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How to Constructively Criticize Without Being Offensive

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

Two men are having a conversation, and one made a surprising facial expression

Criticism, in its essence, plays a crucial role in personal and professional development. However, delivering criticism in a way that doesn't bruise egos or affect relationships is a skill that requires finesse and understanding. This article will delve into the techniques of delivering criticism effectively, ensuring that it serves its purpose of fostering growth and improvement.

Table of Contents

1. Call Attention to Mistakes Indirectly

Highlighting someone's mistake directly can often come off as harsh or confrontational. Therefore, it is advisable to bring attention to the error in an indirect, non-aggressive manner.

Take, for instance, Let's say you're a company owner, and you encounter your employees smoking in an area clearly marked 'No Smoking.' If you react with frustration and directly point to the sign, saying something like, 'Can't you read this sign? Don't smoke here!' this approach may come across as arrogant and irritating. In such cases, your employees may become upset and resistant to changing their behavior, questioning your authority.

However, if you respond with a friendly tone and a smile, you can say something like, 'I'll appreciate it if you will smoke in the smoking area.' By doing so, you avoid directly criticizing them or referring to the sign, instead, you make them feel valued and respected, encouraging a more positive response.

2. Use 'And' Instead of 'But' When You Criticise

Praise and compliments can play a significant role in cushioning the impact of criticism. However, the use of the word 'but' can often negate the effect of prior praise, making the criticism seem more harsh and prominent.

Criticism often starts with sincere praise and compliments, followed by the word 'but' and ending with a critical statement. For instance, when a parent wants to address their child's careless attitude towards studies after they have received a low grade on their math exam, they may say something like: 'I'm so proud of you for raising your grade this term, but if you had worked harder, your results would have been better.' child felt encouraged until he heard the word 'but'. The use of the word 'but' can cause the child to question the sincerity of the original praise and compliments, as it may appear to be a contrived lead to a critical inference of failure. And we would fail to improve child's attitude towards study and their desire to improve.

To overcome this, we can replace the word 'but' with 'and' to show that the praise is genuine and not followed by an inference of failure. For example, they could say: 'I'm so proud of you for raising your grade this term, and by persisting in this effort next term, your math grade can be up with all others.' This way, the child would accept the praise without feeling discouraged by the following criticism.

3. The Art of Indirect Influence

There are instances where direct criticism might not be the best approach. In such cases, creating a scenario that subtly conveys the message can be an effective strategy.

This episode is from 'How to Win Friends and Influence People.' When the lady returned from work, she noticed that the yard was littered with the cut ends of lumber left behind by the builders she had hired to construct an addition to her house. She didn't want to confront the builders because they had done excellent work. Instead, after the workers had left for the day, she and her children took it upon themselves to collect and neatly stack all the lumber debris in one corner of the yard.

The following day, she called the foreman and expressed her satisfaction, saying, 'I'm genuinely pleased with how tidy the front lawn was left last night; it looks clean and won't disturb the neighbors.' From that day, the workers began picking up and stacking the debris on their own, ensuring the lawn was in excellent condition after each day's work.

The workers likely thought something like, 'Who cleaned up the leftover lumber? It wasn't us, but she appreciates our efforts.' By creating this sense of mystery and influence, she encouraged the workers to maintain a clean workspace without pressure or awkwardness. However, if she had said something like, 'I noticed lumber debris was left in the yard yesterday, so I decided to help out by tidying it up a bit. It just feels better to start the day with a clean workspace, don't you think?' the workers' perception might have been different.

4.Talk About Your Own Mistake First

Sharing personal experiences or mistakes can make the criticism more relatable and less harsh. This approach gives the message that everyone makes mistakes and learning from them is what matters.

For example, imagine you have teenage children, and they start regularly eating junk food. As a parent with personal experience, you want to help them break this habit. Instead of just saying, 'Stop eating unhealthy food right now; it's bad for you,' you might say, 'I used to eat a lot of junk food, just like you do now, and it had a significant impact on my physical appearance. It led to an unattractive and unhealthy shape. People judged me and made fun of my appearance, and it even made it hard to find a job. It also harmed my mental health because of that. It kept going until I improved my diet and started regular exercise.'

By sharing your own mistakes, you're helping your children see the real-life impact of poor dietary choices. While it's widely known that junk food is bad for health, they may not be fully aware of the long-term effects until you explain it in a relatable way. This approach can be more effective in helping them make healthier choices

5. Empathy in Criticism

Understanding the other person's perspective can make criticism more effective. Before criticizing, it's essential to remember the other person's level of experience or understanding.

When Dale Carnegie's niece started working for him, he noticed her mistake and before criticizing her asked himself ' Just a minute. I'm twice older than her. I have had ten thousand times of business experience than her. How can I possibly expect her to have the same viewpoint, judgment, and initiative?' And thought about what he was doing when he was her age, about the mistake he made.

After thinking he told her 'You made a mistake, but it's not worse than many I have made. And you're better than I was at my age. I have been guilty of so many stupid, silly things myself. I have very little inclination to criticize you or anyone. But don't you think it would've been wiser if you had done so and so? ' By sharing his own mistakes and shortcomings, he encouraged her to do better in the future. When someone talks about their mistake first, we wouldn't feel like they were strongly criticized, instead, we would feel like they seriously want to help us. Especially if they say 'you are better than they were' we would feel great.

6. Asking Questions Instead of Giving Direct Criticism

Asking questions can be a non-confrontational way of pointing out mistakes. This approach encourages the person to reflect on their actions and realize their mistakes on their own.

Instead of giving direct commands such as 'Do this' or 'Don't do that', you can ask questions like 'What do you think of it?' or 'Do you think that would work?'

Asking questions not only makes feedback more palatable but also stimulates the recipient's creativity. It empowers them to think critically and consider potential solutions when receiving constructive criticism.

7. Focusing on the Action, Not the Person

When criticizing, it's important to focus on the specific action that needs improvement, rather than criticizing the person as a whole. This reduces defensiveness and makes the person more receptive to change.

8. Do it Privately

The timing of criticism plays a crucial role in how it's received. It's better to give criticism privately and at a time when the person is most receptive.

9. Offer Solutions

Lastly, criticism should be constructive. Instead of just pointing out the problem, offer a solution or an alternative. This gives the person a clear path to improvement and shows your intention of help them improve.

Constructive criticism, when delivered correctly, can foster growth and improvement. By incorporating these techniques, we can ensure that our criticism is received in the right spirit and leads to positive change.


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