Welcome to the fourth instalment in my productivity series. Today I want to discuss the concept of constructive criticism and how we can better ourselves through this whilst consequently increasing our time spent in action- the aim is to be thinking, planning, doing and creating more often.
This post is a little longer than I anticipated so I’ll be sharing it with you in two parts. This is a good opportunity for me to trial a different format and perhaps make an adjustment to my posting schedule if well received!
Here’s what I challenge myself to remember: life is a journey and not so much a linear path destined for one moment of arrival. Instead, it’s fluid and messy, mapped by highs and lows and moments where we get it right and wrong. Perhaps we miss something if we avoid our mistakes and fail to receive criticism. Perhaps criticism is actually an invitation and a gateway for growth, deeper living, and richer relationships.
Constructive criticism is the process of offering valid, well reasoned and actionable feedback on other’s work, whilst making sure to acknowledge the areas in which they excelled and those that need improvement. This critique should be presented in a friendly manner rather than a confrontational, argumentative way. For many people presented with constructive criticism on work they’ve done, whether for personal or work use, it can be hard to take such words with grace. It may feel like a blow to your ego or bring up hard to deal with feelings of uncertainty. Mastering the art of constructive criticism is a necessity in today’s day and age. It is inevitable that you will need these skills in your day to day life. Therefore, it begs the question- how best can I offer constructive criticism that is actually helpful?
Too many of us are guilty of speaking without thinking, which is the reason for the age old adage- we have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.
This is something I’d highly recommend you carry with you and keep in mind at all times. When offered incorrectly, constructive criticism is of no help and can easily do more harm than good. Criticism, even coming from someone who is well intentioned, can feel like an attack. If you’ve ever experienced something like this, you’ll know what happens next. The person on the receiving end of what is meant to be constructive criticism starts to distance and shut themselves off from the person on the giving end. They are no longer receptive to what is being said and will have trouble absorbing it as they are put on the defensive. This is, at the heart of the matter, a protection mechanism our minds put in place. Many times, it’s not about the intended message but instead the way it is communicated. A few poorly chosen words can derail an encounter, just as clear, concise feedback can make all the difference. The same message will be interpreted differently depending on how it is spoken.
It takes growing up and doing consistent internal work to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy reactions to criticism. If I’m honest with myself, I still at times struggle to accept critique with an open mind and heart. It can be easier to play defence, putting up gloved fists and spouting off rationalisations for things I’ve said or done. This defense can be quite telling though and is often an indicator of the criticism being spot on.
The key has been in learning to differentiate between destructive and constructive criticism and how I can approach both when presented with them. It’s also been a matter of reminding myself that nobody is perfect or without fault and we are all rightfully criticised throughout life. Either way, criticism can be challenging, as it injures our pride and is a humble reminder that there is always more to learn.
Ways to give constructive criticism:
Use the feedback sandwich method.
Life coach Celestine Chua recommends using the Feedback Sandwich method whenever doling out advice. In other words, start off with a point of praise or affirming comment, then get into the area of feedback where you make suggestions as to how the person can improve. Make sure to round out this constructive criticism by reiterating the positives and ending the conversation on an encouraging note. This way, the criticism is sandwiched between two positives, making it a lot easier to digest. This is a valuable technique and can help to make difficult conversations more manageable.
Focus on the situation and refrain from making it personal.
It’s critical that you focus on the situation rather than the person as this will ensure your conversation goes smoothly. If changing who you are is easy, we’d all be doing it! When a problem arises, why is our first reaction to hone in on how the person involved needs to fix themselves? As a general rule, if you are stewing over an issue for so long that you enter the realm of overthinking, you already have your answer. Change is needed. Good communication can save relationships and make any situation approachable- don’t just tell the person where they went wrong but expand on how they can improve.
The best thing you can do is talk to people in their own language. Figure out what they can relate and respond to, then speak to that. Tailor your conversations to be relevant and unique to the person you’re speaking to in order to come off as more sincere. Listen, acknowledge, explore and respond- even the best listeners respond too quickly, turning a conversation into a debate where it isn’t needed. Don’t you hate it when you feel people ignore you? It’s critical that you let the other person know you’ve heard them. A collaborative conversation is powerful in that it can eradicate issues when both parties are willing to compromise to some extent. Acknowledge the other person by verbally clarifying their point then respond in a timely and diplomatic manner.
Incorporate a personal anecdote.
Entrepreneur and business owner Charlie Harary is a firm believer in what he calls the Straw Man method. Harary is co-owner of a multi million dollar firm, long time American investor, strategic advisor, professor, motivational speaker and more. Harry knows that the potential for greatness lies in every person. One thing is for sure- he has unlocked the so called secret to success.
When making a point, you would employ the Straw Man method by telling an inspiring story about someone else to illustrate your point. Try to give critique through this anecdote as a clever way of deflecting from the issue at hand. Points to you if they are well known or a celebrity! This shows a clear before and after and helps the person you are advising to see that this advice has worked miracles for someone else. Critique is much easier to deal with when the heat and focus isn’t all on you. Use the opportunity to give critique as a humble reminder- we are only human and many of the issues we face as individuals are relatable to others!
Offer specific advice.
There is nothing more discouraging than being told you aren’t working up to standard, but not knowing where to start in improving. This keeps the discussion focussed and gives the other person a concrete area of improvement. Say you were doing a group task and had a member that wasn’t on top of their share of the work.
Instead of saying “You do almost nothing for the group,” say “Could you make an effort to fill out the group log and document our work more often? I’ve been doing that a lot lately.”
Remember, you want to diffuse the situation at hand, not cause further irritation!
Be conscious of your language and tone.
Leo Babuata is an author and creator of programs Sea Change and Fearless Training. He advises that conversations where criticism is involved are best kept light. Don’t be too harsh on the other person and always be mindful of your language. Speak in a calm, reassuring manner and let the other person know what you’d like to see more of rather than less of.
Remember to use “I feel” over “You” statements to avoid conflict. Many situations are not about directing and placing blame on someone else, but about working together to neutralise and find a solve for the issue at hand. “You” language can be construed as blaming others and placing the emphasis on what they are doing wrong. “I” language, on the other hand, involves taking responsibility for your own opinions and increases your emotional control.
Be considerate of the other person’s feelings.
If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all. A saying that is true to this day! It is important to exercise compassion and maturity in all encounters with other people as you don’t know what they are going through at any given moment. Take care not to overplay situations and recognise when you are in a position of powerful influence. If you are the one critiquing, you are the difference between a good or bad day for the person on the receiving end.