Affirmative feedback

When we give someone constructive feedback, we typically call attention to the negative impact that their behavior had on us, and invite them to change their behavior (and if we’re really doing a good job, we also commit to helping them do so). And that makes a lot of sense. Our brain makes sense of the world around us through the differences between what we expect will happen and what actually happen. So when someone behaves in a way that’s different than the way we’ve expected them to behave, it’s easy for us to notice that and call attention to it.

Explained though the Johari Window, we assume that the negative impact of their behavior falls in their “blind area” — know to us (others) but unknown to them. By disclosing it, we bring that insight into the open and enable growth and development.

Johari Window

But there’s another, hidden opportunity that we tend to miss. We incorrectly assume that any positive implications of their behavior are fully known to them and that these aspects of their behavior are fully conscious, deliberate and intended.

That is often not the case.

Just like behaviors with negative impact, behaviors with positive impact regularly fall in one’s blind area, and are unconscious or unintended. Therefore, there is a significant developmental benefit in bringing them into the open through affirmative feedback — feedback that’s meant to reinforce a particular behavior pattern rather than encourage the changing of one.

Compounded by the fact that we usually find it easier to do more of something that we already rather than stop something we’re already doing or start doing something totally new, the impact of affirmative feedback can be much higher than that of constructive feedback.

Note that there’s an important distinction between affirmative feedback and praise: the former is still intended to serve a developmental purpose (just like constructive feedback), while the latter is intended more to demonstrate situational empathy, gratitude, and recognition of the actions taken.