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How to Give Constructive Criticism

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Posted 21 September 2011 by Chris FarmerChris Farmer

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Giving constructive criticism

We all need to be corrected, sometimes.

We all make errors.
We all, occasionally, fall below our best.
We need someone to remind us of the correct way forward.

"Course correction" is a vital aid in your achievement of final victory.
The problem is this: Most people hate being corrected, by another. Most hate criticism.

Most people find criticism, embarrassing, annoying and sometimes offensive to receive.

We need criticism, but we don't want it.
Partly, it is our own pride: we don't like admitting that we are wrong.
Partly, it is the other person's way of stating the correction: there is a difference between:

  1. Constructive criticism and
  2. Destructive criticism.

So we need to be able to do two things well:

  1. Take criticisms well
  2. Give criticism well

Here are the notes on each, in turn.

How to take criticism

Decide to take criticism well.

This is the first and most important step: to drop all pretence at perfection and admit that criticism really is valuable: something to be valued and sought for, not something painful, to be avoided.

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The reason that criticism is to be welcomed is that; perfect knowledge is impossible. And even if you do know how to do it, perfect performance is impossible.
So imperfections and errors infect all that we do.

But some things need to be done perfectly.

  1. Your account number needs to be typed in perfectly correctly or it won't be accepted.
  2. The rubber O ring seal has to be fitted correctly or it won't function.
  3. The document has to be spelt correctly, or it won't make the right impression on the buyer.

In this age of computer systems and tight deadlines, things have a narrow margin of error.

So in order to win, you must get it right.

Getting it wrong will cost you.
We have imperfect knowledge and performance, but we need to get it right:

So criticism is good.
Here is the rule: Welcome criticism.
Welcome criticism!
Criticism is good!
Criticism makes you stronger.

Criticism makes you stronger because:

  1. It prevents further loss.
  2. It informs your next action.
  3. It increases your chances of success tomorrow.

How to take criticism

When you are criticised, do the following five things:

  1. Listen to it, and take mental notes.
  2. Check to see if the criticism is:
    a) Wholly true
    b) Partly true
    c) Not true
  3. If you think the criticism is NOT true, then ignore it.
  4. If you think that the criticism is partly or wholly true, then, resolve to make the necessary adaptations to your existing methods: i.e. make some changes.
  5. Thank the person who has given you the criticism.

WOW! Can you imagine a world where people actually did that?

A world where you would absorb criticism, analysed it for truth, made the appropriate evolutionary adaptations to your behaviour, and offer thanks to the giver of the criticism, for the help they have given you.

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What a wonderful world that would be.

We suggest that you make THAT your policy.

The alternative it to NOT do that:

The alternative is to:

  • Not listen to criticism ("How dare you!")
  • Assume all criticism is an insult. ("What do YOU know anyway? YOU'RE not so bloody perfect!")
  • Don't change: be stubborn. ("I am what I am: I can't change that!")
  • Launch a retaliatory attack on the person who criticised you ("People in glass houses shouldn't throw stones!")

How to give construct criticism

Make sure that your message constitutes a valid criticism, not an insult.

  • "You are an idiot" is NOT a criticism. It is an insult.
  • "You have spelled "to", incorrectly: it should have been "TWO" " is a criticism
  • "You are 20 minutes late for the meeting" is a criticism.
  • You are totally unprofessional" is an insult.

Make the distinction between insults and criticism.

Give criticism, NOT insults.

Insults are:

  1. Vague
  2. Emotionalised
  3. Subjective
  4. Do not give a specific corrective action.

Criticisms are the opposite: a criticism is:

  1. Specific
  2. NON emotionalised
  3. Objective
  4. And does suggest a specific corrective action. So:
    1. "You swore in front of the client", is a criticism
    2. "You displayed a bad attitude in front of the client" is an insult.

Get the timing right

Generally, you should speak to the person soon after the event:
Speak up as soon as you can. Don't wait for six months and then bring up some long past misdemeanour.

However, note this:

There are certain circumstances when it IS prudent to wait. I.e. to not steam in and criticise too soon:

These are:

  1. If you are uncertain of the facts.
  2. If you are too angry, to be objective.
  3. Don't criticise people in front of their friends.

Criticising people should be done away from their peer group.

Most people find being criticised a painful experience. It is impossible for them to absorb criticism if it is done in public.

If possible, give your criticism in private.

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