Feedback: Words CAN Hurt

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April 8, 2015 by Dr. Robbie Barber

On a March 29, 2015 #sunchat discussion, I found myself using “feedback” and “criticism” interchangably.  I also found others do not and use “criticism” to denote negative feedback.  Is that right?  Is it true?

Being the engineer that I am, I looked up the definition  of Feedback.  The first one in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary online is: 

“helpful information or criticism that is given to someone to say what can be done to improve a performance, product, etc.”


But the word “criticism” has an emotional negative connotation.  It doesn’t matter what the word actually means as it does how you react to it.  And, get this(!), we don’t all react to the same words in the same way.

When my children were 3 & 5 yr old, my older child called the younger one a silly name.  Tears by the younger one resulted and I pulled out the old hack “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.”  The goal was to get the younger not to react to everything the older one did.  No such luck.  The next night brought a new silly name calling and more tears.  At this point, SuperParent is needed to announce:

“I made a mistake last night.  Name calling does hurt.  As of this minute, we will not use names as a weapon or to upset another.  We will not intentionally hurt each other.”

Did it work?  Yes.  Until child #1 thought of something else, but that’s what kids will do.

Like my children, we have emotional ties to words.  Words can hurt.  They can do it intentionally and unintentionally.  Be aware that how you communicate online and writing on a student’s paper or an employee’s review does not convey the body language to reinterpret the words.  Provide positive or negative feedback, but do not just criticize my work.

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