Constructive criticism: 7 tips on how to criticize properly

Criticism can be justified. But it is rarely pleasant. Constructive criticism starts exactly here: It wants to correct, but always remains respectful and benevolent in tone and attitude. So it avoids rejection and backtalk, and is more often perceived as pleasant. Criticizing constructively is an art – and one that can be learned. Here’s how to do that – with lots of tips and examples. In addition, we have a checklist for you on how best to give and practice constructive criticism…

Constructive criticism: 7 tips on how to criticize properly

➠ Content: What you can expect

Definition: What is criticism??

The term criticism goes back to the Greek verb "krInein", which means "to distinguish, to separate". One definition of criticism is: criticism is the evaluation of a thing or action using objective or subjective standards. These standards can be used to review books, criticize plays, or reflect on and evaluate people’s behavior.

In English, we prefer to speak of "feedback". It sounds kinder. Especially on the job. Here, behavior, decisions or performance are analyzed, questioned and judged on the basis of existing norms. This basically happens on a daily basis, not only in the so-called feedback discussion.

5 forms of criticism

Giving criticism is unavoidable in professional life. It is the main component of communication. It is therefore crucial for our success to learn and train how to criticize correctly (i.e. constructively) and to deal with criticism appropriately. The term "criticism" is initially neutral and a generic term for various forms of criticism: positive as well as negative criticism, destructive as well as constructive criticism. The distinction is so important because some of these terms are used synonymously. But they are not. Here’s how to distinguish between..

  • Constructive criticism does not only want to point out mistakes, but at the same time tries to find a solution. Giving constructive criticism means remaining respectful, supportive and useful at its core. This form points out alternatives and tries to give relevant hints and own suggestions for improvement.
  • Destructive criticism Criticism is the opposite of that: it wants to attack, harm, put down and is in its essence neither relevant, nor benevolent, nor leading on. But rather a slap in the face of the criticized. Destructive criticism should – as the name suggests – destroy and hit the addressee as well as hurt his feelings. The more, the better.
  • Positive criticism again, most people do not perceive it as criticism at all – precisely because it is positive. Pats on the back, praise, recognition – all these are also forms of criticism. They also judge a work or performance. Only the judgment turns out positively. However, this can also have a destructive effect – for example, if the appreciation is so terse that it becomes worthless or devalues itself. Best example: When someone has sacrificed for the company for 20 years, then resigned and is fobbed off with a hollow "We thank you for your many years of loyalty". Well, thank you!
  • Negative criticism On the other hand, expressing criticism does not automatically have to be destructive. In this case, criticism, rebuke and criticism are given. But this can (and should) be done constructively. Motto: "The feedback must indeed complain about a negative state of affairs, but we find a solution together and on an equal footing."
  • Self-criticism Finally, it is a form of criticism that does not come from the outside. It can be positive as well as negative, destructive as well as constructive. Only we go thereby with ourselves into the court. Partly in the form of self-reflection, partly with the effect of self-dismantling or self-sabotage. It is an art to criticize yourself. Read more HERE.

In order for criticism to be accepted, it requires the right framework conditions. This requires not only a benevolent attitude, but equally a confidential, undisturbed environment. Ideally as a conversation in private.

What is constructive criticism??

Anyone can criticize. To criticize is easy. Not least because we always see the mote in the other person’s eye better than the beam in our own eye. What makes criticism "constructive" and decisively influences its effect, meanwhile, are four elements of constructive criticism that every benevolent critic should be sure to consider. How criticism works depends on four factors:

  • Content of criticism
    First of all, criticism needs a solid basis. It must be justified. Otherwise it remains hollow and unobjective. The content of the criticism must therefore be true in substance.
  • Tone of criticism
    Even if it always takes someone to speak the truth, the tone makes the music. The vernacular already knows this. Gleefully listing mistakes and putting your finger in the wound has as much to do with constructive or useful criticism as analog cheese with Parmigiano Reggiano. Whether people are just complaining destructively or giving really constructive advice can often be seen from the tone, the wording and the quality of the content.
  • Timing of the criticism
    The timing of the criticism also needs to be chosen wisely: Immediately after the faux pas is not bad timing. The error is still fresh, the course of events can be reconstructed. The criticized person has a direct connection to it. But there are also arguments against the real-time correction. More on this later.
  • Intent of the criticism
    And finally, the intention, the motive behind the criticism: Constructive critics are not only characterized by a respectful tone – they are also always benevolent. You want to improve something fundamentally, to help the other person. Correction is essential for this. But it is meant to be as goal-oriented as it is optimizing. The goal is a learning effect. Holding mistakes against one’s counterpart may give one some short-term relief in the moment of anger. However, it helps the other person very little in the question of "what" should be improved and especially "how". Constructive critics therefore take the trouble to consider how their criticism will be received by the interlocutor. You do not simply criticize impulsively. Rather, they are formulated as empathetically as they are concretely – without using any kind of fabric softener. In this way, constructive criticism can at the same time ensure that the relationship is not damaged.

Before you criticize, ask yourself these questions

If you want to criticize something, you should always run your criticism through some kind of question filter beforehand. This improves both the content of the feedback and your attitude towards it:

  • What exactly is the issue?
  • What is the core of the problem?
  • Whom does the criticism concern?
  • What would I like to change specifically?
  • How can this be done?
  • How can I support my counterpart?

Examples of constructive formulations

  • "I have a problem with the fact that … What do you think about it if we rather … at this point?"
  • "I noticed that you … I think that is generally good. For the future, however, I would like you to pay more attention to …"
  • "I do not agree with this. I have also thought about this and think it would be better if …"

Taboo sentences in criticism

  • "That’s typical for you again!"
  • " By the way, others see it the same way."
  • "You always do it wrong!"
  • "Never are you able to…"
  • "What were you thinking?"

5 elements of constructive criticism

In summary, constructive criticism always consists of five main elements:

  1. Constructive criticism is precise
    The constructive critic states clearly and unambiguously what was wrong or not good. Objectively, but without beating around the bush. He does not formulate this in a rude, disrespectful or emotional way. It remains open for explanations, counter-arguments or other points of view.
  2. Constructive criticism is analytical
    Since constructive criticism wants to improve something, it gets to the bottom of the circumstances. It involves them as well as the current situation of the criticized person. In this way, this reflective form of criticism leads to (clever) conclusions, not to snap judgments. It does not contain tumbes nagging, but balanced and practical suggestions.
  3. Constructive criticism offers alternatives
    The constructive critic thinks associatively and in alternatives. Its goal is to find solutions, not just problems and mistakes. Accordingly, he never complains without at the same time making a practicable counterproposal. In doing so, he also mentions possible consequences and implications.
  4. Constructive criticism is situational
    Who criticizes constructively, criticizes a certain situation or behavior – however never generalizing, but always concretely. Sweeping accusations weaken constructive criticism and make it untrustworthy.
  5. Constructive criticism is expressed personally
    Criticism that is passed on to third parties can never be constructive. Proper communication involves expressing constructive criticism personally – in the form of "I messages". This means that the opinion of others must not play a role in constructive criticism. In this way, you can involve your counterpart and he or she has the opportunity to reflect his or her view of things.

Criticism that is voiced in such a well-founded manner seldom misses the mark. It is practically always heard (with a few advice-resistant exceptions).

Common mistakes in criticism

Even if no one likes to be criticized, feedback on one’s own work is enormously important – if only to develop oneself further. If you don’t receive feedback, you can’t improve. Mistakes may remain undiscovered. Often there is even the feeling that no one is interested in your work or performance anyway.

In short: No progress without criticism. But how do you manage to criticize without hurting or demotivating the other person?? Anyone who addresses employees or colleagues about mistakes must demonstrate tact and sensitivity. Venting your anger or frustration about a mistake will only lead to resistance, backtalk and defensiveness. Even justified objections then come to nothing. Again and again, critics make three serious mistakes:

  • The criticism is too direct
    Truth is a weapon. Honesty and directness can hurt. Then the advisor and commentator quickly mutates into a fiend. That’s why it’s important – with all sincere intentions – to have enough sensitivity and tact and to dose one’s feedback. Your counterpart should be able to save face and look you in the eye. Or to put it another way: Be gracious and merciful when giving critical feedback. Encourage and encourage them, as it were, and do not merely put them down. Conversely, you would also want this if you ever gave cause for criticism.
  • Criticism is generalized and sweeping
    Sentences that begin with "You are…" put a stamp on the other person – final. This is firstly presumptuous and secondly mostly wrong. Correct and permissible is at best the "I" message of the type: "To me, that seems so and so…". But be careful: Here you are expressing a subjective opinion that must be backed up with reliable facts and figures. Otherwise, I-messages are nothing more than an exchange of opinions. Generalizations, exaggerations and rhetorical or bogus questions à la "What were you (just) thinking??"Such rhetoric games transport only reproaches, which escalate the discussion.
  • Criticism speaks of one’s own frustration
    Our mood rubs off on our words. If one’s own frustration tolerance is exhausted, an objective dialogue or discourse is hardly possible. Never give feedback when you yourself are in a bad mood, hungry or frustrated. This always rubs off and carries over into the conversation. You should certainly not make the criticism a personal mission. A moralistic undertone is counterproductive.

Constructive criticism rules: Tips and examples

Numerous discussions fail not because people cannot agree. They fail because vanity has long since taken over. Then people no longer listen to each other, no longer respond to arguments – just so that they don’t have to admit that they may have made a mistake, not considered something or simply overshot the mark. It is only about winning and being right. Too bad.

Anyone who, for example, moderates a meeting or leads employees; anyone who argues with colleagues or friends, should know the following tips and ways to constructively criticize their counterpart. At the very least, you should nudge them in a respectful and gentle way and perhaps motivate them to rethink or even give in.

In this context, four steps have proven useful for expressing constructive criticism in a comprehensible and structured manner:

1. Describe your perception

Point out in which situation you refer to which concrete behavior.

2. Show the effects

Prove what consequences this behavior has or can have and prove it.

3. Involve your counterpart

By asking your interlocutor’s point of view, you will obtain additional information about the background, which will make it easier for you to find a solution.

4. Express the request for change

Communicate very clearly what behavior you would like to see in the future. The wish is ideally linked to a benefit for all parties involved.

It is not a matter of pouring a sugar coating of non-committal sweetness over every discussion. This would be just as unproductive. Sometimes one must bring the things on the point and call also (sharply) by the name. Likewise, there are fellow human beings with whom you cannot discuss because they do not listen and prefer to play intellectual arm-wrestling games. Or (which unfortunately also happens) are too stupid to understand the arguments. Then there is only one thing that helps: termination.

Constructive formulations

In all other cases, for example, the following formulations can already help to steer conversations in a constructive direction:

  • "Please tell me first what works – and not what does not work."
  • "You’re probably right, but you could also look at it this way…"
  • "I noticed XYZ. I would suggest you…"
  • "Let’s look at this from a completely different perspective…"
  • "From the last project, we learned that XY doesn’t work. What do you think about the alternative…"
  • "Please don’t explain to me what XY thinks about it – I’m interested in what you think about it…"
  • "I do not agree with point ABC. We are welcome to discuss this, but I would suggest that you…"
  • "What do you think are the causes?"
  • "What would you do differently next time??"
  • "What does your gut feeling tell you about this??"

As you can see, questions can also help to initiate criticism – only without reproach. You give your counterpart the chance for self-knowledge. Used correctly, criticism can be a veritable help, bring about progress and improve results in the long term. This is the kind of climate that both employees and employers want. It ultimately lifts the general mood and improves the working atmosphere, strengthens team spirit and promotes results.

Constructive criticism: Other important tips

How to do that concretely? Here is an overview of the most important tips for constructive criticism:

  • Leave room for (your own) correction.
    You have observed something, analyzed it, criticized it, and at the same time you give hints as to what your counterpart can do better in the future. That’s good! However, even your perception is always piecemeal and ONE possible perspective. Especially at the beginning of the criticism discussion, you should first ask questions – to take stock – in order to get to know other points of view as well. Nobody is perfect – and neither are you. Maybe there is a good explanation for everything. Then you can still discuss how things can be done better in the future. But the criticism is now different.
  • Never criticize in the heat of the moment.
    As already mentioned above: If you are angry about a mistake made by an employee or colleague, do not immediately run into the office of the person concerned and confront him or her. This only leads to emotions boiling up on both sides. Don’t seek the conversation until you can talk about it yourself in a factual and confident manner.
  • Formulate concretely what bothers you.
    Roundabouts of the type "Your work is sloppy." are always to be avoided. You only cause your counterpart to shut down and defend his work. What happens then: Your counterpart justifies himself and emphasizes, for example, the thorough research of the data in the presentation; you criticize that the red thread is missing. You are already talking past each other. By giving concrete examples of what you are criticizing, you give your counterpart the chance to understand and accept the criticism. In short: never criticize sweepingly, but always specifically on the details.
  • Avoid devaluations in your body language.
    You can say many things in a friendly and respectful way – and destroy everything with your body language. Please remember: Your inner attitude will be reflected in your facial expressions and body language sooner rather than later. Not very effective, therefore, are even small pejorative gestures, such as..

➠ Raised eyebrows
➠ Ironic undertone
➠ Rolling eyes
➠ Annoyed sighs
➠ Indignant snorting

If you are not sure whether you are expressing your criticism constructively, you should question this on the basis of our checklist, which you can download here free of charge as a PDF file, print out and carry out at any time.

When is the right time for constructive criticism?

The problem with feedback is in the term itself: They are retrospectives. So criticizing after the fact with a backward glance. "Not good!", says Kelly Garrett, a communication scholar at Ohio State University. In his studies on the subject of criticism, he has found that this form rarely serves its purpose. The timing of when the criticism is delivered is therefore of great importance to its impact, he says.

Should you criticize immediately after a mistake (so-called "real-time correction") or only some time later?? Garrett and his colleagues have investigated this more closely. Result: those who were confronted with the correction immediately after an error were more flexible in their opinions and also accepted the criticism better. The subsequent correction, especially if it has been working for quite a while on the basis of false assumptions or information, on the other hand, is rarely successful. Once we are convinced that we are on the right track, we are unlikely to budge from it – even when the evidence is clearly against us.

Behind this is less defiance, but rather self-protection, say the researchers. To move away would immediately devalue the work done so far. It would be wasted time – and that is frustrating. This is why, in the case of conviction offenders, Garrett recommends criticizing and correcting neither immediately, nor a little later, but much later, if at all. When the person is no longer resistant to advice.

Accept constructive criticism

The best feedback and the most constructive criticism are of no use if they fall on deaf ears and are not accepted. Only those who are able to accept criticism or deal with it constructively learn and develop further.

This does not mean that criticism is always true or justified. As said: there can also be another intention behind it (self-aggrandizement, envy, revenge, know-it-all attitude, …).

However, there is also a kernel of truth in every feedback – even if it is only that you have given cause for it. In addition, the following applies: He who gives out must also be able to take..

5 respectful responses to criticism

(In the order!)

1. Listen
What is the other person saying? What exactly is being criticized? Allow excuses. Never react impulsively or get lost in justifications.

2. Reflect
Never take criticism personally, but see it as feedback and an offer of help. Keeping calm.

3. Admit
Which points are justified? What is true? In the case of justified criticism: accept responsibility, apologize!

4. Disagree
What criticism is not true? In that case: take up, contradict, correct, substantiate.

5. Learning
What do I take away from criticism? What will I change? See and use the opportunity for development.

Either way: learn to deal with criticism in a professional manner. This skill will accompany you throughout your (professional) life and facilitate it accordingly. The ability to take criticism is not only one of the most important soft skills in professional life – it is also a sign of character and emotional maturity.

Tips for the critique conversation

A critique meeting can be enormously profitable. But only if both (!) Pages can handle it. The critic or critics as well as the criticized ones. The following suggestions will also help..

  • Keep the necessary distance
    Having your own faults and weaknesses pointed out to you is never pleasant. The first reflex in such a situation is therefore to defend yourself, justify yourself or attack yourself (the so-called "forward defense"). Do not give in to this impulse. First of all, distance yourself emotionally from the criticism, examine the content self-critically and do not regard the feedback as a personal attack, but as a chance to learn and grow.
  • Take responsibility
    When a mistake is pointed out, it is tempting to blame circumstances or colleagues and delegate blame. But this only shows that you are not prepared to take responsibility yourself. Instead of explaining yourself at length, first take note of the criticism and allow it to sink in.
  • Listen carefully
    If you are only waiting to finally have your say so that you can defend yourself, you will not concentrate on what is being said. Let the feedback giver rather first present his view of things and pay attention to those points which are criticized and criticized: "What disturbs and why??"
  • Ask for it
    Often people say something quite different from what they mean. Not being able to comprehend your counterpart’s point of view and not understanding what is bothering him or her? Then ask questions! Ask him to be more precise and specific about the points he is criticizing. If the critic says what bothers him, but not what you could do better, ask for suggestions for improvement.
  • Demand rules of the game
    Do you have the impression that you are being unfairly or sweepingly criticized, or is the critic being personal?? Then insist on more objectivity and a dialogue at eye level. No one needs to be yelled at and made a slug of for a mistake. If tempers are still too hot, adjourn and continue the conversation at another time.
  • Decide what to take from the feedback
    Compare the criticism with your view (self-perception/foreign perception). Think honestly: Is your counterpart right – even if only on certain points?? Will it improve my work if I accept his suggestions?? Even if criticism scratches the ego: If you have the basic willingness to allow yourself to be (positively) changed, you are taking a big step in the direction of personal development.
  • Be grateful for the criticism
    Why should I be grateful that someone holds my mistakes against me?? – some may ask. Quite simply: because it takes courage to criticize. The person giving the feedback also knows that this situation is unpleasant for you. Nevertheless he has sought the conversation with you. And this is also a kind of compliment: He is interested in further cooperation. And it gives you the opportunity to improve on them.

Quarrel after criticism: What to do?

Even if the criticism was well meant and also well done, some criticized people feel attacked. It is not uncommon for low self-esteem or a narcissistic wound to be behind the criticism. This feeling can easily lead to rage, retaliation, and a desire for revenge. Already the simple criticism turns into a full-blown spat. As the critic, you can counteract this problem from the start. The trick is to make the desired behavior the focus of the conversation, not the mistakes you made. For example, like this:

  • Focus your energy and phrasing on the solution, not the problem.
  • When you tell the person what behavior you would like them to do, talk about how you would do it. This is how your counterpart does not feel attacked.
  • Create a positive picture of the desired and target situation. This will motivate your interlocutor to work towards it.
  • If you keep the goal of the criticism clearly before eyes, you keep also the red thread – and the discussion concentrates – almost by itself – on the solution.

Admittedly, to practice and accept constructive criticism is an art that has to be learned. Only a few manage to do this on the first try. Then only practice, practice, practice helps.

Which also helps – especially when the dust has settled: Get feedback on the feedback. Ask your counterpart or colleague at a later time quite openly how he or she felt about your criticism, how it was received or what would have been better. Even critics are not free of mistakes. The queries also shows your goodwill and interest in constructive cooperation. This will greatly improve the relationship, communication and criticism in the future.

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