Category Archives: Giving Feedback

Podcast – An Interview about Applied Positive Psychology


Karel Vredenburg has been collecting a set of podcasts called, Life Habits: Learn habits to optimize your life and stay sane in this crazy world. Most of the podcasts are Karel himself talking about topics ranging from anger management to career strategies to dealing with technology.

Recently Karel interviewed me over Skype and has made the interview available as one of his podcasts:

http://lifehabits.podbean.com/2008/07/21/lifehabits-16-positive-psychology/

I’m not sure what exactly I talked about, but I gave him this list of possible topics and we hit a lot of them.

  • Four Ways to Build Self-Efficacy
  • Gratitude at Work
  • Learned Optimism and Resilience
  • Celebrating Successes Effectively
  • Establishing the Conditions for Flow
  • Broaden and Build: The Power of Positive Emotions
  • Meaningful Work
  • Strategies for High-Quality Connections
  • Discovering and applying strengths

I invite you to listen in.

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Filed under Coaching, Giving Feedback, Job Satisfaction, Optimism, Positive Interventions, Positive Psychology, Self-efficacy

Blossoming – an intentional way to give feedback

7 Laws of the Learner Book CoverA friend of mine at work gave me this approach to feedback called Blossoming from a book by Bruce Wilkinson. She told me great things about using it with her children. When I can remember, I try to use it with mine — and I think it can be used with others — colleagues, friends, teammates.

Here are the steps for this strange usage of the verb blossom, that is, taking action to help someone else blossom.

Examine the person you want to blossom. You have to pay attention to see situations where you can share your positive expectations.

Expose what the person did by describing it to him/her. Sometimes people aren’t even aware that they are doing something praiseworthy. This makes it clear in their minds and shows them that it is clear in your mind.

Then pause to let it sink in.

Describe your own emotion about what the person did. “That makes me feel proud…” “That makes me feel confident …” “That makes me feel excited …” Then pause again.

Tell the person what you expect in the future. You are taking the event that happened in the past and making a picture from it of what can be in the future. Wilkinson lists 6 characteristics of effective expectations:

  1. Shows belief in person’s potential
  2. Future perspective — becoming, growing, starting to, developing
  3. Positive
  4. Tailored to their aspirations — connected to their dreams of the future
  5. Inspiring, not confining terms. Not “You’ll get straight A’s from now on” (a prison), but “I see you working hard to really master new information.”
  6. Possible — you can push on someone’s boundaries, but not go into the realm of unimaginable.Then pause again.

Endear in an appropriate way – with a smile, eye contact, a bow, or, if appropriate, a touch

Bruce Wilkinson has some good examples of how to do each step in chapter 4: Expectations: Method and Maximizers. This is just a quick summary.

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Effective Positive Feedback

I’m finding it relatively easy to remember the three qualities of appropriate negative feedback:

  1. Specific to a situation
  2. Not personal
  3. Offers suggestions for improvement.

What about positive feedback? Certainly I find some positive feedback more appropriate and effective than others — both as a giver and a receiver. I’d like to propose a short list that is an adaptation of the negative feedback list:

  1. Specific to a situation. Feedback that reads like a rubber stamp doesn’t carry much weight. It has to fit this particular situation, piece of work, action. Contrast “Great work,” to “The sharp and detailed analysis in your book report made me think about the book in a new way.”
  2. Not personal. This gets back to the person praise versus process praise discussion. Praise the work, not the person. Contrast “You are a great writer,” to “Your story had me on the edge of my chair.”
  3. Offers insight into what’s good. Approval is great, but the receiver needs to know how the approval was earned so he or she can do it again. Contrast “You’ve been working very hard,” to “Your effort really shows through in the way the pieces fit together perfectly. You were absolutely meticulous with detail.”

It’s not easy to give good positive feedback — particularly when you are responding to a lot of people the way many teachers do regularly. I remember a history professor who kept the phrase, “sensitive to the nuances of history,” for the letters of recommendation of his top students. I always wondered if the readers of the letters knew what it meant.

But when I get really topnotch positive feedback, I feel like I’ve really been seen. I’m not just another person in a crowd.

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A discipline for finding the positive: Writers’ workshops

Writers’ Workshops book coverThinking about disciplines that help people see and express the positive made me think of Richard Gabriel’s book, Writers’ workshops & the work of making things: Patterns, poetry, and … . The book is out-of-print, so I’m delighted to find a pdf of the final typeset version online, along with information by the author about its status (follow the link and scroll down). I bought a copy of the book a few years ago when I was preparing to be a “shepherd” for a software patterns workshop – see chapter 10 for a discussion of the role of shepherds.

The process of conducting a writers’ workshop is described step-by-step: who is involved, how to prepare, how to help others prepare (shepherd), role of the moderator, having the author read a section and then become a fly on the wall, summarizing the work, positive feedback, suggestions for improvement, and chances to clarify comments.

Chapter 14 is called Positive Feedback. The author comments that even the arts have been affected by western culture’s focus on finding and fixing problems. After all the problems are pointed out with suggestions for improvement, what is the author to make of the rest of the piece? Is it OK? Or did the people at the workshop just not get to all the problems? What does the author experience? Letdown? Uncertainty? Self-doubt?

So the criticism part of a Writers’ workshop starts with people stating the positive. What really worked? What did the reviewers really like? What would the reviewers keep no matter what else changes in the piece? What parts do the reviewers remember best?

Positive comments are contagious. Here’s a comment from one seasoned technical workshopper (p. 128):

Many times I’ve reviewed a workshop paper where I really could not think of anything positive to say. I didn’t like the name. The solution didn’t work for me, etc. What always happens, however, is that when someone begins with a positive comment, I suddenly see lots of things I can add. This never fails and now I look forward to seeing this miracle happen. It says something about the power of good or the ability we all have to pull each other up.

Starting the criticism period with positive comments is an accepted discipline for these workshops. It means that people actually look for positive things, become mindful of them, and are stimulated by others during the workshop to see positive things they missed.

In my own experience having a paper reviewed at a workshop, hearing the positive comments made me open to hearing the suggestions for improvement that followed. They also helped me see what NOT to change when I made the next revision.

This book is a gift. I’m sorry it is not in-print, since I believe the author deserves royalties. It is very generous of him to make the book available online to any who go looking for it. Thank you, Richard Gabriel!

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Filed under Giving Feedback, Good with the Bad, Positive Interventions

There’s a place for ‘Appropriate Negativity’

I like the idea of virtue being the expert mean between deficit and excess (thanks, Aristotle). For example, courage is the expert mean between cowardice and rashness. Expert indicates that finding the right place in the middle requires judgment. A particular act may be courageous in some situations and foolishly rash in others.

The expert mean between too much and too little negativity is important when giving feedback. Too much negativity can cause the receiver to lose sight of what is good, to lose confidence, or even to give up. Too little negativity can make the feedback unbelievable and can also deprive receivers of the information they need to get better.

The expert mean between too much and too little negativity is supported by research by Barbara Fredrickson, Marcial Losada, John Gottman, and others on the effect of different positive-to-negative ratios in several contexts including marriage and team behavior.

Avoidance of excess: Fredrickson and Losada have determined that a positive-to-negative ratio of 2.9 is the dividing line between human flourishing and human languishing. That means at least 2.9 positive things are said or done for any one negative thing. It works within a person, between two people, and in larger groups. For example, teams identified as being highly productive tended to have 5 to 6 positive utterances to every negative utterance, while the least productive teams tended to have slightly more negative than positive utterances. I believe John Gottman talks about a 5-to-1 ratio for highly successful marriages.

Avoidance of deficit: There is also an upper limit for effective positive-to-negative ratios: 11.6 to 1. Here’s part of the explanation from Fredrickson & Losada “appropriate negativity may play an important role within the complex dynamics of human flourishing. Without appropriate negativity, behavior patterns calcify.”

The key here is appropriate negativity, which they describe as specific to a situation, carrying ideas for solution, and not being personal.

Most teams that I advise need to work on raising their ratios – saying more positive things. There are a lot of people around who can always see why things won’t work or can point out things that are the matter. Then it helps to have a clear discipline for expressing positive views, such as starting all reviews with a statement of strengths and positive features and expressing all criticism in terms of ways to improve.

But I’ve also been in situations in the last year where I felt stifled by having everything be positive. I think of it as political correctness jail. I don’t enjoy getting criticism any more than the next person, yet I’ve learned that there is great value in having others point out ways to improve.

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Process praise and growth mindsets

Here’s something that I wish I had learned before I had children:

Process praise focuses on the effort and strategy behind a specific behavior. “You worked hard!” “You thought of a terrific way to help that person.” In contrast, person praise involves making global assessments based on specific behavior. “You are so smart!” “You are so kind!” Process praise tends to be motivating, to increase self-confidence, and to lead to mastery behavior, while person praise promotes avoidance of challenges and greater fear of failure.
Mindset CoverI picked up this bit of wisdom from Carol Dweck, who recently published a book called Mindset. She describes two different mindsets, or views people adopt about themselves:

The fixed mindset is a belief that your abilities are carved in stone. So everything you do, success or failure, reveals what you are. With this mindset, failures are signs of deficits in abilities. People with fixed mindsets believe they were dealt a particular set of basic abilities at birth. They feel a need to prove over and over that they got a good set, and find any evidence to the contrary highly unsettling.

The growth mindset is based on the belief that one can cultivate basic abilities, changing and growing through application and experience. Carol Dweck illustrates this mindset with people who were considered ordinary as children: Darwin and Tolstoy.

While the mindset is within the individual, other people can affect it by the kind of praise they give. Process praise encourages the growth mindset, while person praise reinforces the fixed mindset.

Lou SuggThis makes me think about my father and his older brother. Both applied to be Rhodes scholars in the years after World War II, and both were turned down. My father decided to try again. He contacted some of the interviewers to find out what he was missing. Then he formed a plan, concluding that it would take him longer than a year, so he reapplied in two years. Did he want it more than his older brother? Did he have more persistence? Or did his position in the family, younger brother to an eldest son known in the family as absolutely brilliant, somehow free him from having to live up to a fixed set of abilities, giving him the freedom to believe he could grow into what he wanted? Who knows?

My father did get the Rhodes Scholarship the second time around, which is why I was born in England. I posted the parts of his second application essay on Positive Psychology News Daily that concerned his vision for the future. Here are some additional bits that show his views about trying again:

Two years ago I had the privilege of appearing before the district board of selection for Rhodes Scholars. That I was not selected is significant to me because, more than any other factor, it has caused me to review my aim in life and the means of attaining that aim. I realized how inadequately prepared I was for undertaking a course of study at Oxford, yet what an impetus toward my object a tenure at that institution could give me. Most important, it would give me the opportunity to devote all of my time to study under conditions and in surroundings ideal for maximum achievement. Last year, on being assured that competition would once more be open, I decided to forego appling and to concentrate my efforts toward making myself worthy of selection this year.

Despite the necessity of spending much of my time in professional study, [He went to aviator training school.] I have succeeded in developing a consciousness of liberal thought. I have learned a little about the political and philosophical developments of past centuries leading to man’s present social instincts and shortcomings. My interest in the relations and problems of peoples and states has grown, and the development of international intercourse, including the organization and functioning of the United Nations, continues to absorb me. I have endeavored to keep abreast of current events by way of news sources. From all this has developed the embryo of a political thought and the realization of the necessity of continuing to develop that thought at Oxford if I am successful in this quest, but other means if necessary.

I just hope that my ratio of process praise to person praise helped my own children develop growth mindsets. I didn’t know enough to work on it intentionally.

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Filed under Giving Feedback, Habits, Self-efficacy, Stories