How to give and take constructive criticism

Джулия Мартинс, фото автораJulia Martins4 января 2021 г.8 мин. на чтение
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What if we told you you’re not perfect?

Obviously, you know that already—but it still kind of stings. Criticism of any kind can be hard to swallow, especially when it comes to something you spent time and energy on. Inherently, we all want to do a good job. But criticism is just as important as praise, if not more so. Good, constructive feedback can help you improve and guide you towards new heights you might not have achieved otherwise.

That isn’t to say giving and taking constructive criticism is easy. But when you know how to take criticism, you become a better employee, friend, and team member. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about constructive criticism, including how to identify, give, and take constructive criticism.

What is constructive criticism?

Before we dive into how to give and take constructive criticism, we first need to understand what it is. Constructive criticism focuses on providing constructive feedback, supported by specific examples, to help you improve in some area. Constructive criticism should be offered in a friendly manner with good intentions. Ideally, the person offering constructive criticism should also be prepared to help brainstorm possible solutions and next steps in order to serve as a valuable tool in the growth process.

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It’s important to note that constructive criticism is not negative criticism, nor should it be interpreted that way. Though constructive criticism won’t always be positive, it should be centered around helping someone improve—not tearing them down.

Constructive criticism vs. destructive criticism

You may encounter feedback that’s portrayed as constructive criticism but is actually just veiled negative comments. This type of feedback is what’s called destructive criticism. Unlike constructive criticism, destructive criticism is feedback that isn’t designed to help you improve and grow into a better person, employee, or friend. Instead, destructive criticism is:

  • Intended as a personal attack

  • Formatted to harm someone’s self-esteem

  • Public

  • Not specific or actionable

  • Hypercritical or needlessly nit-picky

If you encounter destructive criticism, don’t be afraid to shut it down or ask for help from a mentor. Depending on the situation, you, a mentor, or your company’s HR department can help address the situation.

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The benefits of constructive criticism

Even if you give the perfect piece of advice, constructive criticism is still difficult to both give and receive. But don’t shy away from this type of feedback just because it’s difficult. In fact, constructive criticism can help both you and the person you’re giving feedback to grow—both personally and professionally.

Honest, critical feedback can actually strengthen your bond rather than degrade it.

By practicing constructive criticism, you’re building an atmosphere of openness and trust. Not every conversation you have with your team will be easy—but difficult conversations are a big part of developing a collaborative team.

At Asana, feedback of all types is a huge part of our culture. Each of our employees go through Conscious Leadership Group training, so they’re best equipped to give each other feedback in a constructive way. We’ve also centered our company values around mindfulness, realness, and giving and taking responsibility. When something goes wrong, we use the “Five whys” technique to uncover the root cause.

Every company will have their own values and practices. But opening the door to constructive and honest conversations can help you break down trust barriers and develop a closer connection with your team members and collaborators. If you’re ready to give it a try, here’s how:

11 tips for giving constructive criticism

Anyone can give constructive criticism, but in order to do so, it’s important to approach the feedback session in the right way. If you’ve never practiced giving constructive criticism before, try these 11 dos and don’ts to keep your feedback helpful, constructive, and friendly.

1. Do: Use “I” statements

“I” statements are a way to express your opinion by focusing on the situation, rather than the person you’re talking about. “I” statements begin with “I feel…” or “I think…” instead of “You said…” or “You did…”

With an “I” statement, you can make feedback feel less personal by centering it around your experience. By beginning every sentence with “I,” you’re constantly clarifying that you’re sharing your thoughts and opinions—rather than objective fact. This can help reduce the feelings of personal defensiveness that often come with any kind of criticism, and make the entire feedback session more productive.

Example of an “I” statement

“I think you could use more images in your slides. Sometimes, I spend my time reading the text on the page, which is distracting for me. What if instead, you only included the main themes on each slide?”

2. Don’t: Use the sandwich method

You’ve likely heard of the sandwich method (sometimes called the “feedback sandwich”) before—this is possibly the most well-known criticism strategy. In the sandwich method, you start off with a positive note, mention a constructive criticism, then finish off with another positive comment.

Despite its popularity, the sandwich method isn’t an effective way to communicate helpful, constructive criticism. Because you’re nesting the constructive criticism, there's little opportunity to make that feedback actionable or brianstorm next steps. Instead, spend your time making your feedback as specific and helpful as possible—no matter how many pieces of feedback you have to give.

3. Do: Provide actionable feedback

The goal of providing constructive feedback is to give the person something they can work on. In addition to pointing out what could be improved, good constructive criticism includes ideas and next steps that the person can take in order to further develop their skills. When you provide your feedback, make sure to clarify that you’re open to further discussion or brainstorming if that would be helpful for the person you’re giving feedback to.

If your feedback isn’t actionable, don’t give it, or wait until you have something actionable before bringing it to the person’s attention. Without actionable advice, your feedback strays dangerously close to destructive criticism, rather than constructive help.

Example of providing actionable constructive criticism

“I really liked the idea you shared during the marketing campaign meeting. However, I think the reason it didn’t get as much traction as it could have was because you didn’t tie it back to the process. If I were you, I’d bring some relevant examples to support your plan.”

4. Don’t: Publicly share your feedback

Even the best-phrased criticism can be hard to take, especially if the person you’re giving feedback to spent a lot of time and energy on their work. In order for feedback to be constructive and helpful, you want to open a dialogue about how the person can improve.

This type of dialogue isn’t possible if you share your feedback publicly. Instead of starting a conversation, the person might feel embarrassed, ashamed, or personally attacked. They might respond defensively or just move on without internalizing the feedback. Make sure you’re taking the time to sit down and chat, in order to have the most productive conversation. Either schedule time to give constructive criticism, or use a regularly scheduled 1:1 to do so.

5. Do: Include positive comments where appropriate

Just because the sandwich method isn’t the best way to provide feedback doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give positive feedback. Constructive criticism shouldn’t just be about negative feedback. Telling someone what they’ve done well is just as helpful. That way, they can spend time honing their strengths—in addition to strengthening their weaknesses.

Example of positive constructive criticism

“Your work this past week was really innovative. I appreciated how you approached customer feedback from a new angle—I feel like you found a solution we might not have thought of.”

6. Don’t: Force positivity

That being said, just like you want to avoid the sandwich method, you should also avoid forced positivity. The point of constructive feedback isn’t to give the person meaningless compliments—it’s to help them move forward and improve.

No matter what type of feedback you’re giving, make sure you think it through and really mean it. Insincere feedback can feel unhelpful and make future feedback sessions more difficult.

7. Do: Make it a conversation

Constructive criticism isn’t valuable unless there’s a give and take aspect. Part of using “I” statements is to provide feedback from your perspective. The person you’re giving feedback to, though, might have a different point of view. Give them time to ask questions about why you feel the way you do and how they can improve based on your feedback. Keep in mind that the best feedback is collaborative, not prescriptive.

Example of how to make constructive feedback a conversation

“I feel like your focus for this past project was a little off. What do you think? Is there something you’re unclear about in regards to our approach to this project?”

8. Don’t: Attempt to “surprise” with feedback

Giving feedback can be uncomfortable. Sometimes, it might feel awkward or unpleasant to let the person know you want to give them some feedback—what if they come into the conversation on the defensive, or have additional questions for you?

Though feedback sessions can be uncomfortable, attempting to “surprise” someone with feedback can turn a potential growth moment into a negative experience. If your feedback comes from left field, it can be frustrating, overwhelming, and make the person feel personally attacked. Instead, make sure you let the person know that this will be a feedback session.

9. Do: Give feedback in a timely manner

Constructive criticism is helpful if it’s given relatively soon after the action occurred. That way, the scenario is fresh in both of your minds. If you wait too long, your feedback might be less relevant, which makes it less helpful. Aim to give feedback within 2-7 days of the situation.

Example of timely feedback

“I wanted to follow up on the presentation you gave to executive stakeholders last Thursday. I thought your slides were really clear, but I would have liked more time for Q&A. Maybe next time, you could send over some pre-reading to skip the early slides.”

10. Don’t: Give feedback without thinking it over

Even though you do want to give feedback in a timely manner, you don’t want to give it immediately without thought. Even if you had a lightbulb moment of realization of how this person could improve, wait at least a day to make sure this feedback needs to be expressed and that you can do so in a constructive, positive way. Before scheduling your feedback session, ask yourself:

  • Is this feedback something that will help them improve?

  • Do they need to hear this feedback?

  • Am I prepared to help them brainstorm how to improve?

  • What, if any, next steps can the person take?

11. Do: Maintain a friendly tone and body language

Ultimately, you’re providing feedback in order to help a person improve. Even if the feedback is hard to give, make sure you’re keeping your body language positive and your tone light.

You might not feel comfortable giving constructive criticism at first, so consider practicing what you’re going to say and how you’re going to say it. Pay particular attention to your tone, and make sure you aren’t frowning, glaring, or crossing your arms. Even if you aren’t actually frustrated, these signals can raise the person’s defensiveness and lead to an unproductive feedback session. If you’re giving feedback remotely, be sure to turn your video on for the call.

6 steps to taking constructive criticism

You’ve practiced giving constructive criticism—but what about taking feedback instead of giving it? Accepting constructive criticism without getting defensive can be really difficult. Even though you conceptually know the person is giving feedback to help you, it’s human nature to feel a little defensive when receiving criticism—even if it is helpful.

Hopefully, the person has let you know in advance that feedback is coming. When you know someone has constructive feedback for you, you can prepare for it and make sure it doesn’t catch you unaware.

Even if you do receive unprompted constructive criticism, as long as it isn’t destructive criticism, try these six steps to become a pro at receiving criticism:

  1. Avoid immediately reacting. Feedback can engage our fight or flight response and turn a theoretically helpful session into an adrenaline-filled challenge. Before responding, take a deep breath and resist the urge to react, respond, or argue.

  2. If need be, remind yourself that constructive criticism can help you improve. Even if you didn’t know this feedback was coming, try to remember that this constructive criticism is being offered with your best interests at heart.

  3. Listen to understand—not to respond. When someone is offering constructive criticism, listen without formulating a reply or a defensive response to the feedback. Keep in mind that the person is offering feedback in order to try to help you, and try to listen with an open mind.

  4. Connect the feedback to your role, not to yourself. Feedback feels personal because we think people are criticizing us. But in a business setting, constructive criticism is usually based on your role. Good feedback can help you improve in your job and often isn’t as personal as it feels.

  5. Thank the person giving you feedback. Giving constructive feedback is hard. Thank the person for their energy and effort in helping you improve.

  6. Ask questions, but don’t challenge the feedback. Though you shouldn’t challenge or refute the feedback, it’s ok to ask questions and brainstorm how you can improve. If you aren’t ready to ask questions immediately after receiving critical feedback, that’s ok too. Set a follow up meeting to chat more about how you can improve.

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Constructive feedback builds collaborative teams

When done well, effective criticism can pave the way for a healthier, collaborative team. That’s because collaborative teams are open and honest with one another—and not afraid to talk about real things. Just by reading this, you’re on the path to becoming more collaborative and working together more effectively.

To continue developing your teamwork skills, read our article on team collaboration.

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