How To Give Constructive Criticism: 6 Helpful Tips

Color Pencil Wave

“People seldom refuse help, if one offers it in the right way.” ~ A. C. Benson.

Have you ever given suggestions which were subsequently ignored?

Have you ever given critiques which were not well received?

Have you ever wanted to give constructive criticism on something, but held back from doing so because you did not know how to convey your intentions across?

How To Give Constructive Criticism in 6 Steps

Today’s guide is on how to give constructive criticism to someone. Whether at work or in relationships, sharing (and receiving) feedback is part and parcel of improvement. If you have ideas on how someone can improve, don’t hold your ideas back – rather, share your criticism constructively. (Provided the subject is something the person has asked to receive feedback on; otherwise, you are merely imposing your judgment on others.)

1. Use the Feedback Sandwich method

The feedback sandwich method is a popular method of giving constructive criticism. It is often used in Toastmasters and in the corporate environment. A simple name I’ve given for the feedback sandwich is PIP, which stands for Positive-Improvement-Positive. (I know others use PIP to represent Praise-Improve-Praise which is different from how I see it. Read on.)

The way it works is this – your feedback process is broken down into 3 segments:

  1. You start off by focusing on the strengths—what you like about the item in question.
  2. Then, you provide the criticism—things you didn’t like; the areas of improvement.
  3. Lastly, you round off the feedback with (a) a reiteration of the positive comments you gave at the beginning and (b) the positive results that can be expected if the criticism is acted upon.

The analogy with a sandwich is made because you wedge your criticism between an opening and an ending – like a patty is wedged between two buns.

The sandwich method is a good framework to use in providing constructive criticism because by starting off with the positive comments, you let the receiver know that you are on his/her side and you are not there to attack him/her. It also recognizes the things that the receiver is doing right, rather than talking only about the improvement areas, which can come across as being insensitive and rude—especially if there is no established rapport between both of you to begin with. The receiver then becomes more receptive to your critique.

After sharing the things you didn’t like or things you felt can be improved, you want to round off the criticism with more positives, because it helps to leave the receiver at a high note, rather than leave him/her dangling with a sour taste in his/her mouth. It also reminds the receiver of what he/she is doing right and reinforces the payoffs of acting upon your criticism.

The sandwich method is most appropriate when it comes to (a) giving criticism to people you don’t know or don’t know well (b) critiquing something to someone who does not know your opinions on the subject. Over time though, after you have established a strong rapport with the person and the person knows your stance on the topic, you can jump straight to the critique itself.

Some people may dislike the feedback sandwich method because they feel it’s unnecessary to give praise for the sake of doing it. However, this isn’t the point of feedback sandwich method and I feel people who feel that way misconstrue its intention. I see the feedback sandwich method as a great way to (a) help the person learn what he/she is doing well, (b) use that as the foundation to share what can be improved on, and finally (c) articulate the benefits that can be seen if the area(s) of improvement is worked on.

2. Focus on the situation, not the person

Sticks in Hand

When critiquing, focus on the situation on hand, not the person.

Example #1: Giving feedback on a person’s dressing style

  • Bad example: “You’re too old-fashioned. You are always wearing granny clothes that makes you look so old and boring.” — While probably said with good intentions, this is not exactly constructive criticism. It makes a personal attack and makes it seem like he/she is the problem.
  • Good example: ‘From my recollection, the clothes I’ve seen you wear before tend to be dull in colors and dated relative to current trends. While there is nothing wrong with that, it makes one come across as older in age and disinterested in one’s personal image.” — The situation is detached from the person. Critique is given on the situation itself.

Example #2: Giving feedback on a person’s character trait

  • Bad example: “You’re always so negative. It’s so draining to be around you.” — Like Example #1, this feedback makes a personal attack at the person. It also does not tell the person what he/she can do, which makes it unconstructive.
  • Good feedback: “There have been times when I was hurt by the comments you gave as they were somewhat demeaning. For example, the last time I bought my new bag, one of the comments you gave was that it was an ugly bag. That took me by surprise and I was quite sad that day.” — While it’s tricky to give constructive criticism when it comes to someone’s personality, here, it is successfully accomplished by separating the person’s actions (that makes him/her negative) from the person him/herself. This then makes it easy to critique the behavior without offending the person in question.

Here are some simple steps to apply this tip:

  1. Firstly, detach the situation from the person. This distinction is crucial. Take the person out of the equation and focus on the behavior / action / situation / issue at hand.
  2. Comment on the issue, not the person. For example, “The clothes are dirty” and not “You are dirty”. “The report is late” and not “You are late”. “The food is oily” and not “You are a bad cook”.
  3. Don’t make personal attacks. Comments like “I’m so sick and tired of…” or “You’re so stupid / negative / lazy / unorganized / ” come across as accusatory.  Stay away from attacks.
  4. Don’t use active voice; use passive voice. Example of active voice vs. passive voice: “You gave a bad presentation.” vs. “The presentation you gave was bad.” Notice that the passive voice shifts the attention away from the person and brings it to the subject matter.
  5. Share how it affects you. Rather than go on and on about how bad the thing is, share how it affects you. This shifts the focus away from the person and onto yourself, which lets the person take a step back to evaluate the situation. It also gives him/her insight to where you are coming from.

3. Be specific with your feedback

Magnifying Glass

The third tip to providing constructive criticism is to be specific.

I receive a lot of feedback in the course of running PE. I found that the more specific the person is when giving the feedback, the more actionable it is for me.

For example, here is an example of a vague feedback vs. a specific feedback (real examples):

  • Vague: “Hey Celes, I’d love it if you can write some articles on communication.”
  • Specific: “Hey Celes, don’t know if you’re taking suggestions but, if ever, I’d love some advice on public speaking.”

The first feedback is very broad – “communication” is a very general topic. To attempt to write an article on “communication” will result in a generic article with diffused tips, which will ultimately provide very weak value. It’s more feasible to write a sub-topic under “communication”, like “networking”, “body language”, or “public speaking”. However, there are so many sub-topics that picking one is a task in itself. While I can research on some good communication topics and narrow down the list from there, the topics I eventually choose may not be what the reader really wants to read.

With the second feedback, it is  more actionable because it is so specific. It tells me right away that “Hey, there’s a request for public speaking articles”, after which I can then plan for an article or series on public speaking. (Which I do intend to write about in the near future.) There is no confusion or second-guessing.

Here is another set of vague vs. specific feedback (hypothetical):

Example: Giving feedback on a report

  • Vague: “Good effort on the report but I didn’t like it. I think there is room for it to be better.” — This feedback is hardly constructive. What do you mean by “didn’t like it”? “Like” and “dislike” are subjective words. Unless objective criteria is used, it’s hard for the person to decipher what is the problem.
  • Specific: “Good effort but there are some things which can be improved – namely, (a) the formatting (b) the final recommendations. The formatting is not standardized – there are some parts that uses Arial font and other parts that uses Times New Roman font. In a formal report, it is best to have a standardized font. For the final recommendations, the ideas are good but they are too brief, especially ideas #1 and #3. The management would need more data to make their assessment.” — Great feedback that is specific. It tells the receiver the 2 key problem areas, why they are problem areas, and specific examples where they appear.

How to make your feedback specific (and actionable):

  1. Focus more on objective points than subjective opinions. Just saying “I don’t like it” is not helpful. On the other hand, stating the specific things you do not like, is helpful.
  2. Break your feedback down into key points. Don’t give your feedback as one big lump. Break it down into various key points, then give your feedback point by point.
  3. Give specific examples of each point. What are the exact situations or examples where the person exhibits the behaviors you highlighted in #2? Point them out. There is no need to highlight every single example – just pointing out 1-2 key examples per point will be sufficient. The intention here is to (a) bring the person’s awareness to things which he/she may be oblivious about (b) illustrate what you mean.

4. Comment on things which can be actioned upon

Flower in Hand

The whole point of giving feedback is to help the person to improve.

Hence, you want to talk about things which the person can do something about, rather than things which are outside of his/her control. Critiquing on the latter makes your criticism constructive; critiquing on the former just makes the person feel bad because he/she can’t do anything about it, even if he/she want to.

Let’s illustrate this with an example. Say your friend is in a singing competition and she is up for the semi-finals. She asks you to critique her performance. Here, actionable critique would be comments regarding her singing style, her intonation, her inflection, and perhaps even her song choice. Critique that is not actionable would be saying that her voice is too husky/low/high when it is something that cannot be changed.

In another example, say your friend just set up a new restaurant. He signs the lease for 12 months, which happens to be a location that has average human traffic. He then approaches you for advice on how he can get the word out about his restaurant.

Saying things like “change the location of your restaurant” really isn’t helpful at all, because the lease has already been signed. You can point out that the location is critical and he can consider a high traffic location for his next branch or if he ever decides to change his current restaurant location, but otherwise he can’t do much about it. Other unactionable critique includes telling him to change his restaurant name or to change the decor of the place, which are already locked and loaded. On the other hand, actionable critique would be to “invite food bloggers for food tasting”, “do a media launch”, “give time-sensitive promotional discounts” or “place advertisements in lifestyle magazines”.

Knowing what’s actionable and unactionable requires you to be empathetic. Understand the person’s situation and his/her objectives, then provide your critique based on that.

5. Give recommendations on how to improve

When all is said and done, it helps to give recommendations on what the person can do to improve.

Firstly, your recommendations will tie up your critique in a nice bow. Everyone has varying perspectives, which means every critique can be interpreted in different ways. Giving your recommendations will give the person a clear idea of what you have in mind. Secondly, giving recommendations provide a strong call-to-action. You want the person to take action on what you have shared, rather than procrastinate.

When giving recommendations, it helps (a) to be specific about the recommendations and (b) to briefly explain the rationale behind the recommendation.

Example: Giving feedback on a presentation

  • Weak recommendation: “The presentation is too long. Make it shorter.” — Not very helpful. Reducing the presentation time can be done via many ways – cutting out the points (which then compromises on the message), removing examples, talking faster, and so on. What exactly do you mean? Part of a constructive criticism includes being specific. (See Tip #3.)
  • Good recommendation: “Instead of 2-3 examples per point which detracts from the main message, limit 1 example to each point. This way, the presentation is more succinct and impactful. Doing this, the presentation length will easily be reduced from 30 minutes to 20 minutes.” – Great recommendation that is specific. Rationale is also provided which explains your point of view to the person.

6. Don’t make assumptions

My final tip to giving constructive criticism is not to make assumptions. When providing criticism, do so within the domain of what you know (as fact) about the person and the subject in question. There’s no need to make any assumptions. Not only does it make the person look bad, it also makes you look bad—especially when your assumption turns out to be wrong.

Below are examples to highlight the difference between giving criticism and making an assumption:

  • Criticism: “The speech was mediocre. The speaker appeared nervous and was not able to lead the audience.”
    • Assumption: “The speaker never had any public speaking experience.” (Not necessary true.)
  • Criticism: “There are numerous language mistakes in the report.”
    • Assumption: “The writer is not a native writer of the language.” (Not necessary true.)
  • Criticism: “The new colleague seems to have anxiety when around male co-workers. She keeps fidgeting and she’s not able to articulate herself well.”
    • Assumption: “The person was brought up in an all-girls environment.” (Not necessary true.)

Further Reading

Be sure to check out the following related articles:

The constructive criticism article is also available in manifestoweb lecture and audio podcast formats.

Images: Color PencilSticks in HandMagnifying Glass, Flower in Hand