Master the art of giving constructive criticism

Positive feedback and constructive criticism are well-meant but often misunderstood, because people do not know the right techniques to pass it on to others. There is a thin line between being an unpleasant critic and being an empathic one. Learn the art of giving positive criticism through simple, doable techniques.

I was meeting family friends after several years – their two boys have grown into smart young men. During the course of dinner, the conversation shifted to how the two boys were not focused, had no goals and were wasting their time. The father was visibly concerned at the way their lives were shaping. The elder of the two boys was seated beside me, and I could not help but hear him mutter that the father was always criticising. The father, on the other hand, continued to rant on how they do not listen to his sound advice.

It struck me then, that the father, like any parent, was advising his boys for their own good. The boys, on the other hand, mistook it for criticism. The whole purpose of the interaction between the parent and the child was lost. The father failed to correctly convey what he wanted to, and the boys failed to fathom his words of wisdom. There was a massive communication gap. Despite love, concern and respect, there was a visible resentment. So, what was missing? Why was not the father able to motivate his children?

The answer lies in the way he was communicating. The aggressiveness in his tone created a barrier. The children failed to see the depth of his words; they felt slighted by the harshness of his tone. The point I am getting at is that how you communicate is as important as what you want to communicate.

The irony is that all of us face similar situations; within the family, at work, with friends and sometimes even with strangers. We do not like something and try to communicate our opinions and/or displeasure. Though we mean well, we end up creating a hostile environment, because our style of communication is wrong. This reflects in the other individual not taking heed to our advice or turning aggressive towards us.

It is good to share your thoughts and views with others, mainly on how they can improve or do things better, but your criticism should be constructive. If you are not tactical with your approach, you could come across as someone who is rude and who imposes their views on others – particularly if you are in the habit of constantly telling others what they should do, without them asking for your advice.

Focus on the issue

For constructive criticism to work, never criticise the individual. 'You should have done this'. 'Why did you not do this', 'This is not how it is done', 'You should not have done this', 'I would have done this'…the list goes on. If you want to really be a 'good' critic you do not want to keep the focus on the individual, but need to shift it to the issue.

This can be best illustrated through examples. Of course, you will be faced with different situations, but the same concept applies every time.

Feedback on an individual's obnoxious behaviour/personality trait

  • You always do this
  • You are full of negativity
  • Your behaviour is deplorable
  • You should behave more responsibly
  • What you said is disgusting

The above examples demonstrate that instead of the bad trait being tackled the individual is the focus. This symbolises personal attack, rather than positive criticism. There is nothing constructive about such feedback – it is damaging, and you become the rude, negative and obnoxious person.

When you offer constructive criticism about an individual's personality remember to separate them from the actions that show that they are negative. This is a better way to critique offensive behaviour without insulting the person.

Here are a few tips that can be applied –

  1. Disconnect the issue from the individual – This differentiation is vital. Learn to detach the individual from the equation and emphasise only on the subject. Try using statements such as, 'those are hurtful words', instead of 'you are rude'. Critique the behaviour, not the individual, no matter how irresponsibly they behaved.
  2. Do not judge the individual instead comment on the subject – This might seem tricky, but the sagacious use of words is the key. Consider replacing, 'This is a rotten piece of work' with 'I appreciate your effort, but can you also include this/cut this part out, so we have a conclusive report'
  3. No personal jibes – Comments such as, 'I hate it when you…', 'I'm fed up of you doing…', 'You are being stubborn/argumentative/idiotic/unorganised' are all harsh. When you use such statements you are being as aggressive as the other individual. Your reaction is as condemnable as theirs. Stop making personal attacks
  4. Use passive, instead of active voice – In doing so, the focus shifts from the individual to the subject. In passive voice, you will say, 'The report you made was not good' whereas if you use the active voice you will say, 'You made a bad report'. Notice how the stress in the passive voice is on the report, while in the active voice the individual is the focus
  5. Shift focus to yourself – If an individual's behaviour is hurtful, you need to let them know. However, rather than ranting about their bad actions or words let them know how it affected you. You take the focus away from them to yourself and are still able to send your message across. You give them an opportunity to look at the episode from your perspective. They will probably evaluate their actions and back off the next time

The Burger Bun method

The Burger Bun method is yet another way of providing constructive criticism – it is a smart strategy, one that boosts the other person's confidence, while allowing you to subtly provide 'positive' criticism. It is not a raw criticism because it is cloaked behind praise. Individuals are more likely to welcome such criticism because they get tricked into believing it is part of the praise.

It is a simple approach where the criticism is inserted between 2 positives. So, basically, you provide positive feedback, then wedge in the criticism and close it with another positive opinion. It creates a feel good factor. The person receiving the criticism feels elated with the positive views and works towards correcting the minor flaws that you point out.

The positives are like buns in a burger, they are important because they hold the burger patty in place. The criticism is the burger patty, without which you would not have a burger.

Here is how you can create your own burger bun method with people –

  • Begin with praise - Make mention of what you like about the person's attributes or work. Be crisp and to the point; do not be vague and fumbling for words. Do not make generalised observations – offer precise feedback. Maintain eye contact and wear a smile. By this time you will have the other person's full attention. You would have also set the table to serve the criticism
  • Provide the criticism – Here is when you tell the person the things that can be improved. Focus on what can be done better and not what the person should have done. It is a good approach to ask questions, instead of just making suggestions. For example, your presentation is good, but do you think you can add a few more details about the product and cut short the introduction. You will in all probability get an affirmative response. You can then proceed to share ideas. Remember, the key here is sharing, not bossing
  • End up with positive feedback – This does not have to be a long commentary, instead offer a brief repetition of the positive feedback. A short 'well done' or 'good job' or 'I'm proud of you' works fine

These methods of criticism when employed should get you positive results. The receiver of the criticism does not see your comments as an attack. Too many people act in haste when they judge and criticise others. They are sharp with their criticism because they want to see things from just their angle. This, unfortunately, underplays the effort of those being criticised. A few sharp statements nullify the energy, the effort and the time that has gone into the work. You do not want that to happen, as it creates animosity. To keep the relationship healthy, your attitude must be healthy. To ensure that the goal that is intended is achieved, your criticism must be sincere, unbiased and healthy.

Article by Juana
Juana is a freelance writer, with years of experience, creating content for varied online portals. She holds a degree in English Literature and has worked as a teacher and as a soft skill trainer. An avid reader, she writes on a variety of topics ranging from health, travel, education and personality development.

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Author: K Mohan17 Feb 2017 Member Level: Platinum   Points : 3

I do agree with the author that by giving constructive criticism, a person gets huge respect for having weighed and gauged the situation or the matter in right perspective. Giving vague comments, or digging at the dignity and integrity of the person or the moves should not be the criteria. Instead going in to deep of the act, analyzing the effect of the action and then suggesting ways and means to further improvement is always welcome. And those who give constructive criticism must be regarded and responded and take the suggestions with all humiliation for our own future benefit.

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