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The Negative Feedback Instinct – How You Find Faults Quickly

The Negative Feedback Instinct – How You Find Faults Quickly

When someone asks you for feedback, how do you respond? Have you realized how you hunt for negative feedback first before finding positive elements?

Let me tell you about my recent experience with the negative feedback instinct.

A friend of mine approached me with a question. “I am looking for your feedback. What do you think of this business idea?” I agreed, and he went on with his thought.

I pondered for a bit and told him the following. “The market you are targeting seems quite small. Also, the idea involves many complicated elements making it a toughie to execute. To make it worse, you will have a hard time scaling up.”

If you break down all the feedback I had given, you will notice that I had only given negative feedback. In the hindsight, I found many aspects of the idea brilliant.

But what did my mind focus on? It found all the reasons why things could go wrong. The things that could go right either took a backseat or never occurred to me.

The negative feedback instinct was running strong within me.

Negative feedback instinct

What is the negative feedback instinct?

The negative feedback instinct is your tendency to spot flaws first. Even if there are good things to talk about, the negatives come to your mind in an instant. You may find some positives to talk about or none at all.

It is one of the many other mental flaws in your brain.

Here is visual which explains how your mind works when someone asks for your feedback.

How your mind creates negative feedback

Your mind tries to find what is wrong first. Sometimes you say it out loud, and sometimes you don’t. You may spot the good later or miss it altogether.

Take these examples:

1. A coworker asks you what you think about the email she is about to send:

You either find a better flow for the email or suggest an alternative word to use. If not anything, you find an error in grammar or punctuation.

2. Your friend asks your opinion on the theme of her wedding.

Your first reaction usually is: “Isn’t that too dull for an outdoor event?” or “That’s quite common these days. How about …”

In both these examples, you feel like suggesting an improvement.

Consider the next 2 examples.

3. Your friend constructed a new house. He invites you home for dinner. When he is pouring a glass of wine, he asks you, “What do you think of the house?”

You reply saying, “It looks fantastic and neatly done.” However, in the back of your head, you tell yourself, “If this were my house, I would place the couch on the other side.”

4. You are at a wedding, and your cousin asks you, “How is my dress?”

You reply, “you look so pretty.” But in silence, you wonder, “Wouldn’t a darker color suit her and the occasion better?”

In the last 2 examples, you do not mention an improvement, but your mind finds one flaw or the other.

When does the instinct occur?

Seeking feedback

The negative feedback instinct triggers when someone requests your opinion or when you analyze something. If you provide feedback yourself, you will give a genuine one.

For example, on example 4, if you found the dress pretty without your cousin asking, your compliment would be genuine.

The craving to find a flaw occurs when you’re asked for feedback, advice, or thoughts. Again, the degree with which this happens varies from person to person. Based on your personality and thought process, some have a higher tendency to think negatively first.

Why do we find a flaw?

Due to psychological influence, your brain leans towards some default behavior. You can change such behavior, but it requires some conscious effort. But any change is hard and painful.

Finding a flaw

It’s like learning to ride a bicycle. Your body does not know how to balance the bike when you sit on it the first time. Once you train yourself, you can balance your ride without any deliberate thought.

Likewise, unless you train your mind to learn specific skills, you will lean towards the default behavior.

Some of the reasons why we find a problem when someone asks our opinion is:

1. The survival instinct

Mother nature evolved and brought us to where we are today. Among all our attributes, one thing that exhibits the most potent force is the instinct to survive. All living things have certain features that increase their chance of survival.

Fear is one such instinct that helps us stay alive. Think about what would happen if human beings had no fear whatsoever. People would try to fight a lion, jump off cliffs and walk straight into a fire. Fear increases our chances of staying alive.

Trying to focus on negative events like disease, calamities or danger helped us stay alive. Though the risks no longer exist, your brain is hardwired with the old software.

Your instinct to spot a problem can sway your mind into finding the negatives first.

2. Loss aversion

Here is a game. We toss a coin.I give you 20$ for heads and you give me 20$ for tails. Would you play the game? Most people won’t.

Studies have shown how losses are twice as powerful as gains. Researchers have proven that the pain of losing 20$ is more than the joy of winning the same amount. Similarly, the fear of disease is far scarier than the optimism of a growing market.

Your brain somehow treats negative events with more weightage than the positive side.

3. Not providing any advice affects your self-esteem

When someone comes to you asking for feedback, you want to show some expertise and reciprocation. The response, “Everything looks great. I have no useful feedback”, seems plain vanilla, doesn’t it?

It hurts your ego to mention, “Sorry mate, I have nothing useful to add. You have done a better job than I could.” In reality, no one will judge you for only finding positives, except the devil within you. The urge to add value stems within yourself.

Therefore, to make yourself feel better, you find a flaw.

How to overcome the negative feedback instinct

1. You do not have to find a flaw

Finding flaw isn't mandatory

When people ask you for feedback, they do not always expect a suggestion on what they could change. More often than not, people are at crossroads in their heads. They reach out for feedback to validate their action.

When your friend asks you, “What do you think about my new house?” he is hoping to hear kind words. He isn’t expecting the interior decorator in you to suggest a different shade of paint.

When someone asks you for feedback, gauge if the request is for validation or real improvement. Many a time, all you need to do is nod and agree.

Are you curtailing the words within you by doing so? Yes. But you know what is worse? Feedback which offends people.

2. Check for your own biases

All your opinions trigger from your core beliefs. Sometimes the flaw isn’t in the other person but within you.

Once, a team member explained his daily structure and asked me for feedback on how to get more done. On analysis, I observed he had free time in the evening, which he could use to get work done.

Working extra hours and completing tasks is my core belief. I almost said, “You can work some more. So add in 2 hours each day.”

Thankfully I held my words back because that feedback was plain stupid. Not everyone believes in working all the time.

When you provide feedback, check how much of an influence your beliefs have.

3. Give feedback taking the person into account

A few months ago, a friend of mine came to me excited. “I started my blog last week. Why don’t you take a look and suggest what I should do?” “Sure, why not?” I said.

I mentioned hundreds of things for him to work on. I provided tips on optimizing the website for Google, increasing the speed, formatting content, promoting on social media, and whatnot.

By the time we finished the conversation, all his enthusiasm had vanished. When he walked away with a sigh, I realized my stupidity.

I ignored the fact that he started only a couple of weeks ago. For someone who had no experience in setting up a blog, what he had done by himself was more than commendable. And I gave him feedback and suggestions which were far too much for him to digest.

When you provide feedback, take into account the expertise of the person asking for it. Do not bombard them with suggestions and changes which they cannot follow or implement.

4. Give minimal feedback when you’re not an expert

Disclaimer that you are not an expert

People might ask your feedback because they know you. That doesn’t warrant you to provide pointers for improvement.

If someone asks you for input on a speech they have to give, provide minimal feedback unless you have experience with public speaking.

When someone asks you what you think of their new house, you should not suggest a different layout for decor unless you are an interior designer.

Some people tend to react to every feedback they receive. Providing input on things you lack knowledge on can create more damage than good.

When anyone asks you for feedback outside your area of expertise, keep it short. Do not forget to add that it is only your opinion, you’re no expert, and your feedback won’t be the best.

5. Find the reason for seeking feedback

Whenever possible, try to understand why the person asked for your feedback.

Some seek validation for their beliefs from your input. Some genuinely look for inputs to improve. Some reach a point of confusion and make a decision based on your feedback.

Not knowing what you’re giving feedback for can lead to conflicts and wrong actions.

Imagine someone asking you for an opinion on a public speech. Despite never having spoken on stage before, you suggest adding a humor element. Your input can turn a good speech into a disaster.

Know what you’re providing the feedback for and draft your message.

6. Ask 3 questions

Old wisdom from hundreds of years ago had an effective technique to provide feedback the right way. Khatera Sahibzada suggested the method back in the 13th century.

He recommends passing each component of your feedback through 3 gates.

  • Gate 1: Is it true?
  • Gate 2: Is it necessary?
  • Gate 3: Is it kind?

Answering these questions accomplishes the following:

7. Challenge the person to do better

In his best selling book, High Performance Habits, Brendon Burchard speaks about a teacher who changed his life. She would appreciate what Brendan had done and also challenging him by saying, “you have the potential to do better.”

For example, once Brendon showed the photographs he had clicked in France. She went to appreciate his photography skills and how he had done many things right. At the same time, she told him, “you can do better.”

When you tell the positives and mention the scope to do better, the receiver leaves enthusiastic and thinking.

8. Think of the positives first

When you have to provide feedback, tell yourself to think of the positives first. The negatives will come up anyway sooner or later.

When you think of the positives, do not apply the compliment sandwich technique. This method uses a compliment/criticism/compliment sequence to make the feedback more welcoming.

The technique is pretty old school, and most people know about it. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone told you, “I know where you’re heading, so why don’t you cut to the chase?”

Secondly, such a method is dishonest. You might give a false impression that the person is heading in the right direction.

Instead, you must first force yourself to think of the good parts with honesty. Once you have them in your head, you can compare them with the negatives. Weigh them both side by side and provide the feedback which serves best.


Finding a flaw is easy. The challenge is to make sure your feedback is genuine, useful, and actionable. Though your feedback comes from your heart, it also comes with impurities within yourself. The negative feedback instinct is deep within you.

Always, keep the primary purpose of feedback in mind. Your words should lead to a positive change in the receiver. What good is the feedback if you hurt the person or provide advice which is tossed into a dustbin?

Your thoughts are powerful. When you spread them to others, make them useful, make them insightful, make them meaningful. More importantly, make them count.

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