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Constructive Criticism – an oxymoron?

About a month ago, Laura Catalano posted the following discussion on the Learning, Education and Training Professionals Group on LinkedIN: “Constructive criticism … why do people take it so personally?”

She had an overwhelming number of responses. Many shared answers to the direct questions and others offered constructive advice on how to share feedback effectively. Following is a synopsis of this very rich discussion.

Answering the question: Why DO people take so personally?

Because the receiver…

  • Feels attacked
  • Takes is personally
  • Doesn’t trust the “critic”
  • May think he/she is always right
  • May be insecure or lack confidence
  • May be a perfectionist
  • May feel defensive, embarrassed
  • Knows they need to change something but doesn’t know how and can’t admit it
  • Doesn’t perceive the input as “constructive”; only as “critical”

Because the giver…

  • Doesn’t deliver the message well
  • Makes the recipient feel judged
  • Isn’t empathetic
  • Approaches the recipient at the wrong time, in the wrong place, and with the wrong mindset

The nature of “criticism”

  • It IS personal
  • We live in a sensitive society
  • Criticism makes people feel threatened. Defensive behavior is a protective mechanism

Call it by a better name!

Many participants in the discussion feel that “criticism” is by nature a negative word.  So the consensus is that we not call it “criticism,” but rather, “FEEDBACK”!

Best strategies for sharing feedback

Thanks to all of the discussion participants who offered a plethora of tips and suggestions on giving feedback.

Considerations prior to the conversation

  • When: Consider the timing
  1. Are you in the right mind to give feedback that isn’t emotional?
  2. Is the recipient in the frame of mind to hear feedback?
  • Who: Consider who is the best one to give the feedback;
  1. Someone who respects the receiver and doesn’t rub them the wrong way
  2. Establish Trust and Positive Intent, before trying to offer feedback. Only when you give your RESPECT, can you also share your feedback.
  • How: Consider the beneficiary
  1. For whom and for what reason are you giving feedback? For that person? For your team? For your comfort?
  2. Not everyone will hear the same message in the same way. Consider HOW the recipient will hear it.
  3. Feedback is received differently by different people. For instance, “Thinking” vs. “Feeling” (the Myers/Jung Type model). A head vs. heart kind of approach. Knowing someone’s preference can make a huge difference in whether your message “can be heard” and then acted upon by the receiver.
  • Practice! Do some role plays to practice giving feedback effectively.

Suggested techniques for sharing feedback

  • Make it a conversation
  1. Ask THEM! Give the recipient an opportunity to evaluate themselves. Ask them what they think “worked well” and “what they’d do differently.”
  2. Don’t “blame.” Rather position it as an opportunity for improvement (as all strive for, you included)
  3. Permission and Reflection: First ask permission to give feedback. Report behaviors and observed results. Then ask what they were trying to accomplish
  4. 2-way: feedback (‘criticism’) is a two-way process. It’s much better to ask questions and have people give themselves feedback (both motivational and developmental). Ask for input and listen to it!
  5. Replace  “BUT” with “AND.” When you use a “but” you negate whatever came before.
  • Critique the behavior/work not the person
  1. Criticize the performance and Praise the Performer (this was attributed to Zig Ziglar) (i.e. “your PPT contained all the relevant information” vs. “you did a great PPT”)
  2. Focus on “objective” comments, not “subjective”
  3. Offer “observations,” not “judgments”
  • Focus on the future: position feedback as opportunities for growth and improvement
  • Feedback Cocktails  – many feel this techniques works well; others feel this technique is less effective, either because people see through the “Shit sandwich” (their word, not mine), or they only hear the positives. For this reason, this is probably less popular advice than the more conversational approach.
  1. 3+1 Model: Balance the “needs improvement” comments with a greater number of positive comments.  Others say 3+1 might not be enough; maybe 5 + 1?
  2. Feedback Sandwich” Sandwich your “constructive feedback” between two statements about what’s being done well.
  3. Follow up by trying to catch them doing something good
  • CAIR model. Provide CONTEXT: “In this morning’s meeting…”. State the ACTION: “…when you pounded your fist on the table…” Explain the IMPACT: “… it effectively shut down the conversation; people stopped contributing.” REQUEST a behavior: “In future meetings, if you are upset, I want you to talk to me after the meeting….”
  • Afterward, ask for feedback on how your feedback was delivered – find out it if was “hearable” or how you might improve
  • Ongoing: Provide feedback regularly.
  1. Take time to give positive feedback too!
  2. Don’t make feedback an “event.”


Aristotle said in his The Nicomachean Ethics, “Anybody can become angry, that is easy; but to be angry with the right person, and to the right degree, and at the right time, and for the right purpose, and in the right way, that is not within everybody’s power, that is not easy.”

1 thought on “Constructive Criticism – an oxymoron?”

  1. The Unicorn Lady says:

    Thanks for summarizing this discussion.

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