Taking criticism is difficult enough, but giving constructive criticism can be really tricky. You may not have complete control over how someone else will perceive your words, but you can do a lot to communicate constructively. Here's how to offer constructive feedback without coming off like a jerk.
Title photo by Monkey Business Images.
Don't Make It Personal
This goes without saying, but one of the most important things to do when you're delivering feedback is to make sure it's not personal. Sure, criticism by nature can be personal, but you need to make a point as the person delivering it to separate your thoughts on someone's work or behaviour from their personality and what you think of them outside of it. Keep your criticism focused on the specifics that you want to discuss, and avoid the temptation to make judgements of the person or their work based on the specific feedback you want to give. Remember, "you need to respond to urgent issues faster" is not the same as "you're slow". You want to communicate the former, not the latter.
Give Kind Criticism, and Remember Why You're Offering Criticism At All
Remember, the point of your criticism is to help someone improve or to correct a problem that impacts them, you and others. You're not venting, you're not working out your stress, and you're not boosting your own ego — if you are, stop now and re-evaluate whether you actually have legitimate criticism to give. If you genuinely want to help someone, or see behaviour that needs to be corrected, make sure your feedback carries that message. Photo by Adam Gregor.
Zen Habits describes this as "kind criticism", where you offer positive and specific suggestions to alleviate the issue at hand, or identify the problem clearly without talking about the person — just the issue. It can be challenging, but the best criticism is the most mindful and the most targeted. From the other side of the table, it's also the easiest to work on because you see the problem clearly and can come up with a way to fix it without feeling like you have to fix yourself as well.
Use the "Sandwich" Approach
You may already be familiar with the sandwich method to delivering criticism. Put simply, you want to "sandwich" your critique between two positive things about the person's work to soften the blow. Too much feedback without a reprieve will alienate the person you're talking to, so the goal of adding compliments to the mix is to give them a mixed bag of ups and downs so they're more likely to pay attention to the whole package.
After all, no one likes sitting and hearing reasons they suck one after another after another — mix it up with some things the person does well or reasons why you like their work. Most importantly though: be sincere about those positives. We all have accurately tuned BS detectors, and we can sense when someone's scraping the bottom of the barrel for positive filler around the real criticism.
Give Feedback, Not Instruction, Unless You Know How to Instruct
It's one thing to tell a family member that you're concerned about their eating habits, but it's another to tell the former how to eat better. You may have absolutely no idea what your family member's lifestyle is — put yourself in their shoes: if someone else came riding in and told you how to live your life, you'd bristle too. Photo by Adam Gregor.
Keep your criticism to your observations and how they impact you, your relationships and your work. Don't try to fix the problem, just identify it. Offer to help fix the problem and to support the solution that the person you're talking to comes up with. Unless you know how to do the work your coworker is doing, don't try to solve it for them — they'll just write off your feedback and ignore you.
Be Specific About The Result You'd Like to See
It's really easy to be snarky and vague — in fact, our culture encourages passive-agressive snark disguised as intelligent commentary. Unfortunately, it's rarely helpful and almost never useful. Instead of saying "You should clean up your act" when talking to a slovenly friend, be specific and say "Wouldn't it be great if your apartment was more organised?" or "You'd look wonderful if you cleaned up a bit." Instead of throwing up your hands and saying "this sucks!", explain why you think that way, and be constructive about what you'd like to see or what would help "this" suck less. No one's going to learn anything from the former, but even though you're unhappy, at least someone can think over and get some ideas for improvement from the latter.
Obey Wheaton's Law: Don't Be an Arsehole
Remember, communication takes two people, and it's easy to forget that when you write off other people's feelings as "the way they interpret your words". I've found that most people who fiercely defend their habit of saying whatever they think without consideration for others are really lamenting the fact that they can't be jerks without someone calling them on it. Remember the rule of the internet and think about how your criticism will be taken. There's a line, of course, but a little sensitivity on both sides goes a long way towards actually solving problems instead of straining relationships and making everything worse.
Do you manage someone or have family members who look to you for honest advice? How do you deliver criticism without coming off like a jerk? Share your tips in the comments below.