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How to Give and Take Constructive Criticism

Updated on April 7, 2018

Giving constructive criticism is a little like walking a tightrope. Lean a little too far one way, you're being patronizing; lean a little to far the other way and you're pandering. Giving true constructive criticism is something of an art. Accepting constructive criticism is something that may be akin to sainthood.

Tips on Giving Constructive Criticism

Unsolicited criticism is rarely considered to be constructive because NOBODY ASKED YOU. On the other hand, if you see somebody just destroying something they are trying to accomplish and you want to give them the benefit of your expertise and experience, ASK if they would mind a little constructive criticism. Then if they agree, you are not giving unsolicited criticism, because in effect, when they acquiesced to the offer of criticism they actually created a de facto solicitation. This will hold up in any court of manners, but just to be safe, consult with a Certified Courtesy Consultant.

"I", not "You"

When conveying your constructive criticism, try to avoid using the pronoun, "you." Whenever you say, "you", it sounds like an accusation. If you say, "I would do it like this," all of a sudden your listener has the option of giving you constructive criticism on an equal basis. As we all know, equality brings peace.

Also try to state it positively.

Not: "Don't do it like that, you moron."

More: "You might find it easier (safer, more efficient, less lethal, etc.) to do it this way."

No Puffery

Avoid pumping up your credentials to give your constructive criticism more validity. Just say, "I've done this a few times before." That will suffice. Nobody likes to feel like a fool, and nobody wants to hear you recite your curriculum vitae.

Their Choice

If they don't want to listen to you, so be it. Don't take it personally. What are you, insecure? Let it go, for chrissakes. If the idiot wants to screw it up all by her- or himself, let 'em. It really is no reflection on you or your doubtless impressive credentials on any given subject, but more an indication of their level of stubbornness or perhaps stupidity, both of which are akin. Also, their expertise may actually exceed yours, hard though it may be to believe, which is always embarrassing.


Tips on Taking Constructive Criticism

The most important thing, since life is short, is identifying actual, bonafide constructive criticism and assuring yourself it is not mere stupid and incorrect advice which is far more ubiquitous than real constructive criticism. Unfortunately there is no sure way to tell in advance if the information is going to be useful or useLESS.

If you are happy doing things the way you do them, inefficient and ineffective as your technique might be, you can politely decline an offer of constructive criticism. If the person insists on giving you constructive criticism against your will, you should continue to be civil, but you could be a bit less polite.

If you feel the way you are doing things could be improved, then you should put away false pride and listen to someone who might know better. Listen with an open mind and a closed mouth that you will open only to ask pertinent questions.

If you seek constructive criticism, then you should tuck your ego away where it won't get as easily bruised and let your criticizer proceed, no holds barred. Because you are looking for help, you must assume that you are unhappy with the way things are progressing. Therefore you should be eager for possible solutions and act upon them enthusiastically.

Three don'ts:

  • Do not ask advice and then constantly interrupt the advisor
  • Do not argue with the person giving you advice
  • Do not belittle the advice you get

NOT Constructive

"You're crazy," said my psychiatrist.

"I want a second opinion," said I.

"Okay," she replied. "You're ugly, too."

Henny Youngman's great old joke illustrates a difference between constructive criticism and an insult. Constructive criticism is a way to show a person specific ways in which they can improve, not a means to indict their inherent characteristics.

"What are you, stupid? You're gonna blow up the car!" for example, is not constructive criticism.

"Connect the black jumper cable to the engine block instead of the negative battery terminal to avoid dangerous sparking that might otherwise result," is constructive criticism.

Constructive criticism, in other words, criticizes actions, not people. Often the most effective constructive criticism does not even mention the person.

Turning Bad Criticism Into Good Advice

If you are secure in yourself, you needn't be insulted when someone offers you advice. However, your advisor may be insecure. Before they advise you, they may have to assert their superiority in knowledge, experience, intelligence, social class, etc. If you ignore this, smiling a vacuous smile the while, it will go away and the advisor will get on with the advice.

Ask questions in a respectful way - not in a challenging or impatient way. By doing so you may be able control the tone of the encounter and change it from obnoxious to worthwhile.

In the end it's all about information and communication. If you don't have the information, you need someone to communicate it to you. It is in your own best interest to facilitate the process.


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