Whether you’re working on a team project or trying to create a closer connection in your personal relationships, giving someone feedback on what they can do to improve can be a little uncomfortable. After all, you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. But when the success of a project or personal relationship could improve with just a few helpful suggestions, how do you communicate your feedback in an effective way?
Making suggestions that help someone change or improve their work or behavior is called constructive criticism. This feedback is different from criticism or judgement because it offers solutions for success instead of simply pointing out what’s wrong. And while it might feel awkward to have tough conversations like this, there are a few tips that will make it more comfortable for everyone involved.
What Is Constructive Criticism?
Constructive criticism is a way to give someone feedback that includes specific suggestions for improving their work or changing behavior. When you’re giving this type of feedback, it’s important to remember this conversation is meant to be a safe and helpful way to coach someone. By praising their best skills and letting them know where there’s room to grow, you give them actionable insights that can lead to big success.
I know it can be uncomfortable to tell someone where they can make improvements, but trust me, I’ve received plenty of constructive criticism in my career and relationships. The fact is, getting feedback from people I trust helps me become a better husband, father, team member and coach for those around me.
The Benefits of Constructive Criticism
Let’s be real: Getting and giving constructive criticism can make your heart race and your stomach drop. If you’re not used to conversations involving direct feedback, they can feel uncomfortable even when they’re delivered with kindness. But the truth is, most people want to know how they can grow and hit their goals and will appreciate helpful suggestions. Still don’t believe me? Here are a few reasons why constructive criticism is a good thing (especially when it’s done right):
- It helps you improve your professional relationships. Agreeing on common goals and working through conflict resolution can make your professional relationships and team vision stronger.
- It helps you grow your skills and confidence. When you lead hard conversations, the experience of sharing your insight can boost your own confidence. Why? Because learning and mastering new communication skills will help you move forward on your professional path.
- It helps you get the results you’re after. The old saying, “If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself,” is false. With good corrective feedback, you can empower other people to take more responsibility and make sure they understand the outcome you’re aiming for. But if you don’t tell them, they’ll never know.
How to Give Constructive Criticism
It doesn’t matter if you’re a manager who needs to coach one of your team members on their performance or a spouse who wants to improve your relationship at home—there are a few important parts you need to master if you’re going to give positive constructive criticism. With these tips, you’ll learn how to communicate your suggestions kindly and clearly—and help someone make impactful changes along the way.
- Choose a good time to share feedback. It’s best not to start a conversation about someone’s need for improvement when they first walk in the office or during other transition times. Instead, schedule time during a one-on-one meeting or plan to meet for a conversation over coffee. Dropping a criticism bomb—no matter your good intentions—isn’t the best move if you want the other person to really hear your message.
- Be specific with your feedback. Instead of asking if they can do a better job on the reports, make sure you clearly explain the issue and the improvements you’d like to see. Facts are your friend as long as you communicate them with kindness.
- Focus on the situation, not the person. Never blame or shame someone when you’re giving them constructive criticism. Instead, you want to talk about the situation that’s happening. Say something like, “Let’s talk about the formatting on these reports,” instead of, “You’re terrible at writing reports.” That keeps the focus on the problem, not the person. (Remember, this is a judgement-free zone.)
- Give examples to support your feedback. When you give someone feedback, you want to support your points with specific examples. If there’s a physical product or written communication you can point to, that makes your feedback a little more real and helps the other person see what needs to change.
- Give specific tips for improvement. If there’s a way you want a report written or a certain way you like your coffee order, share that information. No one is a mind reader, so the key here is to paint a new picture for the person you’re speaking to. You can compare the existing process or product with how you’d like to see it changed or improved in the future.
- Have empathy for the other person. Understand that the person you’re talking to might not know your preferences or the standard of work you’re looking for. Put yourself in their shoes and try to see where they’re coming from if there’s been a misunderstanding. This will also help you learn where you might have gone wrong so you can take responsibility.
- Listen to the other person. Part of what makes a constructive criticism conversation safe and effective is that it goes two ways. This means you’re open to hearing what the other person has to say. Active listening might take some practice, but it’s important to hear and understand what someone else has to say about why they do what they do—and how you might have contributed to it.
- Decide how you’ll check in later. Before you give someone constructive criticism, you’ll want to decide what positive progress looks like. This way you’ll both know if the right changes are happening after your conversation, and you’ll agree on how to measure results.
- Use a positive tone when you speak. Hopefully this goes without saying, but remember to be considerate when you give someone constructive feedback. This doesn’t mean sugarcoating the truth, but you don’t want to be harsh or judgmental in your tone either. (Feedback is about sharing honest thoughts in a way that someone will hear them. Being snippy can turn someone off and make them resistant to change.)
Examples of Constructive Criticism
The suggestions I listed above are important tips to keep in mind when you’re giving someone constructive feedback. For a few more examples of what giving constructive criticism looks like in the real world, check out these tried-and-true scripts you can use.
- Try a “feedback sandwich.” Start off by praising the other person and sharing where you see an opportunity for them to improve. Finish off the conversation with a final praise, like this:
“Hey, Andrew. Great job on the accounting projections you showed us today. I appreciated how you broke down the numbers into our three- and six-month goals. There’s just one more thing I’d like to see next time, and that’s for you to add a new section comparing last year’s numbers alongside these upcoming predictions. That way we can see how the trends line up each year. Other than that, the formatting looked great. Do you have any questions?”
- Use an imaginary example. While this isn’t the most direct way to give constructive criticism, you can suggest how someone can make improvements by telling a story about an imaginary character who shares a similar struggle or growth point. This is a good technique for small corrections that aren’t related to major mishaps:
“Hey, Tiffany, it looks like that software is giving you some grief. I know someone else who had a hard time writing that same program. She found that previewing it under a test user setting every couple of minutes helped find and fix mistakes more easily instead of waiting to make edits until the final preview.”
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Just a quick note here: Unsolicited advice can be obnoxious, so make sure any feedback you give someone is shared with the heart of a teacher. Don’t butt in to make a point unless your feedback can really make a positive impact on someone’s work and help the team overall.
- Turn the feedback into “I” statements. Remember when I said to focus on the situation, not the person? You can do this better by turning the attention to yourself. Explain that you have a preference or a need instead of blaming the other person or making them responsible for the error. Yes, they probably made a mistake, but the sign of a good leader is serving. By taking responsibility for the communication and the outcome, you can pave the way for them to make corrections. What does that look like?
“Hi Joshua, I apologize if my direction wasn’t clear regarding the weekly campaign we set up. I’d like to run the ads through the fifth of the month, and it looks like they’re set for the sixth of the month. Let me know if you need any other details from me so this campaign is set correctly.”
In this example, you’re taking responsibility and stating the change you want to see happen. You’re also making yourself available to offer guidance if there are any questions. Rather than blame the other person for what went wrong, you’re creating opportunity for correction.
What to Do if Your Criticism Isn’t Taken Well
So, you’ve learned the best way to give someone constructive criticism, but what happens if they don’t take your feedback well? Some people might get upset or hurt when confronted with their mistakes or shortcomings. If that happens, gently remind them that it’s not a personal attack and that the feedback is meant to help them handle situations differently. Praise what they do well, then make sure they know you’re available to answer any questions they might have.
And if you’re looking for your own exercise to practice working with constructive criticism, check out my free Personal Brand Survey. This survey will help you gather feedback from your leaders and peers about how you can make improvements to your own personal and professional reputation.