Who says we are bad people? The impact of criticism source and attributional content on responses to group-based criticism.” Personality & social psychology bulletin, 2010.

S. Lecce, M. Caputi, C. Hughes “Does sensitivity to criticism mediate the relationship between theory of mind and academic achievement?” Journal of experimental child psychology, 2011

K. H. Lee, G. J. Siegle, R. E. Dahl, J. M Hooley, J. S. Silk “Neural responses to maternal criticism in healthy youth.”, Social cognitive and affective neuroscience, 2015

All constructive feedback will be gratefully received.

© Ian Brownlee, Brownlee & Associates,S.L., Madrid, Spain, December, 2016

About ianbrownlee

Ian Brownlee, the founder of Brownlee & Associates has been actively involved in the field of interpersonal & transcultural communication since 1977. He has worked in universities and companies in the following countries: Laos, Thailand, Hong Kong, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, France, Italy, England, The United States of America & Spain, as a teacher, university lecturer, trainer, researcher & consultant. In addition, his experience in living in these countries, and studying the language & communication and interaction styles of each has aided him in reaching a real understanding of intercultural and transcultural differences and how to resolve them. Ian Brownlee has various masters degrees from British Universities: One in Linguistics & Teaching English Overseas from Manchester University, one in Training & Development with a specialization in the area of Communication and Adult learning awarded by the University of Sheffield. He has also gained professional qualifications in Psychotherapy & Hypnotherapy from various professional organizations. During his university career he has also studied elements of Sociology, Organizational psychology, Educational psychology, Psycholinguistics and Kinesics. He is a licensed Practitioner, Master Practitioner, and Master Trainer in NLP. as well as being a trainer in Ericksonian Hypnosis. He is a member of a wide range of professional organizations involved in Training, Applied Psychology, Hypnotherapy & Ericksonian Hypnosis, Psychotherapy, Interpersonal Communication & Cross-cultural Communication. He is also recognized by the Program on Negotiation, Harvard University, as a Negotiation Skills Trainer & Mediator and has been a collaborator on various projects with the program, and as such is in great demand as a negotiation consultant for some of the largest multinationals operating worldwide. His wide experience gained in multinational organizations in positions such as Director of Training, Communications Consultant and Negotiator / Mediator has helped many people to learn and apply new methods of negotiating skills and advanced communication techniques both in their private and professional lives. He has published various articles & books related to the field of interpersonal communication and he is the author of all the courses taught by Brownlee & Associates. He has lived and worked in Spain since 1985, initially as a trainer / Special Assistant in a multinational pharmaceutical company and then as the Training Manager for a multinational company involved in Clinical Analysis & Nuclear Medicine. Brownlee & Associates was formed in 1991 and currently has a small, highly-trained staff. While based in Madrid, courses are given world-wide either in English or Spanish. Brownlee & Associates currently work with leading international companies in the areas of pharmaceuticals , Information systems, luxury products, food & beverages, etc.
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