How to best give and receive constructive criticism? It can be tough for both ends. Read this guide for details.
Constructive criticism is more than a buzzword – it’s an unbelievably important interpersonal skill, whether professionally or between friends, or even in parenting. We all need to learn how better to give and receive critique and apply it on an everyday basis.
Let’s figure out how to properly approach and apply constructive criticism when we’re in the unenviable position of giving or receiving it.
Defining Constructive Criticism
The difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism is that the former is the feedback that the recipient can work with to improve, while the latter is more or less an insult. Criticism meant to demean and take down someone’s work should never be levied on a professional level, as its only real purpose is to make someone brutally aware of their shortcomings.
What sets constructive criticism apart from its more destructive sibling is that it is information-rich, detailed, and specifically packaged to convey your comments, suggestions, and concerns with the subject of critique.
Let’s take a simple example – a broth. If a broth tastes bland, a destructive criticism would be to call the cook a terrible cook and ridicule the broth. It is a critique, although brutish and mean.
Constructive criticism would involve explaining what you feel the broth needs. Perhaps more salt would help. Perhaps the bones were taken out too early, and not enough of the marrow could give its flavor. Perhaps there are certain herbs that you know work best with this type of broth, such as a touch of saffron, or some dried peppercorn.
It’s the same in any romantic, platonic, or professional relationship. Constructive criticism is helpful because it allows us to address our concerns and problems without insulting the other person. But just as it’s important to know how to give good constructive criticism, it’s equally important to know how to receive it – especially if you’re not very thick-skinned by nature.
Giving Constructive Criticism
The first step to giving good constructive criticism is to take your time. You don’t want to say the first thing that pops into your head. You may reconsider given a little time, and figure that your first reaction might be too harsh or overblown.
It’s also important to imagine yourself in the recipient’s position. How would you react if you received criticism structured the way you plan to deliver it?
Take your time to create a good critique, and consider the following points:
1. Be Direct and Informative
Information is at the heart of any good criticism. If you do not have clear suggestions on what to improve, or even better, how to improve it, then you may be better off not levying a critique to begin with.
Rather than start with your disappointments and work from there, think of whatever you’re critiquing as something with the potential to be good, and consider what’s missing for it to fulfill that potential.
The broth example is a solid analogy, but there are plenty of good examples relevant to everyday business. If an employee is underperforming, you can bring their performance to their attention and point out ways they might be able to improve. If it’s a tardiness issue, maybe a different schedule would work best to help accommodate their current home life issues, and help them be more productive and present.
If it’s the quality of their work on the latest project, be sure to prepare exact examples of what you were unhappy with, and what kind of a direction you would like them to move in next. Don’t be vague. Don’t use subjective terms, like “just make it better”. Unless it’s a clear metric – like not making the same mistake or operating equipment as described – it’s important to realize that their idea of better might not match yours. Be specific.
2. Keep Things Impersonal
Criticism can quickly devolve into ad hominem. People take their work seriously, and they will often take feedback to heart, especially if it’s coming from a boss or mentor. Be particular about your language when you critique a coworker or employee.
You can easily shatter their confidence with the wrong phrasing or slip of the tongue. While there’s nothing wrong with pointing out that someone still has much to learn, it’s another thing to subtly imply that they might never learn, for example.
3. Use a Tone of Genuine Concern and Helpfulness
Tone matters too. Repeat your words to yourself if you have the time to, and consider how you might feel on the receiving end.
Does it feel like your tone is condescending and fed up? Is it irritable and tired? Or is it friendly and concerned? Is it a helpful tone? There’s a fine line between helpful and condescending, but most people can tell the difference as soon as they hear it, especially when receiving criticism. Be careful to avoid such a misunderstanding.
4. Receiving Constructive Criticism
When receiving constructive criticism, the best advice is to remember that the quality of what you’re doing does not always speak to the quality of you as a person. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and there are times when we mistake a weakness for a strength or are surprised to discover a previously unknown talent.
Do not assume that mistakes mean you are incapable of learning, or that your work should always define your self-worth. It’s good to be confident in the quality of what you do, but take critique to heart as ways to improve that quality even further. Don’t take it personally. Especially when the person levying the criticism is being blunt. Take from the critique what matters, and leave the rest outside.
5. Stay Calm
Remaining calm is the first and most important lesson. If you begin to panic or focus on any given point of critique, you may miss the rest of what they have to say. It becomes difficult to absorb information when we begin to grow anxious.
Take deep breaths, focus on the information given, and try to ignore anything that might get under your skin. It’s especially important to stop yourself from listening to your first reaction and immediate emotions when asked to respond to criticism. Stay calm, breathe, and think about what you should say.
6. Get Things Straight
It’s important to clarify what is wanted or needed from the critique overall. Take notes, if you’d like. Ask questions, crucially.
Be sure that you’ve understood the criticism, and summarize what improvements you’ve taken to heart from this conversation. You and the person doing the critiquing are ultimately communicating in order to achieve an equal playing field of understanding.
Focus on the Benefits of Constructive Criticism
Remember, don’t let it get under your skin. Criticism exists to make something better in a collaborative effort, on behalf of both parties. When listening to criticism, understand that the person sitting opposite to you wants you to do better, and is trusting you that you can do better. Listening to what they have to say, and putting the constructive elements to work means being a more valuable employee or co-worker.
Let’s not mince words. Critique doesn’t feel good, and for most people, being on either the receiving or giving end of it is unpleasant, especially if you like the other person. On the other hand, giving good critique is also very difficult.
But it’s necessary. We can’t go on ignoring problems between each other. In friendships, that kind of behavior can result in a toxic breakup between two people who, with a little more communication, might’ve had a lifelong bond. In business, it can mean catastrophic failure. Learn how to give and receive constructive criticism, and become a better businessperson or employee.