Negative Feedback can be constructive. Constructive Feedback can be negative: Improving on Negative Feedback

When it comes to coaching, directing, teaching or otherwise criticizing performance art, people broadly generalize the definition of negative feedback as variants of “you suck” or “that wasn’t good”. That sort of feedback is really just negativity, i.e. derisive feedback with no positive intentions, serving only to self-indulgently denigrate the target.

In reality, constructive feedback can both be positive and negative. Yes, not only can constructive feedback also be negative, but constructive negative feedback is more insidious. Many coaches, teachers, directors fall prey to overusing it.

Negative constructive feedback is offered with constructive intent, but often comes with a negative slant and frequently leads to negative consequences. The most obvious example: “Don’t do this” or “This was the wrong choice.” Even with an explanation as to why it was wrong, this is negative feedback because it does not state or offer a clear positive alternative. It only points out what the target did not do correctly.

Notice I did not say this feedback was invalid: Often it’s very important to correct what was pointed out. The issue is that it does not provide an alternative, corrective course of action. It mainly admonishes, indicting the decision making of the target.

Used in isolation or with corresponding instructions on what to do instead, negative feedback isn’t a terribly big deal. There’s nothing wrong when offering constructive feedback or recommendations to throw in a few “Hey, don’t do that” or “That was a bad idea” statements. Again, these are by and large valid observations.

Used excessively or exclusively, they become counterproductive, reducing the performer’s confidence. When you tell them a litany of “Don’t do this. That was the wrong move. Don’t do this. You did this wrong…”, or when the only commentary you have for that person’s work is to point out the mistakes they made, you often give the target paralysis analysis, or force the target into other negative patterns as they overcompensate to correct the growing list of negative feedback.

Virtually no one can take a continuing stream of negative feedback absent of constructive, concrete recommendations without losing their confidence to continue or exacerbating their struggles by overcompensating with more negative patterns.

If your goal is to discourage the performer from continuing, okay. And you’re, at best, a terrible person. I will presume, however, that you have no such intentions.

Now, negative feedback doesn’t necessarily require corresponding positive feedback. But it provides the most value with an inversely positive recommendation that provides a path/plan of action, e.g. “This was the wrong approach because (whatever). This approach (or this one or this one….) works better.” Or, more specifically, “Don’t do (this). Do (that) instead.”

NEGATIVE: “You aren’t listening.”
POSITIVE: “Listen and respond to what your scene partner is specifically saying.”

NEGATIVE: “You’re talking over each other.”
POSITIVE: “Wait for your scene partner to finish speaking. Make succinct statements and be sure to finish them.”

NEGATIVE: “You keep focusing your conversations about a character off stage.”
POSITIVE: “Make your scene all about your relationship with the person on stage.”

NEGATIVE: “Don’t ask questions.” or “You’re asking questions.”
POSITIVE: “Make statements. Decide what is true yourself and say it.”

NEGATIVE: “You started another fucking transaction scene.”
POSITIVE: “Make the next cafe/supermarket/etc scene about the people in the scene.”

You may argue you’re stifling creativity or performer agency or whatever when you offer specific recommendations. However, you already run the risk stifling the individual when you cut down their current and prior actions, because you are also calling into question their decision making. Again, do it here and there, big deal. Most performers can roll with it and get the point. But do it often enough without a recommendation, and your call to question becomes an indictment of that individual or group, which will analysis-paralyze the performer and leave them frozen when it’s time to perform.

This leads to these important points:

1) The more negative feedback you give someone, the more specific you must be in recommending a course of action.

2) The more open you want a person’s subsequent decision making to be, the less specific negative criticism you should provide.

This is a difficult balance. You don’t want to give an individual who needs improvement the carte-blanche to continue doing sloppy work or following bad habits. However, you (probably) also don’t want to lock a performer into a formulaic approach that offers no room for creative license. Such is the talent of coaching, directing, teaching or otherwise mentoring.

But! If you’re going to tell performers, “Don’t do this. Don’t do this. Don’t do this,” or analyze every scene they do by telling them what they did wrong… they’re not going to have anywhere to go next time unless you tell them exactly what they should do instead. This puts YOU in a difficult position as the coach, instructor, director, etc… because you’ve painted them into a corner without giving them the tools to get out. Now, if you’re not going to provide them with those tools and instead drown them in negative feedback, you’ve now got to give them turn by turn directions out of the hole.

Conversely, if it’s important to you that the performer(s) be creative and make strong, independent decisions, it becomes very important not to cut down too many of their subsequent decisions. Open ended work is not going to be perfect, and to keep it open ended it’s important that the feedback not cut down too many of the decisions made. Yes, you need to point out things that don’t work, but again it’s important to either provide alternative directives, or to be broad and/or minimal (preferably broad) in what you criticize while providing actionable recommendations.

Do not consider this post a mandate. But don’t discard it either.

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