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How to Give Constructive Criticism

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There is a fine line between constructive criticism and destructive criticism and if your conversations result in the latter, it could do a lot of damage.

I have been on both sides of criticism. I’ve offered it to people when it was my responsibility and other times I’ve offered it when I felt like I knew how to do something better. I’ve received criticism in moments that I’ve needed it and also in times when I didn’t want to hear it…

Patterns are everywhere in our lives and I realized that I had a pattern I would follow when I was giving someone constructive criticism. It’s been interesting for me to develop these thoughts and identify when I first learned this framework and to be honest, it’s not very glamorous.

I didn’t learn it at a high-energy personal development conference. I didn’t gain this knowledge from an expensive mentorship program. I learned how to give constructive criticism when I first became a teacher.

I was teaching on the beautiful islands of Saint Kitts and Nevis, in the Caribbean. As our first term was ending, I was responsible for preparing the Grade 5/6 class report cards at our small private school and I got together with a veteran teacher, who was also new to the school, to finish them.

The reporting format was different than the type I grew up with and I remember this teacher asking me “how have you done report cards in the past?” and then she burst out in laughter after realizing I hadn’t done a single report card ever and that I was always older than she thought I was.

After we stopped laughing, we sat down and she walked me through the process of writing report card comments. Fast forward five years later and I’ve realized that in many of my conversations I have with my students in which I have to give feedback, I’ve borrowed a lot from this process.

The process I use to give constructive criticism is broken down below:

  1. Be positive | Begin the conversation on a positive note. Commenting on something the person you are giving feedback to is doing well is a good way to start, or you might choose to offer them a compliment. Be authentic and only say something you actually mean. People will see through it if you don’t.
  2. Offer your feedback | This is your time to provide the feedback you want to give. It is important to understand and know how the person you are talking to responds to feedback. Do they want to know what they are doing incorrect as quickly as possible? If so, just tell them. Would it be easier for you to ask questions that guide them to realize your critique on their own? It might be. Will the person shut down if you aren’t careful with your wording and body language? These three questions are very important to consider when you want to offer constructive criticism.
  3. Next steps | The conversation should ultimately end with both people (or groups) clearly understanding what their next steps should be and when it should be completed by. Closing with another positive comment such as “you’re doing a great job and I can’t wait to see ________ when you’re done!” tells the person receiving the criticism that you care about them.

I really believe that this process can provide you with a framework to follow when navigating the potentially uncomfortable situation of giving someone feedback. I know that when I’ve received criticism within a similar framework, I’m much more open to hearing what and why the person is offering it to me.

Perhaps the fine line between constructive criticism and destructive criticism doesn’t lie in what we say, but in how we say it.

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