Constructive Criticism: How to Give and Receive Healthy, Positive Feedback

Think back to the last time you received feedback from a coworker, friend, or family member – was it a helpful tool for growth, or did it leave you feeling discouraged and defeated? The power of feedback lies not just in what someone says but in how they say it. That can be the difference between helpful, constructive criticism and potentially harmful conversations.

Constructive feedback is essential to human relationships and growth. The feedback you give allows you to improve interactions with others, and the feedback you receive empowers you to make positive changes in your thoughts and actions. But, as with most interpersonal matters, there is a time, a place, and a manner of giving feedback that helps rather than harms.

The Benefits of Constructive Criticism

It’s easy to assume that the sole purpose of constructive criticism is to push someone to “do better,” but this would be a mistake. 

There are several significant benefits to both giving and receiving feedback in a positive way, and some are less obvious than others. Therefore, understanding the purpose of good feedback is essential whether you find yourself on the giving or receiving end.

Room for Growth

Consider the role of the word “constructive” in the phrase “constructive criticism.” The main reason to give feedback is to help construct or build something up in the recipient. Whether it highlights something new a person might not have known or offers advice on something they’re struggling with, helpful criticism facilitates growth.

Life is a journey of continuous progress through experience, and constructive criticism is one of our most powerful tools in that quest. Effective feedback gives a person a new perspective on developing a skill or adapting their behavior to grow into a fuller version of themselves.

Improving Communication Skills

Delivering or receiving negative feedback is not always easy. Yet, ironically, that is one of its greatest strengths.

One person offering suggestions on how another can improve is a sensitive subject. If handled poorly, it can trigger insecurity and defensiveness, and lead to tension between people. 

Therefore, it is crucial for those providing feedback to think it through beforehand and deliver their thoughts respectfully. Likewise, the recipient of such advice has a responsibility to process it thoughtfully and try not to take it personally.

By engaging in this process, both parties will hone their communication skills and ability to navigate difficult conversations.

Strengthening Relationships

Healthy relationships rely on honesty, and constructive criticism is a form of positive, structured honesty.

In addition to improving communication skills, the ability to give and receive feedback enables people to voice concerns and work together to find solutions. Partnering in this effort can help to strengthen bonds, build empathy, and increase both parties’ respect for one another.

The Characteristics of Constructive Feedback

Even when you strive to offer critical feedback in a constructive way, it’s easy to misstep and end up hurting someone’s feelings or creating uncomfortable tension between you. So let’s look at what positive, constructive feedback looks like in practice, so we can start to separate what is supportive from what isn’t.

It’s Respectful. The aim of constructive criticism is never to insult or put someone down. On the contrary, the goal is always to support and work with the person to improve something. As such, treating the recipient with respect is a necessary component of constructive feedback.

It’s Specific. If the goal is to help someone improve, they’ll need a clear idea of what to improve and, ideally, how. Critiques that are too broad or vague will often come across as unsupportive or insulting.

It’s Actionable. Constructive feedback should focus on things that are within the recipient’s control so that they can take action on it. Criticizing things like someone’s personality, innate talent, or physical characteristics leaves them with little they can do and much to feel down about. 

It’s Balanced. While the motivation behind constructive criticism is often to address something negative, that doesn’t mean it should ignore positives. Reaffirming a person’s relevant strengths or what they are doing well gives them motivation, support, and something to build on as they improve.

Examples of Constructive Criticism

Before we move on to how to give constructive criticism, let’s look at a few examples of what it looks like when it’s working well. Note how each of the examples in the following sections includes all the traits of great feedback discussed above.

From a Mentor

Mentors typically have much more experience than their mentees and may also hold a position of authority over them. As a result, feedback from mentors can be some of the most valuable anyone receives, but it can also be the most harmful if handled poorly.

  • “Your writing has always been strong, but it seems you’re still struggling with presenting your ideas out loud. Let’s look for more ways you can get experience with public speaking to help build that confidence.”
  • “You’ve gotten so proficient with your everyday work that it might be time to branch out and start building some new skills. Try contacting a manager from another department to see if you can shadow them for a day to learn about what they do.”
  • “The strength training you’ve been doing is clearly paying off. Next, consider adding a new stretching routine to increase your flexibility and speed, and reduce the risk of injuries.”

In all these cases, the mentor acknowledges what their mentee has been doing well, and builds on those strengths by offering new, specific directions to go next.

From a Peer

A peer, such as a friend or a colleague, can be an incredibly insightful source of advice. A peer is likely to have similar life experience to yours and be in similar situations. However, as every person is unique, a peer might have a valuable perspective on your life that significantly differs from your own view.

  • “I noticed you’ve been struggling to complete those reports correctly. Those things can be such a pain. Here’s something I started doing recently that made them a lot easier…”
  • “Would you like to spar with me sometime to iron out some of our weak spots together?” 
  • “I’m sure you have a lot on your plate right now, but it’s harder for me to do my job when I don’t know what you’re working on. Is there any way you could start emailing me a periodic update on your status, maybe once or twice a week?”

Delivering feedback as a peer often relies on emphasizing mutual experience. This type of conversation should highlight the giver’s intentions to work together on a shared challenge.

From a Loved One

Close personal relationships are one of the areas where clear, honest feedback is most important, but also where it can be the riskiest. Constructive conversations with loved ones can help ensure everyone’s needs are being met, but it is vital to be thoughtful and intentional about these conversations so as not to cause undue harm.

  • “I know you were trying to make a joke, but I find it hurtful when you talk about me that way. Could you try using gentler language or avoiding that subject when it comes to me?”
  • “In the future, I’d love it if you could loop me in before making a decision like that, so we can talk about what we both want.”
  • “Thank you for your help with making dinner! Next time, I bet it can be even better if we take it out of the oven a few minutes sooner.”

Relationship feedback often centers on sensitive subjects and can be some of the toughest to give successfully. With all constructive criticism, but especially here, it is crucial to signal an effort to work together for a solution that benefits everyone. Accusations, harsh language, or generalizations can quickly turn this feedback process sour.

Tips for Giving Constructive Criticism

As the person giving constructive criticism, you have a responsibility to think about how to give feedback in a helpful way. In this role, you carry the burden of initiating and framing the conversation around positivity and collaboration.

Before you next give a performance review or have a difficult conversation with a loved one, there are a few key things you should know about giving constructive feedback.

Plan Ahead When Possible

When someone is underperforming, doing something you don’t like, or in any other way showing room for improvement, it’s easy to spot what you’d like to change. However, it’s harder to shape that raw idea into something that will benefit the other person to hear and lead to changes that will benefit both of you.

Anytime you would like to deliver feedback to someone, it’s best to spend some time in advance considering what you’d like to say and how best to say it.

It may also be a good idea to notify the other person beforehand that you would like to give them feedback. This option may not always be the right choice, but it can often help to set the stage for success.

Show Respect and Empathy

For any criticism to be constructive, it must originate from a place of respect. Whether or not you intend to hurt someone’s feelings, your feedback will be unsuccessful if that’s the case. Instead, they will likely be more receptive to your suggestions if you approach them respectfully.

While giving someone advice, do your best to show that you understand their situation, at least in part. The goal here is not to place accusations or blame for the past but to provide feedback on the present and help the person move forward.

Use Specific Examples and Suggestions

Remember that good constructive criticism is actionable; it gives the recipient steps to take to improve the situation. The more specific your feedback is, the more likely a person will be able to understand it, process it, and make effective changes.

For instance, telling a friend they’re always late is broad and unhelpful. Even if it’s true, it sounds like an accusation and is more likely to make that person feel defensive than motivate them to change their behavior. 

Instead, you could tell that friend they’ve been over fifteen minutes late the last few times you’ve seen them, and you don’t appreciate being left waiting. You could follow up by asking them to leave the house earlier next time or giving themselves more time to get ready. It’s still their decision how to respond, but by offering them this specific, actionable feedback, you provide them with something easier to swallow and address.

Include Positives

Adding to the respect and empathy side of giving corrective feedback, it can significantly improve the interaction to temper your suggestions with praise for things that are going well.

Reassuring the person of their strengths and what they are doing well reminds them that you are on the same team. You intend to help them and work together, not to break them down, and offering a more holistic picture in your feedback bolsters that intent.

One option is the classic “compliment sandwich” — beginning and ending on a positive note, with more difficult feedback in the middle. But more broadly, what matters most is that the person receiving feedback understands they are in a supportive space and that the two of you are working together.

Receiving Constructive Feedback

Receiving uncomfortable feedback can be as heavy a burden as giving it. As much as you may enjoy opportunities to grow and improve, it can still be challenging to hear about your potential weaknesses and shortcomings.

Consider the following tips to get the most out of the constructive feedback you receive and gracefully navigate the sometimes uncomfortable experience.

Develop a Growth Mindset

A growth mindset is a set of beliefs that people continuously learn and grow through experience.

The alternative, a fixed mindset, leads someone to believe that their abilities, skills, and worth are inherent and remain the same throughout life.

A fixed mindset can make receiving constructive feedback tough emotionally. In this case, hearing that there’s something you’re not doing well will feel like a negative remark on your character and a blow to your self-esteem.

On the other hand, a growth mindset embraces the importance of showing up and doing the work. With this mindset, you’ll be able to treat feedback as a gift to aid your growth rather than a personal insult.

Don’t Take It Personally

People giving constructive criticism usually mean to help, but as the tips above showed, we don’t always get it right. Keeping this in mind while receiving advice helps you to keep the other person’s words in perspective and focus on the content of what they’re saying.

Receiving feedback is an emotional experience, but when emotions take too much control over the conversation, it becomes difficult to get any value out of it.

When critique triggers a strong emotional response, try to remind yourself that you are on the same team and the other person is trying to support you. They may not be showing it well, but they, like you, are doing their best.

Ask Clarifying Questions

You can maximize the value of the feedback you get from others by seeking to understand it fully.

Suppose the person across the table follows the guidelines above for giving good feedback. In that case, they will likely be able to provide you with specific examples and suggestions for what they’re talking about. However, that won’t always be the case.

Either way, you can get more out of the conversation by engaging it with curiosity.

Try to ask questions and clarify what the person is saying and what they’re suggesting. This way, it will be much easier to turn that advice into actionable steps for growth and improvement.

Reflect on the Feedback

Taking time to reflect on the feedback you’ve received is a crucial step in transmuting it into positive changes once you are out of the conversation.

The initial discussion is often quite emotionally charged, and there can be a lot to juggle mentally and emotionally. After you receive feedback and have some time to recenter yourself, it’s well worth sitting down to think, journal, or discuss the situation with a third party.

How did the conversation feel? Looking back, do you agree with the advice? If you accept the feedback, what steps will you follow to address it? Answering some of these questions can help you process the initial conversation and distill whatever value you need to take from it.

Constructing a Path Forward Together

Constructive feedback is necessary for human growth both individually and in relationships. But that doesn’t mean it’s always easy to give or receive. Going into a critical conversation without enough thought or respect for the other person can strain relationships and leave the underlying issues unresolved.

The most crucial factor in constructive criticism – for both parties – is that you work together. If the giver leads with kind thoughtfulness, and the receiver engages with reflective curiosity, there is tremendous potential for both parties to benefit. As with all things, lead with respect and a willingness to grow, and you’ll have no reason to worry.

Avatar for Sam

Hey, I’m Sam. I created Smarter and Harder to explore big ideas, both old and new, about building a better life. My mission is to evolve the conversation about personal growth and have fun doing it.

Leave a Comment