Practical Tips to Help You Give (And Receive) Constructive Criticism
Years ago, I sat in on a university art class that my husband was taking at the time.
It happened to be one of those days when everyone would present their artwork and everyone else took turns expressing their opinions on the piece. “Critique”—I believe—was the name of the exercise.
Not long after the exercise started, I turned to my husband and whispered: “Is everyone always this mean?”
“What do you mean?” He replied with a puzzled look on his face. “They’re just giving honest feedback and helpful suggestions to make the artwork better. Everyone knows this is all part of the process to help them grow as artists.” He explained.
I looked around the room and sure enough, nobody seemed to be bothered by the critical remarks that were flowing freely within the room. They weren’t NASTY, don’t get me wrong. No one crossed the line into barbaric rudeness, but no one sugarcoated their words with flattery either. Truth be told, I expected maybe a few tears, a frown here or there, or at least an exasperated sigh of annoyance. But there was nothing. Nada. Zilch.
The experience left a profound impression on me. While it made perfect sense from a personal growth perspective, I still wondered: “How are these people able to handle giving and receiving criticism—something most of us would avoid like the plague—so well?”
Their first “secret”, as I would later learn in my quest to become better at giving and accepting criticism myself, is knowing the difference between constructive and destructive criticism.
Constructive Criticism Vs. Destructive Criticism
Criticism—whether you’re on the giving or receiving end of it—doesn’t have to be this awkward, tense, or frustrating experience that many of us believe it would be. The key is to understand the difference between constructive criticism and destructive criticism.
Because once you understand the difference, you’ll be able to do the following:
- give constructive criticism to others without feeling like you’re “attacking” them;
- recognize when others are giving you constructive criticism and accept it graciously; and
- deflect destructive criticism and not take them personally.
Here’s what constructive criticism looks like:
- Specific. It points to a focused area where one needs to improve and offers evidence for the need to improve with examples.
- Actionable. It points to something that can be worked on—for example, a skill.
- Meaningful. It points to something that, with improvement, will help inspire valuable growth and benefit one’s life in a meaningful way.
- Helpful. It offers concrete suggestions on how one can improve.
And on the other hand, here’s what destructive criticism looks like:
- Vague. It’s all over the place and offers no specific examples to justify why one needs to improve. It also lacks any useful suggestions on how one might improve.
- Disrespectful. The words and the tone are unnecessarily sharp, or the message is being delivered in a thoughtless manner.
- Frivolous. It points to something so insignificant or meaningless that there would be no value in making a change.
- Selfish. Its intention is not on helping someone grow, but to highlight the giver’s own self-importance or superiority.
Now that you know what constructive criticism looks like, let’s look at some specific things you can do to be able to give—as well as receive—this type of criticism with grace.
How to Give Constructive Criticism: 4 Key Things to Remember
1. Be Mindful of the Time and Place
My friend Lily told me about a time when she gave a piece of constructive criticism to a coworker and it completely backfired on her.
“She became super defensive and gave me the cold shoulder for weeks, and over such a small thing!” Lily said, getting all exasperated. “All I said to her was I thought she needed to spellcheck her work more closely.”
Lily was right, the constructive criticism she gave to her coworker was—in the grand scheme of things—no big deal. So why did her coworker react so negatively?
It had everything to do with where and when Lily said it.
First of all, it was in a meeting with several other employees from various departments. The meeting had dragged on longer than everyone expected and they were all starting to get a little antsy.
Lily told me this coworker was noticeably more quiet on that day than usual, but Lily didn’t think much of it. Towards the end of the meeting, Lily told her, in front of everyone, that she had picked up several spelling mistakes from the coworker’s report and politely suggested that she should spend more time spellchecking her work.
The coworker then raised her voice and said: “Do you know how many projects I’m juggling right now? I haven’t slept much in two weeks so cut me a little slack!” Lily quickly apologized to the person and that was that.
Although Lily had good intentions and her words and tone were all very polite, she failed to assess the situation before delivering her constructive criticism.
By pointing out the coworker’s mistake in front of others, at a time when she was clearly tired and losing patience, Lily triggered a massive reaction from the coworker. Had she approached the coworker privately after the meeting, asked her if she was alright first, and then offered her suggestion for improvement, she would have likely gotten a very different response.
Lily’s story reminds us that there’s a time and a place for everything—including constructive criticism. Besides paying attention to what we say and how we say it, we have to be mindful of the where and the when.
2. It’s a Two-Way Conversation, So Ask Questions
You ever notice how most people seem to instinctively put their guard up when you give them any kind of criticism, even when it’s the constructive kind? It’s human nature to want to deny or make excuses for our flaws.
But there are things you can do to get past people’s defense mechanisms, and one of them is this:
When you ask questions, you not only show the person that you truly care about them as a human being, but you also get that person engaged in the feedback process. And this in turn, will improve their learning and growth.
For example, instead of telling someone where they made a mistake, ask them where they think they could have done better. Instead of giving them all your suggestions, ask them if they have any thoughts on how they can improve. And instead of saying you “just want to help them”, ask them how you can support them in making the change.
Remember, in order for constructive criticism to be effective, it has to be a two-way conversation. You have to first open up the dialogue in order to open someone’s mind and heart.
3. Use Real-Life Stories
Here’s something else you can do to make people feel less defensive when you’re giving them constructive criticism:
Use real-life stories in your message.
For example, you can share a story from your own life when you experienced the same problem or made the same mistake. What lessons did you learn? What changes did you make? And how did you benefit from these changes?
If there’s nothing even remotely similar in the vault of your own experiences to draw upon, share a story of a person you know—a neighbour, a friend, or someone in your family (without using their real names of course). You could even use something you’ve heard on the news or the experience of a well-known public figure.
Why is this effective?
When you use real-life examples in your constructive criticism, you will not only make your message more interesting and thus more memorable, but you will also make yourself more “relatable”. And if you’re “relatable”, your words will carry more weight. It’s an undeniable fact that we’re more willing to trust and listen to the people we like and can find similarities to.
So if you want to help someone make a real change, give them real-life stories—ideally from your own life—that they can resonate with.
4. Show Them the Benefit of Changing
Last but not least, remember that the goal of your constructive criticism is to encourage someone to make a change—whether it’s a change in their attitude, their ways of thinking, their routine, or their behaviour.
But in order to get them to accept your constructive criticism and want this change, you have to show them the benefit of changing. How would this change benefit them both today and years from now? Why does it matter? And on the other hand, what could happen if they don’t make the change?
I learned this technique from my day job working as a human resource professional where I must communicate constructive criticism and the need to change on a regular basis.
Does it work for everybody? No. Some people will refuse to change no matter what and you just have to accept that. But for a lot of people, showing them what’s in it for them will help make your constructive criticism more persuasive and motivating.
Next time you have to give someone constructive criticism, remember to try these 4 tips. But what if you’re on the receiving end? In the next section, we’ll take a look at how we can accept and make use of constructive criticism.
How to Accept Constructive Criticism: 4 Tips to Help You Accept and Learn From Constructive Feedback
1. Become Aware of Your Defensive Reactions
It’s human nature to become defensive when someone points out our flaws—it’s an instinctual response to perceived danger, like putting up a shield when we see someone wielding a sword.
But defensiveness is the biggest and toughest barrier to our own learning and improvement. In order to truly grow as a person, we have to overcome the fear of “being attacked” and open ourselves to constructive criticism.
And in order to do that, we have to become aware of our own defensive reactions first. All change starts with awareness.
Here are some signs of defensiveness:
- You frequently interrupt the person who’s giving you feedback.
- You feel an intense urge to explain and justify your decisions or actions.
- You feel you have no control over or responsibility for the flaw/mistake that the person pointed out.
- You feel anxious, annoyed, frustrated, or angry for getting the feedback, even though the person was not being rude or malicious.
- You’re eager to point out the person’s flaws and mistakes because you feel they’re not perfect either.
Next time you’re receiving constructive criticism, take some deep breaths and monitor yourself for these signs of defensiveness. And when you catch yourself getting defensive, remind yourself that there is no real danger. Constructive criticism may sting a little (or a lot), but it isn’t going to kill you. In fact, you need a dose of it every now and then—just like a flower needs both the sunshine and the rain in order to bloom.
2. Clarify for Understanding
The fastest way for a conversation to fall off the rails is when one or both parties start to make assumptions about the other person. This happens often during a conversation where one person is giving constructive criticism to the other.
And more often than not, the assumptions are pretty negative.
She’s trying to undermine me.
He thinks I’m stupid.
She said this, but she really meant to say that.
Then tension escalates. Words and emotions tangle together to create more confusion. Now it really feels like we’re under siege. When the conversation’s over, we leave with little useful information and a lot of hurt feelings.
So if you’re on the receiving end of constructive criticism, stop yourself before you make any assumptions. Don’t try to guess what the other person is trying to say and why they’re saying it—ask for clarification.
And here’s how you can clarify a message for better understanding:
- Repeat what the person just said, then tell them how you’re interpreting that message.
- Ask them to confirm if you’re understanding their message correctly.
And then just listen.
3. Say Thank You and Reflect
Hey I get it, when you first receive a piece of constructive criticism, it can feel overwhelming. It’s okay to feel caught off guard, unsure of what to do, or perhaps even a little lost for speech.
The good news is you don’t have to respond right away to constructive criticism. If the person giving you the feedback is truly interested in your personal growth, they’ll understand that you need time to digest the information in order to make good use of it.
Thank the person for taking the time and effort to give you constructive criticism, let them know you need some time to think and that you will follow up with them if you have any questions about what they just told you.
Make some mental notes on the key points of their message or better yet, write them down. Then actually spend some time reflecting on these points.
Self-reflection is a humbling process. It’s essential to find out why you think, say, and do certain things – then better yourself.
4. Get a Second (Honest) Opinion
When we refuse to take responsibility for a mistake or insist that a flaw doesn’t exist, we miss a vital opportunity for self-improvement. But the sad reality is, it’s all too easy for us to fall into denial.
This is where a second opinion from a neutral third party—not your mom, not your best friend who adores you, but someone who knows you well enough to give you an opinion on the matter and yet isn’t afraid to tell you the truth—will be beneficial. A second (honest) opinion can confirm exactly where you need to improve, provide more insight into how you can make those improvements, and give you a little “push” to start moving.
For example, for the longest time, I refused to believe that I had an issue controlling my temper in a relationship. I blamed it on my partner pushing my buttons, stress at work, hunger (ever heard of “hangry”?), lack of sleep, PMS—basically everything but myself for my anger.
When my husband told me I needed to work on this aspect of myself, a big part of me didn’t believe I was the one who needed to change.
Then I got my second honest opinion from a therapist I was seeing. It was a wake-up call. I took her suggestions and started working on how to recognize and diffuse my anger triggers, and how to communicate assertively while remaining calm in a relationship. I’m glad I got a second opinion that knocked me out of denial—because now I’m a better partner, and a better person because of it.
And that’s it for my tips on how to give—and receive—constructive criticism. Before you go, I want to know: when was the last time you received constructive criticism? And what did you learn from it? Let me know by leaving a comment below!