The Battle Royale: Negative vs. Positive Comments

Ah, the good ol’ evaluation. It inspires excitement, fear and usually a little anxiety. In high school, my best friend and I were Red Cross HIV/AIDS Peer Educators and supplemented sex ed curriculum for junior high and high school students across the suburbs of St. Paul. It was a great experience and we loved every second of it. But our absolute favorite part was reading the evaluations. We would thank everyone for their time, collect the evaluations and patiently wait for everyone to clear the room. The second that happened, we were tearing through the evaluations. Fortunately (and perhaps surprisingly), the 14-18 year-olds were typically kind to us and provided us with both useful and feel-good feedback. But with each class, there were usually one or two negative comments, and of course, those were the ones we were drawn to and they were the comments that stuck with us.
What is it about the negative comments that so thoroughly stick with us? Out of a group of 30 people, we can get 28 positive comments, but the 2 comments that aren’t good are the two that stick out. The New York Times published an article about this several years ago, Praise is Fleeting, but Brickbats We Recall. According to Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University, it’s a tendency we all have.

Negative emotions generally involve more thinking, and the information is processed more thoroughly than positive ones. Thus, we tend to ruminate more about unpleasant events — and use stronger words to describe them — than happy ones.

– Clifford Nass

I just got my latest round of evaluations from a recent event and they were overwhelmingly positive. In fact, they’re some of the highest scores across the board I’ve received. Yet (and you knew this was coming), one of the open comments said that I told too many stories at the end. This overshadowed the comments about how engaging the session was, how they wished it was longer and how much they loved the energy and specific examples. My brain went right to that comment and stayed there.

But here’s the thing about the negative comments I didn’t fully understand back in high school – they’re still just comments. It’s what you decide to do with them that counts. I DO tell a lot of stories – it’s how I make sense of the world. It’s how I relate to people and show empathy. And I think it’s also what makes my a good teacher – I consider it one of my strengths. So it was too much for one person at the end. I’m okay with that. This same person also left some comments about the insightful and helpful tools, so I’m going to chose to focus on that and tell my brain it can move on from the negative.

What are you going to tell your brain to move on from?

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