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The Art of Constructive Criticism

Everyone likes feedback, no one likes criticism.  Do you agree? 

Imagine this:

You've worked really hard on something and then you hear "it's a really great piece of work but.." and then the person who made the remark puts pen marks across everything you've put blood,sweat and tears into, kriss crosses out sections, highlights over things.    Let's face it you've been delivered the opening blow and now all you are focussed on are the things that are wrong.   What happened to the really great piece of work, which bits? You can't see anything that was great; now it's just a mass of scribbles and scrawls of what was wrong....

So what is wrong with this picture? What could of been done?

Are You the always the Critic? 
When you are in a position to freely give someone feedback or whether you are in a position where it is part of your job, you are dealing with people.  People have feelings and as such feedback is often a natural craving, criticism is not. Think about you want to achieve:
  1. Why are you criticising?  Understanding your need to offer an opinion without thinking through what you are going to say is pointless, not only is it demotivating it can be demoralising and harmful.  If you are going to offer any form of advice make sure it is appropriate to the situation.
  2. Be precise, waffling around the point will not make it any easier to discuss the points you need to.  Be precise, concise and most of all leave room for open questions and dialogue.
  3. Try walking in 'their shoes' - the first step to being able to offer constructive criticism is to understand what the person is trying to achieve, not everything is black and white and without a proper insight you may get completely the wrong end of the stick.
  4. Are you criticising the person rather than the object?  If you are offering constructive criticism on a piece of work, then keep the points valid to that object rather than make them about the person e.g. "There is a lot of detail, have you thought about including a paragraph on ****" rather than "You discounted any points about this and you haven't included the right information".
  5. Giving indications of what you think and feel can help to give your perspective.  It is also more constructive to focus on the present rather than the past, unless you are using examples to support but do not compare as you endanger leaving the person feeling  worthless and as if they are in competition.
  6. Offer advice rather than orders - it is very easy to dictate that someone should do something when offering constructive criticism but often the best way to get a point across is to open a discussion.  That way you leave your thoughts and give the person on the end the opportunity to delve deeper into how they feel.  People will respond more openly to solutions that they generate even if you planted the seed.
  7. Find the positives - reinforce positives about what you see, this allows the person receiving the criticism to focus and invites the possibility of a collaboration.  If you start off with pointing out all the negative things then you risk being seen as just a complainer rather than someone who can offer some sound advice and it's highly unlikely that your comments will be taken seriously or the situation can become out of hand.
  8. Be realistic - if you go in guns blazing and leave loads of comments about 'how this doesn't work', 'you should change this' and 'don't ever do this'; you risk alienating the person from the very beginning. Give a realistic amount of critical feedback that can also be digested by the person receiving it.
  9. What goes around comes around - If you offer up your two pennies worth, don't be surprised if you get some back.  Be prepared and give the person a chance to give you some feedback on the criticism they have just received.
When you are on the receiving end.
It's no fun when you are constantly pulled up for things, when you need a little direction and all you get is pushed around.  The one thing I always think about when I am receiving criticism is what are they trying to tell me?  Are they just picking fault or do they have a valid point? in other words, I need to keep an open mind and try to understand their perspective. 
  1. Relationships are a two way process, everyone is entitled to their opinion and it is up to you whether you choose to acknowledge or ignore it.  If you ignore any feedback or criticism, you leave yourself open and blindsided, try to take in the experience and see what you can learn from it, constructive criticism can improve relationships and communication between people. 
  2. Two heads are better than one, by understanding what you are being told enables you to think up new ways of improving and bettering the object of criticism.
  3. Don't switch off, yes it is hard when you are on the receiving end but some people will start off with the 'bad' news before 'delivering' the good so actively listen and try to understand what you are hearing.
  4. If it seems personal, it doesn't mean that it is.  Some people are not very good at expressing or explaining themselves.  If you aren't sure whether they have a valid point, paraphrase to reiterate what you are hearing, ask the questions that enable them to explain it in a different way e.g. "I understand that this doesn't work for you, can you explain the reasoning behind your thinking?" or "If you were to approach this what steps would you take?".
  5. Don't retailiate, it is very hard when you are on the receiving end not to become defensive, but if you jump too early, you may miss some valid points.  Sometimes even in the most absurb criticism a brilliant idea can be formed but if you are dismissing everything you could miss this opportunity. 
  6. Turn it round, don't allow criticism to make you feel less or down, focus on the other person's actions and use it to take ownership and make your own decisions based on the conversation.
  7. Use it to your advantage, even if you walk away at the end of the day with nothing but a feeling of well that was pointless, use the time to rethink how the process was, why do you feel that way? Could you have done something to change the direction and potentially leave feeling like you got something out of it instead.
  8. Communication is key, if you do not feel the criticism is valid, you have a right to advise the other person but think honestly about whether their criticism is timely, specific and what you can do to change things before you speak.  If you can back up how you feel with specifics then it will be easier for you to explain why.
I see it so many times and I have to admit, having managed people defining the art of constructive criticism takes time and practice.   There are so many variables to take into consideration, I am fairly thick-skinned so someone could say something to me and I would not take it any more than just their opinion, however I have worked with people who would fly off the handle and get really upset or annoyed by a comment.  If we just took a little time to think about what we say and how we say it, regardless of whether it's an opening statement or a response we would get a lot further in collaboration and the generation of great ideas.

How to Build Your Network

Looking around the blogosphere, around the community forums and social media platforms I see one consistent; we all have a yearning to be recognised.  If you say you don’t then you’re misguided, hiding behind your sofa whispering “Please don’t find me” or you are so successfully recognised it’s gone to your head. 

It seems that engaging your audience – out there in the big wide Ether when you aren’t physically face to face with your audience is so easy to do.  I mean how hard can it be to be noticed out of the 400 million plus blogs published everyday?  So what did you actually do?  

You posted to Facebook, maybe you put out a Twitter post but you are starting to feel your efforts are in vain because NO ONE IS READING! What did you honestly expect that once you started posting everyone would just come flocking?  Well what else did you do to build your network?

“Eh erm……Network…..” Is usually the reply I get.

Network, yes that’s right – did I say a dirty word?

Nothing in this world will fall in your lap. If you want something you have to go out there and get it or at least attempt to.  Networking is a very small part of what you need to do to draw in your readers, it is also an extremely important aspect of building your online profile and presence. 

One of the key arts to growing your networks is to go out there and find them. Sounds easy, you found them then what? Once you have found the audience that you want to connect with you can invite them to join you. 

If you’re going to engage with someone then do it in a positive and meaningful way.   The biggest mistake a lot of people make is just to send random invites with no indication or message of why they have received it. 

Networking is not something you can just expect to happen it takes time and it takes energy.  There are some easy to follow steps but it takes practice to get it right, I look at these steps as way of guidance not as golden rules:

Step 1 – Understand what you want to achieve.

Understanding what you need to achieve is the first step to understanding how you go about it?  I want to live in the country and own a horse.  So what do I need to achieve? Fame, riches, a wealthy sugar daddy? No! I need to take horse riding lessons, there’s no point in having horses if I can’t ride. That is my achievement to reaching this goal.

So I want to increase my readership, what do I need to achieve? I need to network and market my blog, Not quite I need to build my readership through network and marketing.

Step 2 – Put yourself out there and make yourself accessible.

The best connections you have in life are the ones that you interact with on a regular basis.  These people that know you are the ones that will genuinely promote you without even thinking about it, so don’t forget them but you also need to let people know you are here.  

Create a fan page, open a twitter account, start creating interesting topics, join in on discussions.  The beauty of Twitter is that you can reply to topics and you do not have to be following. If you engage you are more than likely to gain a new connection.

Step 3 – Don’t assume it’s not of interest.

I write about training and development so therefore interacting with crafters and fishermen is not going to draw in huge amounts of interest, so I’m discounting you – Wrong! Yes it is important to find like minded people but I interact with many people from all walks of life, opening up my network of people and the topics that they are interested in gives me new avenues and also new inspiration. 

Step 4 - Be Confident.

Whether it’s online or face to face networking is about making the effort, feel good about yourself and what you have to offer.   Step away from the sofa and out of your comfort zone.  Having confidence to interact and introduce yourself will give you the ability to push your boundaries and develop relationships with new people.  Some people find this easier online but the same rules should be applied when building physical networks. 

STEP 5 – Value Adding.

Everything takes time but you have to also be willing to put in far more than you get out of it, especially at the beginning. As time moves on you will see it shift the other way but don’t become complacent, you still need to invest, add value, give time and continue to build those networks through connecting with people, providing quality links and sharing information.

STEP 6 – Avoid Introductory Selling.

How many times have I been approached with a “buy my book”, “download my music” – it’s not polite and it just sends out the wrong signals.  If you haven’t built your network, how are you going to come off as anything other than an opportunist? 

Use the opportunity to get to know your contacts and gather information about your networks.  Understanding that building networks is about interacting and supporting means that any information you collect and build you can use to your advantage. 

Step 7 – Don’t try to hard.

You can organically build your online network over time but there is a limit to how quickly you should try and do this.  If you try too hard and too fast you will break the connections you have created with your base networks.  Why? Because you are over occupied and for all the new possibilities you will be viewed as nothing more than a spammer. 

Building networks is a long-term commitment, a healthy and active community should become a vast resource at very little personal cost other than time and effort.  The opportunities are boundless if you know what you want to achieve, you may not have been able to get there on your own but networking becomes a key step in connecting you with a wider diverse range of people who can help you to achieve what you set out to.

Do You Know Everything?

"You only know what you know" but that doesn't mean everyone else knows it! so why do we take that for granted?

I find it very interesting that people have such high expectations surrounding knowledge and what you are supposed to know.  Just because you know something does not mean that it is gospel and the whole world knows it.

A prime example today was seeing a link to an innocent question asking what the bumps on the letters F and J on a keyboard are and the ensuing comments, some of which were quite insulting  If you have ever learnt to type or know someone that has, you will already have this knowledge.  If you do not know; they are there so that you can find the 'home' keys.  Touch typists do not look at the keys because they know where all the letters on the keyboard are, by having the home keys distinguished by the 'bumps' means that they can find them everytime.

So why then does society feel the need to insult someone for asking such a relatively intuitive question?  In the scope of everything there will always be something we do not know and for a large proportion of the population they will sit in silence and play ignorant rather than admit they do not know and ask the question.

I applaud anyone that has at some point in their life stood up and asked a question, no matter how stupid or insignificant they may have felt it to be. I would rather ask and learn than be  shutout in silence.

Knowledge is power so why not ask to discover it?