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Have you ever noticed that you can accept tough feedback from one person, but if another person gave you the exact same tough feedback, it would make you feel judged or criticized? Giving tough feedback is challenging and may feel like an impossible choice: say something and offend the recipient or sugarcoat your message into irrelevance.

As educators, it’s our job to give students and other colleagues feedback. So, what if there was something you could do so that the feedback you gave was much more likely to be well received? What if the choice between offending someone and sugarcoating was artificial and there was actually a way to share constructive criticism without damaging the relationship? Would you be interested in learning about it? If so, keep reading because I’m going to share a strategy I’ve used for years that is much better than what I was initially doing.

 

John Gottman’s Research
John Gottman studied married couples to figure out what made them happy or unhappy. He observed that couples that had balance between positive and negative interactions were much happier than couples that did not have this balance and were more likely to end in divorce.

So, the key here is that relationships need to have balance. You might expect that this balance would be 1:1 meaning an equal amount of positive and negative interactions. This was very far from the reality though. Gottman found a “magic” 5:1 ratio of positive interactions to negative interactions resulted in happier, stable relationships while much less than that often resulted in divorce.

Think about what this means because it makes sense. While positive interactions like a kind word, a shared laugh, or a hug are all valued, a negative interaction like an argument has a much more significant impact. A kiss and a compliment does not make the negative interaction disappear from their memory. What you may be realizing is that this 5:1 ratio exists outside of marital relationships as well and applies to relationships between friends, siblings, parents, children, and especially colleagues and students.

 

Implications for Education
I was a teacher specialist for Downey Unified School District when I first learned about this research from my amazing boss, John Harris. It was simultaneously intuitive and something I would have never thought of on my own.

Over the years, I’ve observed hundreds of lessons where I was supposed to give non-evaluative feedback. This was rarely easy to do. I was nobody’s boss, and was grateful to be invited to observe. I was very aware that if my initial feedback was too harsh, I ran a very high chance of never being invited back. So, what could I do?

I looked at my notes and categorized what I observed as either:

  • something positive that the teacher should be recognized for and encouraged to continue
  • something negative that the teacher should work on

I then took my feedback and implemented the 5:1 ratio. This was much more challenging to do in practice than in theory. For every piece of negative feedback I wanted to discuss with the teacher, I had to find five positive things as well. If I could not find five positive things, I could not share my constructive criticism about the negative thing either. Similarly, if I wanted to share two constructive criticisms, then I had to find ten positive things! This forced me to think to myself “Of all the things I want this teacher to work on, which is absolutely the most important?”

 

Psychology Tangent
Humans are pretty bad at keeping track of growth over time. For example, when I look at my 5th grade son, he looks the same as he always has. Obviously this can’t be true, but it takes looking at pictures from a year earlier to realize how much he’s changed. This happens because I see him every day and it’s hard to recognize the little changes that are constantly happening.

Similarly, we’re pretty bad at noticing professional growth over time. We don’t have easy access to “pictures” of how our teaching looked from a year earlier to realize how much we’ve changed. So, I have to make a concerted effort to appreciate teachers’ growth. I force myself to think about what classrooms looked and felt like when I was a student. Everyone was in rows. The teacher talked. We listened. We did lots of classwork.

So, any classroom that is not doing that has made some progress that can and should be acknowledged. Be intentional about being appreciative of growth and not taking anything for granted.

 

Conclusion
I constantly try to share genuine positive observations whenever and wherever. Obviously, this is never a bad thing and strengthens all relationships, helping the recipient understand that you have their best intentions in mind. When you do give feedback, it will be much more likely to be well received and even appreciated.

In the context of observing a single lesson, always stick to Gottman’s the 5:1 ratio. If you’re lucky enough to have more than five positives, include those as well. When sharing your feedback, make sure to lead with some of the positives. Then share your one concern and suggestion. Then continue with any additional positive feedback you may have. If they ask to see your notes and what else you wrote down, think twice before showing it to them. Unless you have a strong relationship built on years of positive interactions, this might backfire, throwing the 5:1 ratio out of whack, and making the recipient question your intentions.

What do you think about these ideas? What do you agree with? What do you see differently? Please let me know in the comments below.


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2 Comments

  1. I agree with your suggestions and analysis of giving feedback. Something I wondered about while reading this is the sample that Gottman used. I am curious if this ratio holds true across different cultures or different countries, and if it is influenced by cultural expectations. Do couples in Russia, China, or France, for example, have the same ratio to predict a happy marriage?

    • That’s a really interesting question, Ethan. I have no real clue about those questions. If you find anything, please let me know.

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