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How to Offer Constructive Criticism

women discussing constructive criticism

By J Cangialosi, LCPC, Therapist, Relief Mental Health in Oak Brook, Ill.

Giving people honest feedback can be tough – especially when that feedback isn’t all positive. Let’s be honest: no one likes making mistakes, no one likes being criticized, and no one likes to hear they could have done better at something. However, making mistakes, or what I like to call “missing the mark” is part of being human. That’s how we learn. Another part of being human is holding other people accountable when they miss the mark, to help them learn. In some cases, that’s our job. Teachers, managers, bosses, critics, and others spend a great deal of their time giving feedback.

As tough as it is to give and receive, honest feedback – whether it’s outright praise or constructive criticism – is an essential feature of being an active, engaged adult living in the world today. Honest, direct feedback is important because:

  • It helps us adjust our behavior. If we’re going off course, we need to know, so we can change course.
  • It helps others understand their role and your expectations. If you’re unsatisfied or unhappy with someone and you don’t tell them, your continued unhappiness and dissatisfaction – and their continued subpar/unwanted behavior – becomes not only your problem, but also your responsibility. By not saying anything about it, you offer what’s called tacit approval.

In addition, honest feedback is important because you need it in a variety of situations: at work, in relationships, and at play.

At work, employees need honest feedback so they can meet their job expectations, and managers/bosses need to give honest feedback so their employees know what to do and how. In relationships, feedback is necessary to keep emotions from building up until they cause problems. At play, honest feedback is important because it keeps everyone on the same page. Whether you’re playing tennis, checkers, or music, being open and honest keeps everyone focused on the primary goal: having fun doing a shared activity.

How to Give Difficult Feedback/Constructive Criticism

Word to the wise: think before you speak. Constructive criticism and honest, difficult feedback means you offer truthful observations on concrete events and actions that happen in the real world. It’s not your chance to go off on someone or finally let ‘em have it. The goal is growth and forward progress for both parties, rather than emotional catharsis for the person giving the feedback.

Five Tips for the Tough Talk: Constructing Your Criticism

1. Ask for permission: trust first.

In a personal context, it’s important to ask for permission to give feedback. Unsolicited feedback is much less likely to be heeded. When you notice a friend or loved one is struggling and you feel you might have some helpful insight, first ask, “Can I give you some feedback?” This helps to increase feelings of empowerment and control for a person who may be feeling out of control in that moment.

2. Create buy in: share the “why”.

Provide reasons and examples to show why the feedback and information is important. If a person understands the inner workings of why they’re being asked to do something, they’re more likely to follow through. The goal of feedback is to help someone improve, or to improve a situation. When deeper context is given, there is a higher chance for favorable outcomes.

3. Choose your demeanor: attitude is everything.

Avoid defensiveness by adopting an approach of kindness and care for the person you’re speaking to. There must be a compelling reason to offer the feedback and the person receiving it must have an equally compelling reason for listening. Otherwise – why give it? Your energy and demeanor should match the level of importance of the feedback you give, and match the situation. For example – from something I mentioned above – the feedback you give a work peer on a million-dollar project should be framed and delivered much differently than the feedback you give your doubles partner on their backhand.

4. Stick to the facts: nothing personal.

Giving feedback should not be a personal attack. It’s important to focus on the facts. For example, “I’ve noticed your sales numbers this quarter are lower than last quarter,” is appropriate. While this might not be the best feedback to get, it states facts and it’s not personal. This reduces the emotions for both the giver and the receiver. Contrast this to something like, “You really dropped the ball this quarter – your sales numbers are terrible.” Which approach do you think would work best?

5. End on a positive: catch more flies with honey.

Letting the person know you care about them and believe in them is as important as the actual feedback itself. Saying, “You’re a skilled salesperson, I know you have it in you to raise your sales numbers,” is much more effective than saying, “it’s important you raise your sales numbers for next quarter.” And even better? Sandwich style, with positives as the two slices of bread, and the criticism as the contents. Like this: “You’re a skilled salesperson, I know you have it in you to raise your sales numbers because you were our top salesperson for three years.”

I cannot overstate the importance of soft people skills when giving difficult feedback/constructive criticism. Remember: most people get defensive when they get critical feedback. It’s hard to eliminate this completely, but if you look closely, all the tips above are about making sure the person can actually hear the feedback you give. If someone is in their emotions and feeling defensive and/or attacked, they won’t hear what you say.

However, if you create the right conditions – by setting up the scenario mindfully – you’ll get your point across, the person you’re talking to will hear what you have to say, and you can both move forward in an agreed upon, mutually beneficial direction.

Relief Mental Health

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