How to give and take constructive criticism

February 18, 2022 - 17 min read
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What is constructive criticism?

Constructive criticism vs. destructive criticism

Benefits of constructive criticism

How to give constructive criticism

10 tips for giving constructive criticism

How to receive constructive criticism

5 things to avoid when receiving constructive criticism

Let’s face it, it can be hard to give or receive criticism no matter how it is delivered. But getting comfortable with offering and receiving practical, constructive criticism is fundamental to our professional development. 

When presented correctly, it can be a helpful tool for leaders and peers to help each other deliver better results, find motivation, and strengthen relationships.

So how can you learn to take criticism well and get better at delivering it to others? 

In this article, we'll discuss the art of constructive criticism. We’ll break down what it is, how it compares to destructive criticism, practical strategies to give and receive it well, and what to avoid in both cases.

What is constructive criticism?

Constructive criticism vs. destructive criticism: what’s the difference?

The big difference between constructive and destructive criticism lies in how the comments are delivered. 

While constructive criticism focuses on building up the other person, destructive criticism focuses on the negative. The feedback can be vague and often lacks guidance or support. 

Constructive criticism

Constructive criticism is clear, direct, honest, and easy to implement. It provides specific examples and actionable suggestions for positive change. This type of feedback also highlights ways the recipient can make positive improvements in their behavior to minimize future problems.

Deconstructive criticism

Destructive criticism, on the other hand, focuses solely on the problem. This kind of feedback offers no encouragement, help, or support for improvement. Despite the deliverer’s intentions, it often lowers morale and reduces confidence.

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Benefits of constructive criticism

Unlike deconstructive or negative criticism, constructive criticism builds trust and provides an opportunity for both parties to grow. Two key elements of constructive criticism’s success are context and actionable advice. 

This kind of feedback gives the recipient context around their areas of improvement, which is crucial for understanding why the feedback is being offered.

Supporting the additional context with actionable steps and suggestions for how to improve build trust between both parties. This combination also opens the door to conversation, collaboration, and professional development.

The role of empathy and constructive criticism

But there is more to effective negative feedback than expressing a negative in a positive light. The key to success is to make your feedback sound encouraging and to keep the other person’s perspective in mind.

By remaining empathetic to their circumstances, you’ll have an easier time delivering critical feedback in a beneficial and constructive way.

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How to give constructive feedback

1. Offer a "feedback sandwich"

This popular method of giving constructive criticism is often used in Toastmasters and the corporate environment. 

The “feedback sandwich” got its name because of its structure. You wedge your criticism between an opening and an ending (like a burger wedged between two buns) using the PIP analogy, which stands for Positive-Improvement-Positive.

With PIP, you can break down your feedback into three segments.

Example:

“I liked the depth of content you covered in your presentation. However, you can improve the design and color palette of your slides. The ones you used were a bit hard to process and didn’t do justice to your content. 

Having said that, I really like the overall flow and feel of it. With a few tweaks in the areas I’ve mentioned, I think you have a winner. Please reach out to the design team for some tips, and they will help you take things to the next level. I’m excited to see the end product!”

Segment 1: Open with positive feedback

Start by focusing on the recipient’s strengths and highlight what you like about what they have done. 

Example: “I liked the depth of content you covered in your presentation.”

Segment 2: Sandwich the area of improvement in the middle

Provide the criticism by focusing on what they need to improve on.

Example: “However you can improve the design and color palette of your slides. The ones you used were a bit hard to process and didn’t do justice to your content.”

Segment 3: End on a positive note

Finally, round off the feedback with an encouraging comment that reiterates the positive statement you made at the start. Also, highlight the positive results they can expect if they accept your critique as it helps build trust and confidence.

Example: “Having said that, I really like the overall flow and feel of it. With a few tweaks in the areas I’ve mentioned, I think you have a winner. Please reach out to the design team for some tips, and they will help you take things to the next level. I’m excited to see the end product!”

2. Be specific with your feedback

The more specific and detailed your feedback is, the more actionable it will be. Do not make vague, blanket statements. Instead, list out objections or behavior changes you want to see in detail. This step makes it easier for the other person to address and change things.

Here is an example of vague vs. specific feedback:

  • Vague Criticism: “Hi Julie, I wish you would start writing some articles on marketing.”
  • Specific criticism: “Hi Julie, I would love for you to write a marketing article on how to identify and communicate with your target audience. Please let me know when you start and if you need any further suggestions.”

The vague comment is very broad and confusing because marketing is a very general topic. In contrast, the specific comment provides clarity and makes the task more actionable because it is so precise. 

Using this approach provides employees and peers clarity. The better they understand the request, the less uncertain or anxious they will feel about the job and how they should complete it.

3. Give recommendations for ways to improve

The main reason for giving feedback is to help the person improve. Remember, good feedback is a gift! 

Giving recommendations on what the person can do to improve has a range of benefits, including the following:

  • A better understanding of you and your expectations
  • The ability to align on expectations
  • It provides a powerful call to action, giving the receiver a plan of action 

It will also help them act on what you have discussed rather than procrastinate.

Example:

  • Weak recommendation: “The presentation is too long. Make it shorter.”
  • Strong recommendation: “The presentation can easily be reduced from 30 minutes to 20 minutes if you limit one example to each point. This will make it more concise and impactful. At the moment, you have two to three examples per point which detracts from the main message.” 

The first recommendation is not very helpful because it lacks clarity and specificity. The second example is better because it is very specific and demonstrates your point of view to the person by explaining your rationale.

4. Avoid making assumptions

Give recommendations only when you know the facts about that specific topic or person. Avoid any temptation to jump to conclusions and observe instead. 

Wrong assumptions can come across as personal attacks, and they can cause distress in the workplace.

Example:

  • Criticism: “The presenter was a bit hesitant, and the session didn’t really flow.”
  • Assumption: “The presenter doesn’t have any workshop experience.”

This assumption is not necessarily true. Experienced presenters can be nervous when facilitating workshops, especially when presenting in a new environment and to a new audience.

For example, assuming that someone is inexperienced just because they appear slightly hesitant can hurt morale and reduce psychological security in the workplace

It is also counter-productive as the feedback recipient would likely discount any criticism that followed even if it was accurate.

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10 tips for giving constructive criticism

  1. Focus on observable actions or behaviors rather than identity, personality, or motivations.
  2. Consider giving real-time criticism. Feedback is more effective when given promptly and while the events are still fresh in everyone’s minds. You don’t always have to wait for your next one-on-one meeting or 360-review cycle.
  3. Keep timing in mind. If you or the recipient is coming out of a heated discussion, for instance, wait until the dust settles to keep the conversation constructive.
  4. Be mindful of emotions. It is beneficial to give feedback when the other person is ready to hear it. Avoid offering feedback when the person is not able to hear potentially unpleasant news.
  5. Avoid workplace gossip. Workplace gossip is detrimental to everyone. It erodes trust at all levels. Keep all feedback between yourself and the recipient, and ensure that they are the first to know.
  6. Focus on the situation, not the person. Good constructive criticism should focus on the behavior you want to see more of rather than what you observed and did not like.
  7. Use the “l” language technique (I think, I suggest, etc.). This tactic helps the feedback recipient understand that the criticism is about the situation and not about them as a person. It also confirms your point of view and lets the recipient know how you see the situation.
  8. Focus more on objective points rather than subjective opinions. Rather than saying “I don’t like it,” state the specific things you do not like (e.g., the purple lettering on a yellow background made my eyes hurt).
  9. Break your feedback down into key points or themes for better clarity before sharing it point by point. Refrain from giving your feedback in one big chunk. 
  10. Give specific examples for each feedback point. Point out one or two exact situations where the person has displayed the behaviors you want them to change. This helps to (a) illustrate what you mean and (b) raise the person’s awareness of behavioral patterns that they may not realize.

How to receive constructive criticism

When the tables turn, and you’re the one on the receiving end of criticism, how do you cope with the situation? 

Do you know how to accept the feedback and back off the defensive? 

Receiving criticism from a co-worker, a colleague, or someone you don’t fully trust can be challenging. However, it is helpful to remember that accurate and constructive feedback can also come from flawed sources.

Here is a 6-step process on how to receive criticism with tact and grace:

  1. Stop your first reaction. Stay calm and try not to react at all. Maintain a calm demeanor.
  2. Remember the benefits of getting feedback and try to understand the motivation and perception of your criticizer. 
  3. Be a good listener. Listen closely and focus on understanding the other person’s comments and perspective.
  4. Say thank you. You don’t have to agree with the feedback, but expressing gratitude demonstrates that you recognize the efforts of your colleagues who are working towards your improvement.
  5. Ask questions to deconstruct the feedback and share your perspective. Get more clarity by asking for specific examples, acknowledging the non-disputable part of the feedback, and asking for concrete solutions.

Request time to follow up. If it’s a more significant issue, ask for a follow-up meeting to ask more questions and agree on the next steps.

This pause will also give you time to process the feedback, seek advice from others and think about solutions. Ideally, you’ll also articulate what you will do in the future and thank the person again for the feedback.

5 things to avoid when receiving constructive criticism

If you are on the receiving end of constructive criticism, don’t throw it away. Insight from a trusted, objective source about your work, management style, or how you’re showing up is priceless.

You want to keep it coming, and that means not reacting in a way that scares the giver off or makes them less willing to give you feedback in the future.

To keep the feedback coming, avoid these 5 reactions:

  1. Do not react with defensiveness and anger
  2. Do not attack the person giving the feedback
  3. Do not interrupt or talk over the person when they are giving the feedback
  4. Avoid analyzing or questioning the person’s assessment initially
  5. Avoid engaging in a debate or a combative response

Remember, it’s not easy to give or receive feedback, but we hope that this article has equipped you with the tools to feel more positive in your ability to do this well.

If you’re looking for more support, get in touch to see how a BetterUp coach can help you find your voice and manage your responses to constructive feedback.

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Published February 18, 2022

Maureen Obatomi

BetterUp Fellow Coach

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