Critical Notes

How To Give Constructive Criticism That’s Actually Constructive

Go easy on the compliment sandwich, and other tips to help you become a go-to advice giver.

by Matt Schneiderman
Originally Published: 

For many of us, the prospect of offering someone — anyone — criticism is stressful. Even if our feedback is meant to be helpful, it’s natural to fear it will come across as, well, critical. And that we, the criticism giver, will also be perceived as critical, as well as combative or downright mean. So, we keep our comments to ourselves. Alternatively, we try to help the criticism go down easier via the classic “compliment sandwich,” offering positive statements before and after the so-called negative feedback. Or, worse, we launch critical comments like warheads during a tense moment, such as a heated argument with our partner or after our colleague has just presented to the boss.

But constructive criticism, given thoughtfully and at the right time, is very valuable. And there’s also great value in being a person known for giving it well. Withholding it, minimizing it, or confusing it with putting someone down makes for missed opportunities to benefit someone. Whether your feedback is as low stakes as “You’ve got a bat in the cave” or as potentially life changing as “You don’t exercise enough,” the recipient deserves to hear it. Here’s how to give constructive criticism effectively.

1. Remember: People Want Feedback

Despite our concerns about awkwardness or hurt feelings, we likely shy away from giving feedback because we don’t think the recipient wants it. In a Harvard Business School study, researchers Nicole Abi-Esber, Jennifer Abel, Juliana Schroeder, and Francesca Gino found a significant gap between how much potential recipients want to be told feedback and how much givers think the recipient wants the feedback — with givers consistently underestimating. “We had multiple scenarios, from relatively inconsequential, like a rip in a shirt or something in your teeth, to workplace-relevant feedback like, ‘You’re interrupting’ or texting during meetings,” Abi-Esber tells Fatherly. “Regardless of how consequential the feedback, potential recipients expressed wanting it far more than the potential givers thought they did.”

2. Put Yourself In Their Shoes

If you’re still unsure whether to say something, just imagine yourself in the recipient’s position. Abi-Esber and team asked study subjects to spend a moment pretending they had food stuck in their teeth or were texting too much and found that the perspective-taking “increased empathy and made them more likely to want to give feedback.”

This exercise will also help guide your comments when you consider how you’d respond to the feedback. “Focusing on the recipient’s emotions and mindset is important in all situations,” says Dr. Naomi Winstone, Professor of Educational Psychology, Director of the Surrey Institute of Education at the University of Surrey. “It can help to move beyond feedback being perceived as a wounding judgment towards feedback functioning as meaningful advice.”

3. Know Your Audience

Constructive criticism is only likely to lead to improvement if the receiver is open to hearing and implementing it, so thoughtfully plan how and when to present your feedback.

“The best time to give constructive criticism is when the receiver is in the right psychological space to engage with it through a receptive mindset, and it’s not always possible to know whether they are in this space,” Winstone says. “If we want our critique to be of use to the recipient, then paying attention to the likely emotional impact of our communication is important.”

4. Aim For Actionable, Specific, And Focused

Keep your criticism constructive by making sure it’s beneficial. “Giving constructive criticism should come from a place of genuinely wanting someone to improve and gain in confidence,” Winstone says. “If it’s coming from any other motive, such as a desire to emphasize someone’s flaws or make people feel inferior, then it’s not constructive.”

Constructive criticism is actionable and specific feedback focused on what the recipient can do to improve. “We want to encourage the recipient to feel like they have the ability to change and improve – so it’s important to focus on actions under the recipient’s control,” says Hayley Blunden, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Management, Kogod School of Business, American University. “That being said, it may not be a mistake to focus on the negative as long as such conversations are unemotional, illuminate a specific impact, and emphasize future-oriented actions the recipient can take to improve.”

5. Think Of It As Advice

As stated, constructive criticism should be actionable: there’s nothing beneficial in telling someone their accent is too strong, for instance — they’re unlikely to be able to change it. As such, framing your constructive criticism as advice could be helpful. In a research study conducted by Blunden, Jaewon Yoon, Ariella Kristal, and Ashley Whillans, the researchers found that asking people for advice rather than feedback leads them to focus more on the future and what actions the recipient takes could take to improve rather than what they’ve done in the past. “It may also help overcome resistance on the part of the recipients,” Blunden says.

6. More Is Better

Just as we tend to underestimate how much someone wants our feedback, we also underestimate how much feedback someone will want. Resist the temptation to keep it short. “In one of our studies, we found that the more feedback people get, the better they perform,” Abi-Esber says. “We paired students up — one to deliver a speech and the other to give feedback. The first student would then deliver a second speech, incorporating the feedback. The number of discrete pieces of constructive criticism correlated with how much the speech improved from first to second delivery.”

7. Be Careful of Deploying the Compliment Sandwich

While it’s a natural tactic to help soften the blow, padding your criticism with flattery or praise can obfuscate the helpful information. “Giving people information about what they are doing well in addition to what they need to improve is important,” Winstone says. “However, trying to ‘soften the blow’ can backfire. Research indicates that the praise-critique-praise sandwich can make it harder for people to understand and internalize the really important developmental information contained within the feedback.”

8. Emphasize That Yours Is Just One Opinion

When delivering your feedback, remember that your opinion isn’t the be-all and end-all. “One mistake people make when giving constructive criticism is that they believe that they are the only source of truth,” Winstone says. “The critique offered by one person may differ to that given by another. Emphasizing constructive criticism as just one potential viewpoint can help to overcome this challenge.”

9. See Feedback As A Dialogue

It’s important to always view feedback as part of a larger conversation — and as an opportunity to nurture your relationship, whether professional or at home. This means that as a feedback giver, it is your responsibility to do some listening, too. The recipient should have the opportunity to discuss your feedback, let you know how it has made them feel, and share any further questions your feedback has raised. “People need the opportunity to discuss feedback so that they can really understand what it means and make a plan for how they are going to implement it in the future,” Winstone says. After all, criticism can’t be as constructive as possible if you don’t receive feedback about how to make it better.

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