Giving constructive criticism can be difficult, but when it’s done well, others will appreciate and benefit from your feedback. Here’s how to share feedback like a Grownup.
Most people want to learn from their mistakes, but almost everyone hates being criticized. Pointing out opportunities for improvement in others can therefore be a bit like walking through a minefield. Even with the best intentions, if you make one wrong step everything could blow up and the other person might shut down.
How can you deliver constructive criticism without turning the other person off? I’ve been honing my technique and sharing what I’ve learned so far.
Have a Feedback Framework
Don’t make things up as you go: When delivering feedback, it can be helpful to have a template in the back of your mind. I’ve learned to adopt and practice framework techniques from members of my local Toastmasters club.
Toastmasters is an international nonprofit that helps people develop their public speaking and leadership skills. After a club member delivers a speech, another member evaluates the speaker’s delivery and offers suggestions for improvement. Last year, I participated in an evaluation contest and came in first place within my club, first in my area (a group of clubs), and then second in the division (a group of areas).
You might already know the basic framework for criticism my club members shared with me. It’s what’s referred to as a shit sandwich (or praise sandwich if expletives aren’t appropriate at the moment). The idea is you start with a compliment, deliver your criticism, and then end on a positive note. The merits of this approach are sometimes questioned and it might not always be the best option, but give it a shot if you’re not sure how to start.
Don’t Be Afraid to Criticize
It can be hard to deliver a bad review. Even within Toastmasters, where evaluation is an essential part of the meeting, I think some people go too easy. Occasionally, I’ll deliver a speech and the evaluator only has positive things to say. I question whether they’re actually watching and listening to me. Even if I did a great job, I know there’s always at least one thing I could have done better.
You certainly don’t want to get shot for being the messenger, and you might not have the luxury of speaking to someone who’s looking forward to receiving feedback. However, you still need to figure out how you’re going to frame your message so it’s well received.
One approach can be gleaned from improv, where you aren’t allowed to say “but.” Instead, try to build off of positives using and: “You’re doing X well and I think you could improve while doing Y.” You could also find another alternative that doesn’t negate the first part of sentence, or simply end the first sentence before moving on to a new thought.
Be as Specific as Possible
Whether you’re delivering praise or critique, try to back up every assertion with a reason.
The difference between, “you did great today” and “you did great today because x, y, and z” can be tenfold. Same goes for negative feedback. “I didn’t like how you addressed the client” versus “I didn’t like how you ended the phone call with the client by saying, ‘Ciao.’ We’ve just started working with them and need to keep a professional tone,” for example.
One of the problems with the praise sandwich is that sometimes people only hear the positives. By backing up your points with specific examples and reasons, you can help make sure every part of your message sinks in. Being specific also lets the other person know that you’re paying attention and you care. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t take extra time to explain your reasoning.
Adjust for Your Audience
A research paper from the Journal of Consumer Research suggests that novices in a field tend to prefer and respond better to positive feedback. However, experts tend to prefer and respond better to negative feedback. This makes sense if you consider novices may need encouragement, while experts are trying to hone their skills.
Don’t take a single research paper as permission to solely dish out negative feedback when someone already has expertise. Rather, view this as one example of how people may want and benefit from different types of advice. If you’re trying to deliver constructive feedback, you may need to change your standard approach (if you have one) for the other person’s benefit.
Some options may include only focusing on positives if the person simply needs reassurance and encouragement. Another could be to focus on one mistake and give the person several options for how they could try to improve.
It can be difficult to toe the line between offering constructive criticism and simply being critical. Starting with a template for how you’ll approach the conversation, offering specific advice, recognizing others’ needs, and staying positive can help ensure your message gets heard.
Louis DeNicola is a freelance personal finance writer
who specializes in credit, debt, and practical money-saving tips.
In addition to being a Grownup, you can find his work on Credit Karma,
MSN Money, Cheapism, Business Insider, and Magnify Money.
Any third-party resources or websites referenced above are not under Society of Grownups control. Society of Grownups cannot guarantee and are not responsible for the accuracy of the resources, websites, or any products or services available through such resources or websites.
While Society of Grownups hopes the information is useful, it’s only intended to provide general education. It’s not legal, tax, or investment advice, and may not apply or be useful to your specific financial situation. If you need recommendations geared to your personal financial situation, schedule time with a financial planner.