Constructive criticism. How’s that for a contradiction?

It sounds like a good concept of course, a more or less neutral way of delivering negative feedback. In reality, constructive criticism is often only the latter: criticism. There’s not much constructive about it, as there are very few people who ever truly learn from negative feedback.

Part of that is on the receiving party’s end. Some people just can’t handle criticism, or even any feedback at all. But a big part of the problem is with the one doling out the feedback.

Constructive feedback often goes wrong because it’s dished out at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons and in the wrong way.

Here are three ways through the process of hearing (and giving) criticism.

The wrong time for feedback

There’s such a thing as the wrong time for constructive criticism, when we’re feeling attacked for instance. When we feel like it’s personal, like someone is attacking us, it’s usually not a good time to give feedback. We’re too emotional, too involved. We need to step away from our emotions first and allow our ratio to take over.

Another timing issue is when we wait too long. If you wait too long, negative feedback is useless. People won’t remember the exact facts, details will have gotten lost and you can’t have an honest conversation that way anymore. And what’s the point anyway, it’s not like you can change the past, do anything to correct mistakes after the fact. If you want to confront someone, do it as soon as possible.

The wrong reason for feedback

Criticism should be about the other person. When it’s about us, not them, there’s something wrong with our reason for giving feedback. Sometimes what we think of someone else’s actions has everything to do with us and very little with them.

One of my ‘red buttons’ for instance, is when someone tells me what to do, when someone makes decisions for me. I hate it when people do that. But criticizing them for that is more about me than it is about something they did wrong.

Before you say anything, take a few minutes to question yourself. Why do you perceive the other person’s actions as negative? Is it really worth criticizing someone, or do you experience these actions in such a way because of something you feel or think?

The wrong way for feedback

It’s easy to say that ‘they’ll just have to learn to deal with it’, but in reality, it doesn’t work like that.

We always have to think of the other person when we give constructive feedback.

Take some time to think about what you know about the other person before you confront him or her. What do you know about this person? How will they take your feedback? Is there anything you can do to soften the blow, to make them more open to it, to lessen the chance of them getting hurt?

The goal isn’t just to give criticism. The goal is to give constructive criticism, to give feedback in such a way that it will actually be helpful.

There’s another aspect to confronting others. When we give negative feedback, we often assume we’re right. But who says we are? What we have seen, heard, or witnessed may be only a fraction of a bigger picture. There’s an incredible arrogance in assuming that our version of the story, our interpretation is the truth.

I’ve learned a lot from Brené Brown in this and how she approaches situations like this. She focuses on the story we tell ourselves about what happened—and the need to check if this story corresponds with how the other person experienced it. “Here’s the story I’m telling myself about what just happened,” we might say. “Is that accurate or did you experience it differently?”

Few people will like constructive criticism. But if and when we give negative feedback the right way, we may open up an important dialogue that could be as beneficial to us as to the other.


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About The Author

Rachel Blom has done youth ministry for over 15 years in several countries. She’s a writer, speaker, blogger, a walking encyclopedia of completely useless facts, and the author of the book Storify (Youth Cartel). @rachelblom