Why feedback hurts, sometimes

Guest blog by: Nicolas J. Pillon, Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

You are discussing a project with a whole group of people. Everything goes well until your supervisor says something like “you are so negative” or “this is not good, fix it today”. It hits you hard. It might sound like a minor comment but still triggers something. Your emotions take over and you switch to your self-defense stonewalling mode. You become deaf to other comments until the end of what has become a useless meeting.

What went wrong with this feedback? Did you feel criticized for who you are? Maybe it’s the language that sounded harsh, or the comment was irrelevant. Possibly the feedback came too late in the process, giving you too little time to improve. All these points matter in feedback and there are methods to prevent them!

Feedback is education

First, let’s think a little bit about what feedback really is. The easiest way to understand feedback is to look at children. From very young age, toddlers spontaneously learn to adjust to the reaction of persons around them, such as a kid who would repeat again and again something that makes people applaud. Imagine also 4 years old kids playing a board game – the only way they can learn the rules is through feedback from adults. Without guidance, toddlers perseverate in errors1. Later in their development, kids learn how to process feedback given through more complex language interactions. An interesting observation is that different types of feedback promote different functions in language acquisition2, suggesting that choosing the right type of feedback matters for learning objectives from a very young age. The role of caregivers is paramount in giving both positive and negative feedback for children to learn and develop, and most adults do that naturally.

If we are so spontaneously good at giving feedback to children, why is it so difficult to give and receive feedback in adult-adult interactions? I decided to dive into the subject and explore different aspects of feedback in the context of teaching and supervision. I identified four points that everyone should be aware of, whether as a colleague, student or supervisor.

  • Feedback is emotional. People may perceive negative feedback as a direct critic of who they are, and feedback focused on mistakes hurts egos3. Poor feedback also negatively impacts confidence, especially when people feel that they are not able to perform the required tasks. In fact, people who do not achieve their own expectations are more likely to experience difficult emotions4. Supervisors are not exempt from emotions either. The fear of being perceived as incompetent by supervisees can generate stress, so does the will to “do a good job” in not hurting feelings and promoting motivation. Frustration can also occur when people seemingly fail to adjust to feedback5. Supervisors often try to actively regulate their emotions to promote positive emotions (happiness, affection) and reduce negative emotions (anger, frustration) but the efficacy of such method is limited5. Overall, the bidirectional communication during feedback generates unbalanced emotions that should be acknowledged and discussed to promote self-confidence and motivation6,7 and reduce stress and frustration.
  • Feedback is subjective and culturally determined. Different levels of experience, cultural background4, personalities8 and language competence9 will affect how individuals give and perceive feedback and feedback validity10. Students’ perception of the supervisors’ attitudes towards mistakes and how the supervisors deals with mistakes play a substantial role on the perception of mistakes as learning opportunities. The more tolerant a supervisor is, the more supervisees see errors as positive and the less likely they are to cover-up mistakes11. In addition, the supervisor/trainee relationship matters; supervisee are more likely to rate feedback as valid if they have a strong relationship with their supervisors10. On the opposite, attachment avoidance behavior is associated with lower validity rating10. Interestingly, international students are more likely to experience negative emotions to feedback, due to different perceptions and sensitivities to supervisor/student relationships and expectations4. This emphasizes how the behavior of the supervisor matters, but also the importance of the supervisee’s subjective perception of the supervisor’s attitude. In internationalized environments, it is important to identify individuals’ needs in a culturally aware manner and put mechanisms in place to sensitively clarify and explain differences in attitudes and behavior in order to limit subjectivity and misunderstandings.
  • Feedback promotes learning, when appropriate. There are 3 “modes” of assessment: teaching, editing and feedback12. The first one focuses on identifying mistakes and the second one checks spelling. It is important to not confound feedback with teaching and editing. Feedback should be a discussion aiming at promoting growth and critical thinking, especially self-assessment. To promote learning, feedback must be appropriate. It should be aligned with teaching objectives13, precise and understandable. Which means that it is crucial to provide enough background and explanation so that the intellectual process is understood, and feedback deemed appropriate. Eventually, feedback should be given with the objective of promoting one’s ability to self-assess and develop as an independent learner14.
  • Feedback is valued, when timely. Most people value feedback to improve competences15, but only if it is perceived as adequate and timely12. One should therefore reflect on what, how but also when to give feedback. Supervisees must be given enough time to reflect and act by adjusting their behavior or correcting their errors. It is crucial that the supervisees are confident in their ability to improve over time, for which supervisors’ positivity and encouragements can make a difference.

Optimizing feedback

This all makes sense: feedback should be a transparent, clear and bi-directional discussion about specific and appropriate points. It should be given at the right moment so that everyone has time to correct and improve. But how do we do that? Based on this body of psychological and sociological research, I distilled out four points to promote learning through effective and low-emotion feedback.

  • Consider cultural and personal backgrounds. Emotions grow stronger with misunderstandings. A clarification of the supervisor/trainee relationship may be needed and discussing mutual expectations can help reduce miscommunication. Emotions will be stronger if feedback is given in front of many people. To decrease negative emotions and promote self-confidence, supervisors should use a “praise in public, criticize in private” approach16 and be considerate of trainees personal and cultural backgrounds.
  • Promote bi-directional discussions. The aim of feedback is to promote critical thinking and self-assessment. For it to be deemed appropriate, everyone should have the freedom to ask for clarifications and question the intellectual validity of feedback in a positive, constructive manner.
  • Time your feedback. The perceived validity of feedback depends on how timely it is. It is therefore important to give regular feedback, ahead of deadlines. Preparing individuals for feedback is also important, by for instance deciding what topic will be discussed ahead of the meeting.
  • Follow-up on feedback. Feedback is only beneficial if people feel that they can work on it and improve. If not, people will take comments as a questioning of their competence, making it personal and emotional. Making sure that feedback is followed up on with specific tasks that both parties agree upon is crucial. When the task is completed, encouragements and praise help positively reinforcing the feedback and boost confidence in people’s ability to improve.

Feedback does not have to hurt

Managing emotions during feedback is difficult but trying to hide them is worse. It is misleading to attempt to read someone else’s mind and not efficient to try to control one self’s emotions. Both might lead to misinterpreted behavior because of personality and sociocultural differences. Asking “how do you feel”, “what do you need” or “how can I support you” allows to get more objective information about the emotional state of individuals and promote bi-directional feedback. Paying attention to timing and following-up on feedback are associated with improved learning and increased motivation. This emphasizes how important is it to spend time with people, give them a safe place to ask questions and praise them for every successful step towards becoming critical thinkers and independent learners.


1.             Bohlmann, N.L. & Fenson, L. The Effects of Feedback on Perseverative Errors in Preschool Aged Children. Journal of Cognition and Development 6, 119-131 (2005).
2.             Strömqvist. Linguistic feedback, input and analysis in early language development. (1999).
3.             Van‐Dijk;, D. & Kluger, A.N. Feedback Sign Effect on Motivation: Is it Moderated by Regulatory Focus? Applied Psychology 53, 113-135 (2003).
4.             Ryan, T. & Henderson, M. Feeling feedback: students’ emotional responses to educator feedback. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education 43, 880-892 (2017).
5.             Sutton, R.E., Mudrey-Camino, R. & Knight, C.C. Teachers’ Emotion Regulation and Classroom Management. Theory Into Practice 48, 130-137 (2009).
6.             Fong, C.J., Patall, E.A., Vasquez, A.C. & Stautberg, S. A Meta-Analysis of Negative Feedback on Intrinsic Motivation. Educational Psychology Review 31, 121-162 (2018).
7.             Garcia, J.A., Carcedo, R.J. & Castano, J.L. The Influence of Feedback on Competence, Motivation, Vitality, and Performance in a Throwing Task. Res Q Exerc Sport 90, 172-179 (2019).
8.             Dennis, M., Masthoff, J. & Mellish, C. Adapting Progress Feedback and Emotional Support to Learner Personality. International Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education 26, 877-931 (2015).
9.             Carroll, J. Tools for teaching in an educationally mobile world, (Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, London ; New York, 2015).
10.          McKibben, W.B., Borders, L.D. & Wahesh, E. Factors Influencing Supervisee Perceptions of Critical Feedback Validity. Counselor Education and Supervision 58, 242-256 (2019).
11.          Tulis, M. Error management behavior in classrooms: Teachers’ responses to student mistakes. Teaching and Teacher Education 33, 56-68 (2013).
12.          Orrell, J. Feedback on learning achievement: rhetoric and reality. Teaching in Higher Education 11, 441-456 (2006).
13.          Biggs, J. What the student does: teaching for enhanced learning. High Educ Res Dev 31, 39-55 (2012).
14.          Mamoon-Al-Bashir. The Value and Effectiveness of Feedback in Improving Students’ Learning and Professionalizing Teaching in Higher Education. Journal of Education and Practice (2016).
15.          Rowe, A. & Taylor, P. The personal dimension in teaching: why students value feedback. International Journal of Educational Management 25, 343-360 (2011).
16.          Seevers, M.T., Rowe, W.J. & Skinner, S.J. Praise in Public, Criticize in Private? An Assessment of Performance Feedback Transparency in a Classroom Setting. Marketing Education Review 24, 85-100 (2014).


Illustration: Cécile Pillon Hue (www.misshue.net)

Feedback and proof Reading: Natalie von der Lehr (www.vonderlehr.com)

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