How to Give Criticism w/out Being a Jackass

Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man's growth without destroying his roots. - Frank A. Clark

The employee evaluation, the teacher conference, the family meeting. We all have moments where criticism is given and received. Here’s something to keep in mind when you come to the table as either party.

Someone with a fixed mindset, who sees failure as a personal assault to ego, will not take criticism well.  To that person failure is not growth, it’s personal shortcoming. Knowing this going in, being sensitive to it, and trying to counter that person’s false mindset will go a long way to helping them not take criticism personally.

With that said, here are some more ideas / strategies to keep in mind when giving criticism. In this great Life Hacker article, How to give Criticism without Sounding Like a Jerk, they’ve got one piece of advice, in particular, that resonates.

Ask yourself why you’re giving advice and criticism.

Decent criticism should be about a shared interest or goal. If your criticism is about a performance or an action that only serves to improve your life (and not the life and goals of the person being criticized), then you’re in jerk territory. To help the critique come off better, be sure and remind all involved of what those shared goals are exactly and what ideal outcomes would look like for all. After that’s established, the critique should have a context that interests all parties.

Consider the delivery

Management books from the 20th century tout the sandwich method -- nice thing said, criticism said, another nice thing said. But let’s face it, we here in the 21st century are jaded by this clearly gimmicky technique. In this day and age, everyone can taste the shit in the shit sandwich of criticism.

Better advice comes from Daniel Dennett in his book, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking, highlighted here at the inspiring blog, Brain Pickings.

Dennett, summarized, says:

  • Re-express your understanding of what happened, the common goals, and the logical reason they made the error or did something a particular way.
  • List any points of agreement or comradery with said issue, error, technique needing improvement.
  • Mention something you have learned from them, this incident or something you respect about how they live / work.
  • After saying these things, and only after, can you offer criticism.

Help them Learn and Grow

Yes, this is about the shared goal, a shortcoming, a failure, an organization, but it’s also about the person you’re criticizing. For them, it’s about them.  It’s about their goals and their lives and their failures and growth opportunities.  So help them figure out, for themselves, how this might have gone better for all.

If you can do it without sounding like an ass, ask them what they might do next time or if they have concerns or questions about your advice / criticism. Brainstorm solutions when possible, versus simply telling the person what should be done. You’re not above learning either and everyone has gifts to offer.  Even someone who recently made a mistake.

In the end, know that decent criticism will garner respect from the person receiving it.  If anyone walks away sad, angry or defeated, you did it wrong and someone might soon sit you down and give criticism about how you give criticism.  Just saying.

Human Unlimited
Human Unlimited