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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.