How to Criticize Constructively

How to Criticize Constructively

There’s an art to giving critical feedback that encourages someone to improve, rather than hurting his or her self esteem. Constructive criticism should be positive in tone with a focus on a clear, achievable objective. It’s also important to choose a thoughtful time and place to deliver the critique, since any type of criticism can be hard to take in front of others. Read on to learn more about how to give effective constructive criticism.

Part 1 of 3: Using a Positive Approach

1. Have good intentions. Your reason for critiquing someone’s work or behavior is going to affect that way you deliver feedback. If you have an ulterior motive outside just wanting to help the person improve, that could come across as overly negative. Reflect on whether you are the right person to give constructive criticism to the person in question, and whether the criticism you intend to impart will actually be productive.

  • Many people decide it’s OK to criticize someone else “for their own good,” but in some cases the criticism can be more harmful than helpful. For example, if you have a friend who has gained a lot of weight since you last saw each other, telling her that she should lose weight for the sake of her health probably won’t fall on receptive ears.
  • If you are in a position of authority or someone has explicitly asked you for feedback, it’s fine to give constructive criticism. For example, if you run a business and it’s time for your quarterly check-in with employees, you’ll need to be ready to discuss ways the employee can improve.


2. Ease your way in. The way you present the topic at hand can have a huge effect on how it is received. Couching the criticism in gentle terms is a good way to get your point across without sounding too blunt or harsh. Here are some examples of words you can use to ease your way into giving the critical feedback:

  • You may want to consider changing your approach here.
  • I noticed these numbers have slipped. Could you tell me why?
  • Good effort, but I see a few areas that have room for improvement.


3. Don’t get emotional. If you’re giving feedback on a personal matter, you may feel emotional during the conversation. If possible, remove emotion from the situation and attempt to be as objective as possible. If you appear angry or upset, your body language and tone of voice could cause the other person to become defensive and less likely to take your criticism into consideration.

  • As an example, instead of saying, Your behavior is making me crazy. You’re not being a good boyfriend. Say something more objective, like this: I know your schedule has been full this week and it has been hard to find time to keep up with your share of the housework. I’d like to talk about it and come up with a good solution.


4. Choose the right time and place. Even if you have the best of intentions and only want to help someone improve, giving critical feedback in front of other people is almost never a good idea. No one wants to be told they’ve done something wrong in public. That leads to embarrassment and humiliation, which are the exact emotions you’re trying to avoid by being constructive. Plan ahead and find a private place to talk. Make sure you have plenty of time for a full conversation so it doesn’t get cut short.

  • The environment where you talk should feel neutral and pleasant. If you’re speaking with a loved one, it might help to get out of the house and take a walk together, or go for a drive to a place you both like.
  • If you’re speaking with a colleague or student, meet in a conference room or another neutral space where you can close the door and get some privacy.


5. Think carefully about critiquing someone’s personal traits. Never give unsolicited criticism on someone’s looks or personality; it’s almost guaranteed to cause hurt feelings. If someone explicitly asks you what you think about his or clothing choices or new hairstyle, it’s still important to tread lightly. Stick to matters they have the ability to change, and avoid saying something negative about inherent traits they can’t do much to alter.

  • Let’s say your sister asks you how you think she can improve her cooking. This could be a touchy subject, so be sure to say something positive before you give the criticism. Try something like, I love the way you make pancakes! You could try cooking your eggs for a minute or two longer, that works for me when I want them to firm up.


6. Try the feedback sandwich method. This method is often used by companies to keep up employee morale while also helping people improve, but it’s a good method to keep in mind no matter what your relationship with the person you are critiquing may be. Start the conversation with a compliment, bring up the criticism, then mention something else that’s positive. Hearing critical feedback sandwiched between positive statements makes the medicine go down much easier.

  • Here’s an example of an effective feedback sandwich: Cathy, this piece is exceptionally well organized and easy to read. I’d like to see you flesh out the section on metalworking to include more examples of what not to do. I really appreciate the great list of resources you provided at the end.”


7. Smile and use warm body language. Let the other person know that you are empathetic. This will help the person feel more at ease, and let them know you’ve been there, too.


Part 2 of 3: Focusing on a Goal

1. Be honest. The point is to actually help the person get better, so chickening out and glossing over the truth isn’t going to serve either of you. Now that you know how to approach the situation in a positive way, it’s OK to go ahead and tell the truth as you see it. Be prepared to back off a bit if you see a hurt look on the person’s face.


2. Be specific. Giving vague feedback isn’t very helpful, especially in a work or school setting. It leaves the person feeling confused about how to better meet your expectations. It’s much better to give specific, concrete feedback so that the person knows exactly what changes to make.

  • Instead of saying, You tried hard on this project, but it’s incomplete.” Say something like, “I see that you made a good effort to track down the best restaurants in town for the newspaper’s writeup. The list is complete, but the descriptions of the restaurants need to be more thorough. Please expand this with information on what type of food each restaurant serves, their signature dishes, and where they are located.


3. Focus on the future. There’s no point in dwelling on something that has already happened and can’t be changed. You can up past mistakes when they are relevant, but be sure to direct the majority of the conversation to goals that can be met in the days or weeks to come.


4. Don’t say too much at once. You don’t want to overwhelm the person with too much information. Even if your criticism is couched in positive terms, it will begin to sound like you have a laundry list of issues you want the person to address, and eventually the tone of the conversation will feel negative. Limit your critique to a discussion of a few actionable items. If you have more to address, bring it up in a different conversation.

5. Encourage the person to come up with solutions. In some cases it might be more appropriate to let the person come up with his or her own solutions, rather than giving your own opinion on what should happen. Once you’ve stated your critique, ask the person how he or she thinks it should be handled. Engaging the person’s ideas for improving can help the conversation feel more positive an productive.


Part 3 of 3: Following Up

1. End on a positive note. Don’t let the conversation end right after your deliver your critique. Say a few kind words, then change the subject to something else entirely. Don’t worry about whether the person will remember the critique – no one ever forgets a criticism they’ve received. If you end on a sour note, your future attempts to provide constructive criticism will not be welcome.


2. Talk about progress next time you meet. Subsequent conversations about the issues you critiqued should focus on progress the person has made. Discuss what concrete steps the person has taken toward the goals you laid out and praise improvements he or she has made. If further changes are necessary, it’s fine to bring those up, too.


3. Know when to stop critiquing. After you’ve given constructive criticism on a particular topic once or twice, you’ve probably said enough. Harping on the same issue over and over isn’t going to be productive, and could lead to negative feelings on the part of the person you are critiquing. Pick up on cues that the person has had enough, and don’t say more until you are asked for your opinion.

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