Giving constructive criticism isn’t easy. There’s a big difference between well-meant criticism and giving feedback that is well-received. Without the proper tools at hand, it’s quite possible that criticism is not at all well-received. Our suggestions might be simply ignored, leaving us wondering what went wrong. If you’ve ever held criticism back because you were not sure how to constructively convey your opinion, then this article will be of great use for you. Here’s how to give constructive criticism the right way.
Criticizing constructively is a fine art. If done correctly, constructive feedback helps an individual improve themselves without feeling bad. This form of criticism is extraordinarily powerful as it avoids personal attacks or blame. Therefore, constructive criticism allows the critic to verbalize their opinion without the buildup of resistance within the recipient. As a result, it is more likely that a person is open for change. This willingness to accept criticism is further encouraged by the positive tone constructive criticism focuses on.
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The opposite of constructive criticism is destructive criticism. The first focuses on the improvement of an individual to help them affect positive changes in their life. The latter uses blame to discredit and demean a person. Positive change is seldom encouraged with destructive criticism. Instead, it builds up resistance and will most likely discourage a person from doing anything about the situation.
Constructive Criticism Definition
noun con•struc•tive crit•i•cism \kən-ˈstrək-tiv \ ˈkri-tə-ˌsi-zəm\
Constructive criticism defines the expression of careful disapproval, criticism or advice. This form of criticism is given with the intention to help someone improve. It is often accompanied with recommendations or instructions that offer possible solutions. Constructive criticism can also contain helpful advice so that positive changes can be affected.
What Is Constructive Criticism?
Constructive criticism describes the process of offering one’s advice in a reasonable and friendly manner. The intention behind this form of criticism is to help improve a given situation. For this reason, constructive criticism does not focus on the person itself, but on the underlying problem instead.
What Science Has To Say about Criticism
Let’s have a quick look at the scientific side of criticizing. It can help us to better understand how to criticize in a more constructive manner.
First of all, criticism can be incredibly difficult for the human brain to process. This was highlighted by research conducted on the effect of criticism on functional brain connectivity. The scientists showed that processing criticism is quite a complex process. Whenever we’re criticized, there’s increased activity in the brain areas responsible for social cognition and emotion processing. We try to make sense of the emotions, perceptions, beliefs and goals of the critic. This helps us to adapt our (social) behavior.
If, however, criticism has a great emotional impact upon us, the brain will attempt to reinterpret it. This means that we exert great amounts of effort in order to regain control of our emotional state. We try to make sense of the feedback. If we’re not able to accomplish this, we cannot prevent perceiving the feedback as hostile.
On the bright side, not all forms of criticism are bad. Criticism that is conveyed in a non-hostile form can be quite beneficial, as a 2012 study suggests. The scientists found that non-hostile criticism is closely associated with less conflict and greater support. This means that if we find a right way of criticizing someone, they are more likely to accept the feedback.
What we need to do is to find a balance between criticism, advice and help. We all know from our own experience that the right kind of criticism can inspire us to tackle a problem. It can propel us to look at the situation from a different angle. In fact, the ability to give and receive criticism is critical for success. Let’s focus on how to give constructive criticism.
How to Give Constructive Criticism?
Criticizing constructively is an integral part of affecting beneficial change. Without sharing and receiving feedback, areas of improvement could go unnoticed for years. No matter if it’s in your professional or private life, the willingness to give and accept criticism can be quite important. Instead of holding your opinion back, try to share it with others in a constructive manner. Let’s have a look on how to give constructive criticism the right way.
1. Adapt the Feedback Sandwich Technique
The “sandwich approach” is quite popular when it comes to giving negative feedback. Basically, you place criticism between two slices of positive feedback, hence the name sandwich. Naturally, we assume this common technique is effective, but it isn’t. In the worst case, the sandwich approach undermines your feedback.
Adapting the technique, however, can help you to eliminate its negative effects. By using a modified version of the method you can deliver feedback in an empowering way. It also helps you to communicate the criticism constructively without undermining your feedback.
Here is how the adapted process of giving feedback with the sandwich technique looks like:
- Start with the strengths. Start the feedback process by noting what is already going well.
- Provide feedback. Use the above as foundation to outline possible areas of improvement.
- Close. Finish your feedback by pointing out the beneficial results that could be accomplished by acting upon the criticism.
The technique provides an excellent framework that helps others to better accept criticism. By outlining what is positive you convey your appreciation for another person’s work. Furthermore, you recognize what they are already doing right. Doing so will show them that it is not your attention to attack them. Following this strategy will help you to reduce resistance, which makes them more receptive to your feedback.
The Feedback Sandwich Technique is most effective when you critique someone
- you haven’t established rapport with
- you don’t know well
- that does not seem to take criticism particularly well
The Feedback Sandwich can convey criticism in a constructive manner, if used correctly. However, if it’s only used as a unilateral controlling strategy to influence others, it will backfire on you.
This leads us to the next point.
2. Use the “Transparency, Involvement & Improvement”-framework
As already stated, the Feedback Sandwich Technique is not appropriate for all situations. When it comes to receiving negative feedback, most people prefer to get straight to the criticism without enveloping it in a sandwich. Additionally, they will most likely discount the positive feedback, feeling that it is not authentic. This is especially in the work environment the case.
For this reason, all that matters is the way we convey our criticism. To effectively convey constructive criticism, the “Transparency, Involvement & Improvement”-framework can be used.
It’s an approach of giving criticism in a transparent and involving manner, which increases another person’s willingness to act upon it. Here’s the process:
- Start. Initiate the conversation. Make it clear that you have concerns about something.
- Problem description. Describe the problem shortly.
- Share your strategy. Explain how you’d like to approach the discussion of the problem.
- Outline the intended process. Make it transparent that steps #7 – #12 are to follow.
- Feedback. Ask them if they want to proceed this way or if changes should be made.
- Initiation. Start the feedback process.
- Problem description. Describe what raised your concerns.
- Open-mindedness. Make it clear that you could be missing important details.
- Feedback I. Get them involved by asking them if they see things similar.
- Feedback II. Listen to their side of the story.
- Agreement. If they agree with your concerns, discuss the problem in detail.
- Improvement. Discuss how things can be improved. Mutually decide what should be done about it.
Following this transparent strategy can be much more effective than the basic sandwich approach. By being transparent about your strategy, you make it clear how you intend to proceed without taking them by surprise. Even further, you actively involve the other person in the design of the feedback process. You also show them that you are interested in their side of the story, by making it clear that you may miss important facts.
The “TII”-framework, therefore, helps you to shift the intention behind the feedback process from merely criticizing someone to actively getting them involved in finding a solution to the problem. It will help the person you criticize to see the feedback not as a personal attack, but to mutually agree upon ways to make improvements.
3. Maintain the Hopes/Dreams/Criticism-ratio
Scientists of the Department of Cognitive Science at the Case Western Reserve University investigated the impact of having compassion for an individual’s hopes and dreams during coaching and mentoring processes. The study highlighted that an emphasis on a person’s hopes and dreams enhances their willingness for behavioral change. Solely focusing on a person’s mistakes or weaknesses, however, does not affect one’s willingness to change.
The scientists initiated the coaching process by asking their participants the following question:
“If everything worked out perfectly in your life, what would you be doing in 10 years?”
Posing this question has been shown to activate brain centers that open a person up to new possibilities. By focusing on a person’s dreams first, instead of their failings, you make them more receptive to make necessary improvements toward such a better future. Also, you help them to embrace a much wider range of opportunities and possibilities.
For this reason, when giving constructive criticism, it’s important to maintain a healthy ratio between dreams and criticism. In the working environment, addressing the negative is necessary for the continued improvement of the company and/or the individual. But the positive aspects are also needed to keep us motivated and to help us thrive.
Showing compassion for an individual’s dreams during the feedback process helps you to elicit positive emotions. As a result of this, brain circuits are activated that remind a person how they will feel once a given goal is accomplished. It is the very circuit that keeps us motivated to tackle the necessary tasks at hand, in order to work toward our dreams.
Find out what motivates people. Ask them what they hope to accomplish. This will help you to give feedback in a more constructive manner.
Keep this in mind when you give constructive criticism. Your willingness to understand an individual’s hopes and dreams can help you to discuss what needs to be done to reach these goals. It allows you to show areas of improvement within a more positive context.
4. Leave out unnecessary criticism
Constructive criticism requires a fine balance between providing feedback and leaving out unnecessary points of criticism. Not every piece of advice or criticism is necessary and useful. Try to evaluate what points need to be addressed. Similarly, try to figure out what is not going to be useful. Putting yourself in the other person’s position might help you in assessing what is helpful.
In many situations, it’s also important to see if the criticism is warranted. Whenever people actively seek your advice, criticizing constructively is appropriate. In other situations, however, feedback might not be helpful. By asking yourself if your feedback will have a positive influence upon their life, you can estimate whether or not criticism is appropriate. If this is not the case, you risk hurting the other person. If they cannot use your feedback for improvement, it’s best to avoid criticism.
5. Remain neutral – keep your emotions out
If you do want to give feedback in a constructive and helpful way, it’s important to not allow your emotions to guide you. Especially when it comes to private matters, emotions may kick in. However, all they do is cloud your perception. When this happens, you risk attacking them on a personal level. If you criticize while you are angry, you will accomplish nothing. Instead of considering what you’ve said, they will become defensive, built up resistance or defend themselves. Positive change, however, cannot be affected from this kind of criticism.
Instead, try to remain calm. It is important to offer constructive criticism in a non-threatening way. But in case you’re not able to keep your emotions under control, it’s best to discuss the issue at a later time.
6. Focus on the behavior, not the person
When giving constructive criticism, try not to focus on the person, but instead on the situation at hand. Refer to their behavior, not to their character traits. Make sure that the criticism is not personal. If you criticize character traits, it’s very likely that you offend or hurt the other person. The same holds true for appearances, heritages and anything else they cannot do much about.
If, however, you want to provide constructive criticism on a rather personal subject, separate the person from their behavior and/or the situation. It’s very helpful to focus on the underlying issue, not the individual itself.
Example: Giving constructive criticism about a person’s character trait
- Wrong: Rather than say, “You always show up late. Your unpunctuality is irresponsible. It’s impossible to meet with you,” which can be seen as a personal attack, try this:
- Better: “I’ve noticed that you are not always punctual. It’s often causing me great trouble when I have to wait for you. Plus, I feel like being not important to you.” Doing so will help you to let them know that their behavior has a negative effect upon you.
Here’s the strategy behind this tactic:
- Detach behavior/situation from the person. Leave the person and their character traits out of the criticism.
- Address the issue, not the person. There’s a big difference between saying, “You’re lazy” and “It seems you have problems finding the right motivation.”
- Leave out nasty remarks. Do not attack them on a personal level.
- Don’t be judgmental. Describe how you experienced the situation.
- Share your feelings. It’s quite powerful to show someone how their negative behavior influences you. Show how it affects you, how it makes you feel.
Let’s focus on the next point on how to give constructive criticism.
7. Provide helpful feedback
It is important that you make sure that your feedback is helpful. Constructive criticism is centered all around affecting positive change. Try to give meaningful advice, instead of simply giving friendly, but unhelpful advice. Always position yourself in the shoes of the person you criticize. Think if what you have to offer would actually help you, if you were them.
People are more likely to act upon constructive criticism if it’s timely, specific, clear, detailed and actionable. This was shown by various authors such as Hackman and Oldman in their book Work Redesign. So let’s focus on the reasons why it’s so important to be specific when criticizing constructively:
8. Be specific
Instead of providing general or even abstract criticism, try to be as specific as possible. Focus your feedback on particular behaviors or particular situations. Doing so will help the person you criticize better understand what it is that you’re criticizing. Your feedback will also prove to be a lot more actionable when it’s specific. After all, it’s always easier to address one particular problem than an abstract issue.
Example: Giving unspecific versus specific feedback
- Unspecific: “I don’t like your concept study. Do it all over again.”
- Specific: “Your concept study is a great fundament you can build upon. But, we need to fine-tune it to increase its prospective success. At the moment, it lacks actionable steps. The description needs to be more detailed so that engineers know what to do with it. Please include actionable steps and a more detailed description to the concept study.”
In order to give specific feedback, keep this in mind:
- Focus on a particular situation
- Reference specific criteria
- Identify the main issues
- Give specific examples
- Include actionable steps
- Summarize if necessary
9. Assess whom you’re criticizing
When you’re criticizing someone, it’s quite important to know what kind of person they are. How a person handles criticism largely depends on their character. Everyone reacts differently to criticism. Some have a really difficult time with any kind of critique. Others may think more positively about criticism. In the ideal case, they see it as a necessary aid for growth. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.
For this reason, before you criticize someone, try to assess who they are. Based upon this assessment, you can adapt the communication of your feedback.
The way people respond to criticism can be categorized by these four dimensions:
- Internalization. People who superficially take criticism really well, but respond to the criticism by putting themselves down or punishing themselves.
- Self-conviction. People who take criticism personally. Instead of blaming themselves, however, they seek to blame others. You can expect challenges and arguments from this personality type.
- Defense. While this type reacts to negative feedback, they will do it in a somewhat defensive manner. Most likely, they believe your criticism is unwarranted. Still, they are able to live with it most of the time.
- Feedback-seeking. The feedback seeker actively seeks to understand the reasons for the critique. They want to understand your criticism and what they can do about it.
Give defensive people some time to think about what you said. Provide rational arguments and plain facts.
10. Assess your relationship
The relationship with another person will largely determine how they react to your constructive criticism. If you’re quite distant with someone, it may be more difficult to communicate your criticism in a constructive manner.
Research has shown that people have difficulties to trust critics if they do not know them very well. For this reason, the scientists suggested to include evidence, solutions and a summary of the performance to increase the understanding of feedback. This also helps to increase perceived legitimacy of your criticism.
11. Follow up on your criticism
It can be quite helpful to give others the necessary time to think about your feedback. At the same time, it’s also important to follow up with the person you criticize. Doing so can be quite beneficial to see how the person thinks about your feedback. It can help you to see if they were willing to accept it and act upon it. In these subsequent conversations you can discuss how further improvements can be made.
While following up, it’s important to praise positive developments. This will show the other person that you are interested in their progress. It will also keep them motivated to keep making improvements.
I hope you enjoyed this article on how to give constructive criticism.