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I Don’t Know How to Put This: How to Give Constructive Criticism (With Examples!)

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I Don’t Know How to Put This: How to Give Constructive Criticism (With Examples!)
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I Don’t Know How to Put This: How to Give Constructive Criticism (With Examples!)

First dates certainly aren’t the only time you may find yourself stuttering, stammering and flustering for words. Providing constructive feedback in face-to-face conversations can be every bit as awkward, and the stakes are just as high.

Everyone has blind spots. It’s easy for someone to lead an unfocused meeting, to deliver a presentation that fails to mention key metrics, or to rub the client the wrong way through a lack of bedside manner. But it’s always hard to confront someone with criticism when it’s clear they’re making an earnest effort.

You’re looking for buy-in with constructive criticism. But depending on your choice of words, you may well receive the opposite. Poorly delivered criticism leads to discouragement, dug in heels and burnt bridges. The same problems keep occurring over and over again, and the organization suffers.

And so the approach to criticism and feedback is everything. Although you cannot control the outcome, by shaping the delivery of constructive criticism, you position the exchange for a fruitful outcome.

Let’s look into how to delicately thread the needle of providing feedback and criticism constructively, by going over things to say, mistakes to avoid and tricks for success with concrete everyday examples.

Image represents what is Constructive Feedback

What Is Constructive Feedback?

Constructive criticism, or feedback, is advice or critique regarding a person’s performance or behavior, with the express aim to improve. It generally includes specific, actionable suggestions.

It’s not censure, which simply berates another person. Nor is it simply encouragement, although generally it helps when constructive criticism is presented in an encouraging tone. Good feedback energizes the recipient. It’s enabling as it provides a clear and attainable means to improve.

However, the recipient may or may not choose to receive the criticism; how he responds is in his hands alone.

Constructive criticism is helpful for anyone. We all have blind spots in the way we interact with others and in our work performances. It’s easy to become fixated into a mindset, or fall into patterns of doing things a certain way, and fail to see the larger picture. Constructive feedback provides some perspective and evaluation to our actions. Sometimes it really pays to listen to this criticism during a dress rehearsal, trial run or first draft of a project. Because if it’s ignored, it may simply turn into censure or rejection in the final round.

Constructive criticism benefits the recipient because it provides clarity and insight she may not have gained on her own. Perhaps she has a personality trait that makes it difficult to collaborate in a team environment. When this is delicately pointed out to her by a third party, it opens the door to change.

Sometimes it takes a second set of eyes looking in on our work to point out the obvious that we fail to see. When we work hard on something there’s a tendency to become myopic and miss crucial details. A meeting, for example, that someone diligently plans may lack some key elements such as an agenda or parking lots.

Criticism opens the recipient to a whole new world. When received with an open mind, it creates an avenue for growth and improvement. Due to its great benefits, then, criticism oftentimes is solicited. This is referred to as “pull” feedback, as opposed to “push” feedback which is offered without request.

A workplace culture where constructive feedback is freely given, received and solicited sets a pattern of ongoing improvement in motion. Mistakes aren’t repeated; people don’t have to deal with the same problems over and over again. Work performances, overall, improve, and the culture reflects this. Incorporating this transparency into a workplace entails fostering an environment open to dialogue.

With all these benefits, constructive feedback certainly is a boon to any workplace and any individual. However, giving and receiving criticism in such a way that it improves behavior is a skill. And as it turns out, few seem to possess it. According to studies, only one out of every four employees in the workforce believes the feedback he or she receives is helpful.

Providing feedback successfully means deliberately doing certain things and avoiding others. Let’s first off take a look at some of the pitfalls and landmines to avoid when offering critical feedback.

Image represents How NOT Give Constructive Feedback

How NOT Give Constructive Feedback

Offering criticism and feedback is never easy. Criticism hurts our ego. A visceral response is to deny the criticism or become defensive. Offering it, then, can feel like a difficult confrontation. At the same time, however, it’s a necessary part of a functioning workplace. Ongoing performance or behavior issues affect everyone. When these things are pointed out, it opens the door to improvement.

However, if approached indelicately, offering criticism can lead to an opposite reaction. The person becomes discouraged, uncooperative, or nothing happens at all. The criticism may land with a little whimper, and in a worst case scenario, lead to burnt bridges.

In order to allow the feedback to be helpful and productive, let’s look over some things to avoid when delivering criticism.

1. Poor Body Language

As you’ve probably heard, non-verbal communication impacts an interaction almost as much as verbal communication. And a misstep in body language may well yield an ineffective exchange.

For example, sitting in an executive chair across from someone naturally generates an authoritative dynamic. The recipient is disposed to receive criticism like censure, and to reject it.

On the other extreme, a super casual setting can have an opposite but equally ineffective impact. If the criticism is delivered, say, on a comfy couch or during a walk in the park, the other person may not even realize they’ve received any criticism, and so have no intention to fix anything.

2. Personal Attacks

Criticism that doesn’t separate the person from the action comes across like a threat, and it causes people immediately to put up their defenses. This includes phrases that connect the recipient with the work. Here are two examples:

  • “The presentation wasn’t working for me, and your problem is that you’re a rambler.”
  • “You’re a forgetful person and it’s becoming an issue.”

Although it’s easy for phrases like this to slip out of our mouths, these poorly chosen words are received like a shot through the heart. Rather than looking to improve behavior, people instead start questioning their self worth and lashing out at the person who gave the criticism.

3. The Pep Talk

Erring on the other extreme is the pep talk. This is sheer encouragement that glosses over any mention of self improvement. Here’s an example:

  • “You have the potential and the drive. Now just take the first step and everything’s going to work out fine.”

And while an “Ah, you’re so great” session might bolster somebody’s ego, it probably isn’t going to bring about any desired changes.

4. Vague Critique

Criticism is ineffective when it’s too general or broad-sweeping. This includes things like “blur words,” which are phrases that sound effective, but that can mean different things to different people.

“You could be more proactive,” is a good example of vague, blurry criticism. It could mean so many different things. The giver and the recipient might have entirely different interpretations of this statement.

Other examples of vague criticism include:

  • “Your presentation could really use some work.”
  • “This piece of writing needs a major revision.”
  • “This meeting just went on and on.”
  • “This just isn’t doing it for me.”

This form of criticism is so general that it’s completely useless. It doesn’t pinpoint the problem, and so the receipt has no idea what to fix or how to go about it. Nor does it indicate how the issue impacts the situation. Like a light dusting of snow, it lands but then melts quickly away and nothing really happens.

5. Carrot and Stick

A “carrot and stick” looks to bribery and punishment to bring about desired changes in behavior.

Here are two examples:

  • “Look, this wasn’t done right and if this keeps happening, there will be consequences.”
  • “Everyone who improves their production time receives a free pizza.”

Although this method may well bring about a change in behavior, it’s a coercive approach. Constructive criticism aims to empower the other person, and motivate them to change for the sake of growth, personal improvement, and a betterment of the organization.

6. Softballs and Soft Lobs

When criticism is presented between too many cushions and pillows, the recipient may not realize there’s any criticism at all.

Here’s an example:

  • “You know, your event was so great. I felt like everyone was participating. Maybe it lagged somewhat in the middle, but overall it was great.”

This criticism is presented between so many compliments that the person may not realize there’s anything to improve upon. Rather than sound like something that needs improvement, the flaw sounds more like a minor incident that doesn’t merit much attention nor have much impact.

Poorly delivered criticism can err on various extremes, but all of it ultimately leads to zero improvements in performance or behavior. In worst case scenarios, it can lead to damaged relationships and friction. Now let’s get into how to take an effective approach to criticism.

Image represents how to give Constructive Feedback

How to Give Constructive Criticism

From the set up to the delivery, giving constructive feedback is best when approached as a method. This yields positive results and changes in behavior while maintaining a sense of camaraderie and support between individuals.

Setting Things Up

The first step with constructive criticism is to clarify what you’re hoping to achieve. Is it a more punctual employee, shorter meetings, a more skilled workforce or more synergy within the team? Identifying the objective, and the impact of NOT receiving the objective, creates clarity in the delivery of criticism.

Criticism is received better within relationships where there’s a lot of rapport. Rapport isn’t just about being friendly, but more about breaking down barriers and establishing fluid communication. It compels people to act out of freedom, rather than compulsion, guilt or fear. Here are three components to building an environment that’s conducive to providing constructive criticism.

1. Solicit Consent

Criticism that comes out of left field can leave someone in a state of shock. Giving someone a heads up that feedback is on the horizon makes for a softer landing.

A simple question or email that says something like “Do you have a few minutes to talk about this?” allows people to anticipate the criticism. Going further and soliciting consent gives people a sense of autonomy over the situation. In essence, they’re buying into listening to the feedback.

2. Find a Good Time

Criticism is difficult to accept, so it’s always a good idea to find a time where the person isn’t caught up in a major life event or stressful work obligations.

Providing the feedback, rather, during a time when the person is calm and unoccupied increases his receptivity and openness to growth and a change.

3. Set the Tone

Delivering constructive criticism is a conversation. The initial communication sets the tone and the parameters of the exchange.

A simple statement like, “The presentation was great; I’d like to offer a few suggestions on the slides” serves to clarify what the conversation will consist of. It’s also friendly and distances the work from the individual.

An invitation for criticism might go something like, “Concrete suggestions on the meeting’s agenda and the icebreaker would be so useful. I’d return the favor.” Again, it’s specific and conciliatory and sets a good tone for a future exchange.

4. Use an Appropriate Setting & Supportive Body Language

Feedback is best received when the other person is at ease. You’ll only have a small window to create the desired effect, and so putting thought and strategy into body language and atmosphere can make a huge difference.

For example, sitting across from someone communicates power, and might not be a conducive arrangement. Sitting alongside someone, however, communicates a sense of companionship and support.

The setting has an impact on the exchange as well. As discussed, a walk in the park on a sunny day might not deliver the necessary impact, while a windowless room and an executive chair errs on the other extreme. The “just right” setting puts the person at ease but also maintains a professional atmosphere.

Image represents Examples of Constructive Feedback

Constructive Criticism Guidelines–With Examples

Now that we’ve looked at how to set up the scene for delivering criticism, let’s look over some guidelines over how to deliver it.

1. Take Out the Personal

Conflating the person with the work or behavior is the fastest way to fail at delivering constructive criticism. It puts people on the defensive and into attack mode. Separating the person from the work, rather, disarms people and establishes objectivity.

Here is an example to demonstrate the point:

  • A personal statement such as “You really rambled for too long in the presentation” instead might become something like, “The second part of the presentation might have been shorter; the lengthy details became tedious and it lost people’s attention.”

Shaping the criticism in third person, rather than second person (taking out the “you” language) isolates the issue and creates space to discuss it.

2. Be Precise

Constructive criticism identifies the “what” and the “how” of the issue. It highlights the problem with concrete details, and then provides a possible solution.

Here are a few examples:

  • “The meeting had low energy” might become something more like, “It seemed that the participation and input from the participants could have been higher. One way to generate some enthusiasm and energy is to start the meeting off with an icebreaker.”
  • In the evaluation of something like a scope or requirements document, a statement such as, “This report needs more coherency” might instead become something more like, “It was difficult to identify the purpose of several sections. Maybe including a table of contents and key takeaways at the beginning of each section would help to clear things up and make it an easier read.”
  • A statement such as, “You aren’t reliable” could become something more like, “You said you’d finish the report yesterday and I still haven’t received it.”

Precision in feedback shows a path forward, and the recipient is more likely to take action.

3. Lace With Empathy

Empathy is key to generating receptivity to criticism. Empathy that fosters rapport goes beyond a simple “this was rough I know” and really appreciates where the person is coming from. Maybe this was the person’s first presentation, and you know she gave it her all, or it’s an event she’s worked on tirelessly for weeks. Bring this perspective into the criticism.

Here is an example:

  • “The party didn’t have enough food, and the drinks were warm” might become something more like, “We all really appreciate the hard work you put into this. I know it’s a lot to put something like this together. Maybe the next time around you might consider delegating out some of the tasks to make sure everything is covered.”

People feel supported when feedback includes empathy and it softens the challenge of receiving critique.

4. Include an Impact Statement 

People are receptive to criticism when they understand the “why” behind it. An impact statement drives home the practicality of the criticism. Without clarifying the impact, criticism may come across as irrelevant or authoritative.

Here are some examples:

  • “Because I didn’t get the pdf report this morning, I didn’t have anything to present to the client.”
  • “When your section of the presentation went over, we had to bump the last part of the meeting.”
  • “When you arrive late it keeps the client waiting; that’s not the professional impression we want to send.

When working in union, these pointers help to ensure that criticism and feedback are met with cooperation and receptivity.

Image represents how to receive Constructive Feedback

How to Receive Constructive Criticism

For most people, the thought of receiving criticism immediately triggers anxiety. At the same time, it’s necessary for growth. It provides a perspective that you could never have achieved on your own. For this reason, one good piece of criticism is worth the weight of 100 pump-me-up pep talks. Prudently listening to and receiving criticism requires a lot of honesty and humility, as well as these following attributes.

Emotional Management

It’s hard to take criticism over something you’ve put your heart and soul into. At the same time, everyone of course understands they’re not perfect. And learning and correction are simply part of the process of growth.

Establishing some emotional detachment from the situation allows you to listen to criticism and adapt accordingly, without feeling deflated or defeated.

An Open Mind

Good feedback lets you see something with new eyes. Every person has his or her own unique perspective, shaped by experience, personality and skill sets. It’s invaluable to receive insight on these perspectives. An openness to feedback and criticism keeps you open to growth.

An Eye on the Objective

When you understand what you’re really working toward, be it a healthy workplace culture, a well-engineered product, or a clear presentation, it’s easier to set emotion and ego aside and evaluate criticism for what it’s worth.

An Ability to Know What to Take and What to Ignore

Not every piece of criticism is worth listening to. And although you may not have a say over when and where it’s provided, you do have a say over whether or not you choose to receive it.

It takes some reflection and thought to identify if feedback is helpful. Good feedback, generally, is energizing and invites growth. Sometimes this discernment might involve bouncing the criticism off on another person to gain their perspective on it.

Anyone who’s directed a movie that bombed wishes they could have had access beforehand to the critics who panned it. More often than not, criticism, though hard to palate, is worth ingesting. It may well save you a lot of hassle in the future.

Conclusion

This really is the age of feedback. From buying a t-shirt online to eating a sandwich at the local deli, anytime we consume a product or service we’re inclined to let others know how we feel about it.

And although it’s pretty easy to give feedback, it’s not always presented in a way that’s receptive or helpful to the recipient. Constructive criticism, centrally, aims to build rapport. It’s specific, includes an impact statement, and is presented with empathy.

Whether you’re mentoring an intern or managing a team, providing feedback is a routine part of any workplace environment. Although delivering constructive criticism is a challenge, it’s certainly a skill that can be developed with an understanding of key dos and don’ts.

What’s your biggest challenge with constructive criticism?

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