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How to give and take constructive criticism

Updated on August 27, 2011

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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    • profile image

      Lynn 6 years ago

      I read a book by Dr. Randy Garner called Constructing Effective Criticsim. It wa excellent with lots of good advice.

    • profile image

      Lemaios 7 years ago from England

      If only more people would understand..

    • Winsome profile image

      Winsome 7 years ago from Southern California by way of Texas

      Sound advice. Uncle Bud Robinson said: "If you are going to insult me, you're going to have to say it in such a way that I can't possibly take it as a compliment." I guess that means that if you look for it, you can find some good in criticism and never look for the negative unless you have to. Cheers.

    • profile image

      \Brenda Scully 8 years ago

      i am open to constructive critisism.......... i think

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      One's first reaction to criticism is self defense, if not anger. It's quite natural. And, to be fair, your first instinct may be correct - the person who is criticizing you may, in fact, know less than you. The point is that you won't know if their advice is valid unless you push that instinct aside a little bit and give them a chance.

    • profile image

      JT 8 years ago

      Wow, great advice. I really struggle with taking any criticism. I like to think I know it all, but I know that's not the truth. I'm sort of argumentative, and my first move is to defend myself, which is a bad strategy. I'm really trying to work on keeping my ears open and my mouth shut. Really, this article is a lesson in humility that we can all learn from. Thanks for posting this!! -JT

    • FitnessProDee profile image

      Dana Gore 8 years ago

      Definitely advice most of need to hear.

      Thanks!

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      No no. Only my writing style is mannered. ;0)

    • Mighty Mom profile image

      Susan Reid 8 years ago from Where Left is Right, CA

      Tom, you are obviously a Certified Courtesy Consultant. Can you tutor me? Thx. MM

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      That sounds excellent, Cindy! Right on target.

    • cindyvine profile image

      Cindy Vine 8 years ago from Cape Town

      Yep, teach my Grade 4's they have to be critical friends. If you emphasize the word friend, then their criticism is mostly constructive

    • Lgali profile image

      Lgali 8 years ago

      good advice nice hub

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      I dunno, can I approve this? :0)

    • Constant Walker profile image

      Constant Walker 8 years ago from Springfield, Oregon

      Good advice here; speaking of which, would you like some? ...

      I have none - just being an ass-hole. ;-)

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      The eyebrow is just a matter of will and practice. YOU CAN DO IT. And no, I have only had one rug rat on my leg at a time, though it may happen someday! :-)

    • earnestshub profile image

      earnestshub 8 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Tom, You have the most handsome face I have ever seen! Many famous people have tried the eyebrow, but you have no peers! You would shed tears for me if you knew how badly I need that eyebrowness. One of my daughter's three year old twin girls can take me out like the garbage! Superspiderman who is almost five does the eyebrow on me and reduces me to mud. I am very afraid of them all. I get lectured, bitten, jumped on and have had more injuries from the twins in three years than I got motorcycle racing for ten! Please Tom I am a real fan, just teach me a couple of muscles to use or at least teach me how to remove twins from my legs. Ever tried to go anywhere with twins on your legs?

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      You, Earnest, are enjoying a very full life. Look what eyebrow flexing does to a person's face! Listen, if you want MY advice....

    • earnestshub profile image

      earnestshub 8 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      Jeez Tom.......... this hub hurts! I have a new muscle to try!

      I have learnt a few things from this hub.

      1. As a grandfather of six I am so jealous of the eyebrow athletics!

      2. I have learnt a lesson about giving unsolicited advice. I had noticed that the unsolicited driving advice I gave a fellow motorist this morning appears to have been wrong in some way!

      I have never considerate manners of any sort before.I might give it a try! Two ex wives, this hub ....Yep..... Could be something in it!

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      What a great idea! Thanks, Pest!

    • Pest profile image

      Pest 8 years ago from A Couch, Lake Odessa, MI

      Sure you cant test out??? You wont have to put in all that time to certified incompetant. Worked for me.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      ahem - actually i have my masters in idiocy from the university of maine at podunk, but i'm pursuing a doctorate in udder incompetance at cowtown college in colby, wisconsin

    • feeweewv profile image

      feeweewv 8 years ago from Between A Dream And Reality

      what kind of hub is this??? were you born an idiot or did u have to work real hard at it???? LOL... just kidding... I learned a lot... ty... I like this one

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      That's ok, Pest! I can go see it myself now!

      MissJamie, everybody whines when they first start to use a muscle. It hurts!

    • Pest profile image

      Pest 8 years ago from A Couch, Lake Odessa, MI

      Sorry tom, I was on my way to therapy when you asked the question. You should be home by now!

    • MissJamieD profile image

      MissJamieD 8 years ago from Minnes-O-ta

      Yes, I'm a bit of a whiner I'm afraid. But I'm working that muscle now. You have to, to learn as a writer:) Thanks Tom.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      That's me, smart guy. I gotta flexible face. What's on your Pest's Internet Woes hub? The parental controls our IT department installed won't let me go there!

    • Pest profile image

      Pest 8 years ago from A Couch, Lake Odessa, MI

      Great Hub Tom. Keep 'em coming!

      Where'd you get the funny looking guy to pose for your avatar? i LOVE IT!

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      Thank you, Miss Jamie. It took me a loooooooooong time to be able to take constructive criticism and still longer to make constructive criticism out of unhelpful criticism. It's not easy in the beginning not to take offense. But it's just a muscle one exercises and gets stronger.

    • MissJamieD profile image

      MissJamieD 8 years ago from Minnes-O-ta

      Very well said, Tom. I actually learned something here. Not to let "constructive" criticism get to me. It may be a well-known antidote to annoying-ism, but I ALWAYS take things too personally. I want to learn and grow, but find it hard to hear that I'm not perfect already:) Thanks for another fun-to-read AND informational hub!

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      Thanks very much Sallys. Was it Steve Jobs who said that information is power?

    • Sally's Trove profile image

      Sherri 8 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      "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."  Wise words.

      These days I offer no constructive criticism of any kind unless I'm asked, or unless there's an idiot in immediate danger of shooting himself in the foot.

      Thumbs up.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      Actually, "maroon" can be a little less stinging than "moron", since it is evocative of a nice color. People from non-English-speaking cultures might even mistake it for a compliment. Thanks, Rochelle, for memories of that quintessential smart ass, Bugs Bunny! :0)

      Welcome Gin! Should I criticize your comment? Not I.

    • Gin Delloway profile image

      Gin Delloway 8 years ago

      great hub!! I like it... =)

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 8 years ago from California Gold Country

      Beautiful strait forward advice. (I will stop calling people "maroons", too.)

      I especially like that this topic came from a request.

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      I avoid giving unsolicited criticism altogether. I might offer to help someone who's having trouble, but I will not usually criticize without an invitation. When invited to criticize, I enter the space of criticism warily, as if it might contain a savage beast. At the first sign of hostility, I retreat altogether from criticism to the safety of the friendly chat. I have no need to prove the value of my criticism, but I know my criticsim has no value to someone who does not want it.

    • Cris A profile image

      Cris A 8 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      I don't know. It seems to me that the reaction to any form of criticism however rash ot sugar-coated depends on the recipient. He may think that there's more or the opposite is meant. So i try to know more about the recipient before dishing one. But that's just my opinion of course :D

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      My kids have the same reaction whenever I take my glasses off! "The eyebrow" is effective enough with them on.

    • Teresa McGurk profile image

      Sheila 8 years ago from The Other Bangor

      Tom, I was here earlier, but your new avatar cracks me up so much that I couldn't leave a comment -- actually, I'll have to go and read the whole hub again, as I can't say anything constru STOP LOOKING AT ME LIKE THAT!

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      Hawkesdream, that is my favorite kind of constructive criticism!

      CC - Constructive Criticism... it's a match! Thanks very much, CC.

    • profile image

      C. C. Riter 8 years ago

      Great piece of work Thomas. thumbs up!

    • Hawkesdream profile image

      Hawkesdream 8 years ago from Cornwall

      Constructive critisism - Don't change anything ,it's perfect as it is!

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      Well, thank you Silver! I guess I'm proselytizing constructive criticism! Never thought of it that way...

    • Silver Freak profile image

      Silver Freak 8 years ago from The state of confusion

      Same line, same reaction here. Some of the old time Cristians used to say, hate the sin, not the sinner - in this case criticize the action, not the actor...??? You know what I mean. I need more coffee. I need to go do something constructive. I mean, I need to go construct something. That always cleans the foggies out.

      Good essay!

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      Thanks for your comment, feline. It's high praise to have been said to have stated the crux of an issue of behavior.

    • profile image

      Feline Prophet 8 years ago

      I zoomed in on the same sentence as Meg..."Constructive criticism, in other words, criticizes actions, not people." That seems to be the crux, and it's something I'm going to have to remember the next time I am tempted to offer constructive criticism!

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      Thank you for those very kind words. I think if people were respectful of each other the world would be a much better place.

    • MindField profile image

      MindField 8 years ago from Portland, Oregon

      Tom - This is first-rate. Belongs in a book of essays on communication and relationships (which you, of course, should write). Your best line in a supremely well-written piece - and one that should be in bold print: "Constructive criticism, in other words, criticizes actions, not people."

      I'm suddenly reminded of this maxim: People would rather be killed by praise than saved by criticism. There's another essay for your book!

    • Tom Rubenoff profile image
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      Tom Rubenoff 8 years ago from United States

      What, no criticism? Ha

    • LowellWriter profile image

      L.A. Walsh 8 years ago from Lowell, MA

      Great ideas. I'm sure we all could learn from your hub. Thank you for answering my request! :o)