That one small thing that ruins everything…..

Have you ever had this experience?

You go out for an evening with friends. You laugh a lot, maybe eat or drink. Lots of conversation. You have a great time. But, somewhere during the evening someone says something that bothers you, something that feels insulting or condescending.

Maybe it’s not even said. Perhaps you just thought someone gave you a funny look, or laughed sarcastically at a comment you made. It might have been the smallest of things.

On the way home, you find yourself dwelling on that one moment. It runs through your mind, getting bigger. It erases everything else. You end up feeling you had terrible time.

Or maybe you come from a meeting with colleagues where one exchange unsettled you. It sticks in your mind.

One negative reaction, one ‘bad thing’ can overshadow everything.
The negative dominates and eradicates everything but itself.

It’s a phenomenon in psychology called ‘negativity bias’ or ‘positive-negative asymmetry’. 

There are perfectly good evolutionary reasons for it.

As humans evolved ‘nasty things’ could kill. A ‘nice thing’ is…well… nice….. Lots of nice things are REALLY nice. But just one nasty thing can kill. All the nice things in the world are worth nothing in the face of that one nasty thing.

So it made a lot of sense to pay more attention to nasty things than to nice things.

Hence the asymmetry.

A snide remark (real or imagined) on a night out won’t kill you. Nor will a snarky colleague. But you might feel shamed. You might feel excluded from the group. Maybe you’ll find your confidence undermined. Those are all things you pay more attention to than lots of small things that make you feel nice (also for very good evolutionary reasons).

This really matters when we’re giving feedback. 

If you’re giving feedback to someone and you point out three things they did well and one thing they did badly (or that ‘needs improvement’), they’ll pay attention to the thing you said they did badly and scarcely heed what you said they did well. 

If you ‘sandwich’ one ‘negative’ comment between two ‘positive’ comments, they’ll treat the positive comments as you softening the blow of your negative comments. They’ll not believe the positive comments - or at least not consider them as important as the negative. 

If you give ‘constructive criticism’, they’ll think you’re calling them a failure but trying to be nice about it. 

I’m exaggerating, but not much.

Giving feedback is a crucial part of guiding someone’s learning. Our primary task, always, is to encourage someone to try again, so that through repetition they improve. Anything that discourages is counterproductive.

The first objective of all feedback should be to encourage.

My own approach is to work with unconditional positive feedback - always to point out what someone has done well and to suggest how they can grow from where they are to where we need them to be. There is no ‘but’ in that conversation.

I recognise that not everyone finds unconditional positive feedback to be the way to go. Nonetheless we can agree feedback that damages a student’s or colleagues’ desire to grow, is not fit for purpose. 

So how to ensure technical excellence, continual improvement AND encourage a love of learning and growth?

I suggest we think of there being three different categories of feedback.
Technical Feedback which is feedback measured against objective and identifiable criteria. It is never personal.

Performance Choice Feedback (or aesthetic feedback) which is subjective (you are feeding-back through your own perspectives, preferences and paradigms) but there are criteria against which the feedback can be measured.

Personal Development Feedback which is highly subjective and is essentially guesswork. It should always be given in a way that allows the receiver to reject it, for it deals with their sense of self.

Paying heed to what sort of feedback you’re giving at any moment helps ensure you can simultaneously stimulate excellence and empower the person you’re teaching to travel their path with passion and curiosity.

I hope you find my start-of-the-week thoughts useful and stimulating!
I’d love to hear any responses you have. Email me on

PS. I take on a VERY small number of people to mentor. If you think that you’d like to explore that possibility as you develop your teaching or creative practice, why not set up a Discovery Call so we can chat about your needs? I never take anyone on unless I’m pretty certain I can help, so our Discovery Call would be entirely obligation free. Fill in this form and then book a time with me.

My book ‘How To Teach Performance’ offers Artists & Teachers a step-by-step guide to designing and delivering life-changing workshops in any performance style, at any level. Find out more here.

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