How to Give (and Receive) Constructive Criticism

Constructive Criticism is an imperative life lesson to learn. When you don’t feel comfortable giving direct feedback or letting people know when they fucked up because you don’t want to hurt their feelings – that is when the trouble begins. Nobody likes doing it, but if you do not, it can lead to a whole mess of other problems, and create a culture that is destined to fail. 

Being nice and not hurting anyone’s feelings helps keep things smooth and minimizes tension. It’s no fun having people not like you and it doesn’t make your work environment pleasurable. When people fuck up, letting them know is hard because they take it as if you are trying to be mean.

Of course, your intentions aren’t to be mean yet sometimes that’s the way it works out because you’re so direct (and rightly so).

When you don’t give the needed feedback, they never learn, and if they never learn they’ll continue to fuck up in the same way. Others will see them continue to get it wrong, and over time the individual never gets the message.

Some cover for them by doing their work, leading them to continue their  incompetence…all because they wanted to be nice.

So how do you fix things with them? How do you start giving them proper feedback so they actually start learning? How do you make it so other people aren’t continuing to cover for them or need to take on their colleagues’ workload?

How to Give Constructive Criticism to Sensitive People

When you must give feedback, what is your approach? How did you learn that approach?

There are many theories on feedback floating around and some work better than others. What’s important to keep in mind is that we aren’t universally taught how to give or receive constructive criticism or feedback. Some people stumble onto successful strategies and others aren’t so fortunate. The person who is defensive every time is hard to deal with, but the person who cries or gets depressed is the worst. It’s as if you told them they’re a horrible person while kicking their dog. You want to avoid these situations because it seems to take them on a downward spiral and frustrates you into wanting to give up. Why can’t they just fucking suck it up?

The last time someone gave you feedback or constructive criticism, how did you take it? Did you take it as helpful information to be used to improve? Did you take it as a sign that you’re incapable or less than as a human? Both reactions are on opposite ends of a spectrum, and where yours land depends on your lived experiences.

You most likely react differently depending on the situation or who it is that is giving the feedback.

Consider your listening preferences.

What do you listen for when others want to give you feedback? Are you listening for what you did wrong? Are you listening for ways to improve because you’re eager to learn and improve? Both are examples of listening filters that shape the way you hear and interpret information. They influence your conversations and how much information you take in. When your negative self-talk spin cycle is triggered from your listening filters, that’s where the constructive criticism conversation gets derailed off track.

How much of this is starting to sound familiar? Understanding this about yourself will help you to more confidently navigate conversations with others.

Now that we have a better understanding of what happens to you when receiving constructive criticism, let’s look at how to think about your approach when giving feedback. 

Using what you know about your own filters in receiving feedback, what do you think is going on for the individuals you know don’t receive it well? For those who are sensitive, what do you think their habitual listening filters are?

One way to find out is to ask them, in a neutral non-feedback giving conversation:

“what is your gut reaction when your boss informs you that they want to talk about something for a moment?”

Modify the question for your relationship as needed, but make sure you maintain the intention of the question. Whatever their answer is will cue you into their listening filters. With their answer, consider how you could modify your approach with them such that they remain open to engaging through the conversation.

They may have suggestions on how to approach them to give feedback, which would make your job easier. Your primary goal is to engage them to learn more about them such that you can give the corrections needed for them to improve. Engaging them in this way also provides you the opportunity to understand the strong feelings they express better. What their emotional triggers are, and how you can make the conversation more psychologically safe for them to engage from a learning perspective.

What more do you want to know about these individuals to help you know them better, and leave them feeling seen and understood? How might this knowledge allow you to shift your approach for a better outcome?

team leader giving constructive criticism

Ask Questions to Understand Their Perspective

Sometimes in your career you have the opportunity to mentor or manage people in roles you once held.  Your experience gives you a level of expertise with the role. That expertise is valuable in performing the role but doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be a good teaching resource. Teaching is a different skill set altogether, which includes giving feedback in an effective way.

Telling someone what to do can be useful and effective, but what do you do when they’re just not getting it?

Do you keep repeating the same instructions, maybe in different ways? As your frustration level rises, then what happens next? What about them and their frustration?

What’s probably missing is the fact you’re telling and not asking, in order to fill the gaps from their perspective.

Telling people the steps for a process to accomplish something has limitations. One of those limitations is that your focus comes from your perspective only and doesn’t take theirs into consideration.

How they process information matters, especially when it comes to replicating instructions given to them. Think about a time you struggled to pick up a task when someone walked you through the step-by-step process. What made it a struggle for you? What was the insight you had about the process that made a difference, such that everything clicked?

If you were left to figure it out on your own, what steps got you there? Your understanding of your own process is a starting place. What you’ll want to consider shifting in your teaching process is asking questions instead of telling answers. Asking opens the door to their inner world and can clue you in on how to tell them what they need to know. 

A question forces you to think, and if it is born of genuine curiosity with the intent to learn, then there’s a greater chance you’ll discover something you couldn’t see before. Questions also force you to slow down your thought processes and navigate them one step at a time. You become more aware of your assumptions and have the opportunity to test or challenge them.

It’s those assumptions that hang you up much of the time, and for others too. Applying this perspective to teaching, how might you approach teaching or mentoring differently? What is it about the other person’s perspective you would like to understand better in order to help them learn what you’re teaching? What do they think the challenge is for them? Are you seeing how this approach opens up possibilities for yourself and those you’re leading?

Constructive Criticism Anxiety? There’s Hope

Giving and receiving feedback is a challenging part of leading or being on a team. Figuring out how to get the message across is a struggle when you’re telling and not considering the other person’s perspective.

Their perspective is the brick wall you’re running into when you’re not taking the time to understand how they see the situation, the assumptions they’re making, and how they process information.

Giving feedback on performance works the same way. They have a perspective, and when it’s different than yours, that gap is where questions can be the tool to build a bridge. How you and they listen matters, because it informs ways messages can be understood and conveyed. Strong emotions can be your cue to spend more time understanding their preferences and conditioning, to ask more questions for the purpose of learning.

What are areas of someone’s perspective that you want to know more about, where the feedback process didn’t go so well before? How might your experience in learning through the feedback process been different if someone asked you more questions?