How to Give Constructive Feedback: Be Positive

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Art of Thinking Clearly" by Rolf Dobelli. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the key to giving effective constructive feedback? Should you emphasize positive or negative aspects of someone’s performance when delivering feedback?

According to Rolf Dobelli, the author of The Art of Thinking Clearly, people better accept and implement feedback that is framed in a positive than a negative way. This is because of the psychological phenomenon called the feature-positive effect.

Here’s how to give constructive feedback, according to Rolf Dobelli.

The Feature-Positive Effect

In his book The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli explains how to give constructive feedback using the feature-positive effect.

The feature-positive effect is a tendency to pay attention to the most flashy or ostentatious information around you, failing to notice when things aren’t present. For example, if you’re distracted by being late for work, you might not notice your phone isn’t in your pocket. (Shortform note: The exception is when you’re an expert in your field. Experts notice excluded information based on past experience of similar situations, while novices and moderately knowledgeable individuals don’t.)

People better take on the advice that is framed in a positive way. This doesn’t just mean “positive” in terms of constructive: It means telling someone to do something is more effective than telling them to stop doing something. For example, “Eat more vegetables” is more effective advice than “Stop eating sugar” because the inclusion of one food group is easier for your brain to process than the absence of another.

How to Give Effective Constructive Feedback

Good constructive criticism is specific and actionable, which lends itself to describing what should be done. To illustrate this, let’s look at an example of non-constructive, negative feedback and an example of constructive, positive feedback:

“Stop dragging your heels with the filing” isn’t specific because it uses a metaphor, rather than describing a specific behavior. It’s not actionable because no specific action has been outlined, and it’s not positive because it tells you to stop doing something rather than telling you to do something.

On the other hand, “Only reply to your emails in the morning so you can file five cases a day” is specific because it gives a particular behavior (replying to emails) and a reason for implementing it (so you can file five cases a day). It’s actionable because it provides a specific action (replying in the morning), and it’s positive because it talks about what should be done.

How to Give Constructive Feedback: Be Positive

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  • A detailed look at the most common logical fallacies that inhibit decision-making
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  • Why you value things for arbitrary reasons

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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