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The Art of Constructive Criticism: How to Give and Receive Feedback
After working all week on my pen and ink drawing, it was time for yet another class critique. As with every other design, painting, or drawing assignment, we set our finished projects up on display in the front of the classroom and took our seats. Often seeing each other’s artwork for the first time, we inevitably would scope out the competition to see how our own measured up.
Class critiques were not new to me. As a third year art student, I’d had my fair share of them. I knew from experience that falling short of the assignment, or turning in shoddy work would only result in public humiliation among my peers. If the work was good, however, the class critique was fairly painless. Even if the project was creative, beautiful or excellently executed, someone would inevitably point out something negative under the guise of constructive criticism.
For this class critique, I was not a bit concerned. Spending hours on the detailed pointillism, I knew my depiction of a little African girl would stand out among the others. Full of pride I placed my finished drawing in the front of the room. It was obvious that no one had put in the same amount of time and effort. Barely able to contain my confident smirk, I took my seat to await the sea of praise that was certain to follow.
That sea of praise, however, never came. Student after student stood up and pointed out the good and bad in everyone else’s drawings. Yet when each one would arrive at mine, they would pause, frown, and say something like, “Yeah, this is good… but there’s something wrong with that knee.” Or “I can tell she put a lot of work into this, but the knee is off. It ruins the whole thing.” And, “Yeah, that knee is really bad.” “The knee”, “The Knee”, “The Knee.”
The knee? I thought as I sat there willing myself to remain composed. What about the pointillism? No one else had taken the time use that technique. What about the details in the little girls beads or braids? What about capturing her tribal heritage and culture? What about her face and her hands, the fire and the pot? I was shocked as one by one they tore it to pieces.
What’s so Constructive about Constructive Criticism Anyway?
Isn’t constructive criticism a contradiction in terms? Wouldn’t it be like saying, “here’s some positive disapproval” or “beneficial condemnation”? How can someone build me up while tearing me down? How was sitting through a critique like that anywhere near constructive?
Constructive criticism is one of those things that no one likes to be given, and few know how to give well. When constructive criticism isn’t given well, it doesn’t feel very constructive, beneficial, or helpful. This doesn’t just happen in art school; this can happen among peers, in families, and in the workplace.
Experiences with class critiques like the one above taught me to develop a thick skin. I was able to learn the ability to separate myself from my work. Through the years, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of the concept of constructive criticism.
Constructive criticism must always be given with the right motive. If the motivation isn’t to help me improve personally, professionally, or artistically, then there will naturally be nothing constructive about it. The class critique was supposed to be a learning exercise to help each artist realize areas that needed improvement. Instead, it often ended up being a time to tear everyone else down in hopes make their own work look better. Selfish motives have nothing to do with constructive criticism.
Constructive criticism must always be received with the right motivation. Do you really want to improve? Are you looking to learn, grow, and develop your skills? Is the project you are working on important enough to step away from and look at objectively? If your motivation isn’t constructive, then no amount of constructive criticism, no matter how well given, will ever be positively received.
With these motivations in mind, let’s take a look at some ways that we can put this concept into practice.
Giving Constructive Criticism:
- Know your audience. Are you talking to your employees, your peers, your boss, your spouse, or your children? Each situation requires a certain amount of respect. Understanding the individual’s personality and need for respect will help you not to come off as condescending or arrogant.
- Understand that the purpose of constructive criticism is to build someone up and help them improve. A great leader will understand that they are responsible to build others up and help them become better people, workers, and leaders.
- Give constructive criticism privately. Never tear someone’s work down or show your disapproval in front of others. This will only be met with defensiveness. Instead, pull the person aside or set up a time to go over the points of improvement personally.
- Point out the good things. Where did they do well? What potential do you see in them? Point out those things before you point out the negative. Be sure to end the conversation on a positive note as well.
- Don’t try constructive criticism when you’re angry. If the work simply doesn’t measure up or they dropped the ball it’s easy to get upset. Calm down first before you have your talk. The criticism won’t be constructive if you’re angry. Instead it will come off as a sarcastic scolding. If the work simply cannot be redeemed or corrective action needs to take place, take the time to make that assessment. If that is the case, then disciplinary measures may need to be taken instead. Know the difference between constructive criticism and disciplinary action.
- Remember how it feels to be on the receiving end. Think of times when constructive criticism has been given to you. When did it go well? How was it done? When did it go badly? How can you avoid the same mistakes?
Receiving Constructive Criticism:
- Consider the source. Who is the one giving you the criticism? Is it your boss, your peer, your spouse, or employee, or your child? While all of them often have the right to speak into our work and our lives, it’s important to understand each one individually. Consider their intentions. Do they have your best interest in mind? Could they be right? Sometimes criticism comes from outside sources, strangers, customers, acquaintances, or perhaps readers. Weigh their criticism objectively. Could they be right? Could they have their own agenda? Using discernment, take what you can use and discard the rest.
- Ask for the opinions of others; especially those you respect. Seek their input on important projects as you work. It’s a lot easier to receive honest feedback before the work is completed. When constructive criticism is sought after, is a lot easier to swallow.
- Don’t take it personally. This is probably the most difficult aspect of receiving constructive criticism. As we often find our security and purpose in life in our work, when it’s criticized, we personally feel the pain. It’s important to realize that your work is a reflection of you, not an extension of you. Someone does not have to agree with you or love everything that you do to like you as a person.
- Hang on to the positive. If someone tells me ten positive things and points out one negative, it’s very easy to dwell on the negative. Criticism is often much louder than praise. However, those good points are just as important. Hang on to them and use those to build on as you continue to grow and improve.
- Avoid getting defensive. When someone points out something wrong with our work, our first response is often to defend it. Constructive criticism easily turns into confrontation when the receiver becomes defensive. If you find yourself getting defensive, take a deep breath and force yourself not to react negatively. Remove yourself from the situation as soon as possible and then revisit the criticism when you can be more objective.
There really isn’t anything easy about constructive criticism. Both giving it and receiving it can be very difficult or painful experiences. Even if criticism is given in the most constructive manner possible, it can still be met with opposition and hurt. Putting these principles in practice in both the home and the workplace will only be steps in the right direction.
If you would like more information on giving and receiving criticism, I invite you to read my other hubs on the subject: Feedback: Stop Making Excuses or Blaming Others When Receiving Criticism and Feedback: How to Handle False Criticism at Work.
Constructive criticism takes a lot of practice. What experiences have you had? What has worked well for you in the past? What hasn’t? Perhaps we can all learn from each other. I’d love to read your comments on this subject.