Who else shudders when their stakeholder asks to give them some “constructive criticism” about their latest data presentation?
If you’re multitasking, I want you to stop the other thing(s) you’re doing (safely) and imagine this constructive criticism scenario:
You’ve been slaving away on a quarterly campaign readout for weeks. A lot is riding on this presentation; you’ve conducted an in-depth analysis and are preparing to make recommendations for big program changes.
You’re running it past your VP, who is notoriously picky and takes no prisoners during the feedback process. Deep in your bones, you know that they're going to slice it up your hard work like a regifted Christmas Panetonne cake that no one wants to eat.
You finish explaining one particular slide, and the first thing they say is…
“Hmm…I really don’t like how you represented our campaign budget allocation in a pie chart. Don’t you know that they’re public enemy #1 in the data viz world? And the colors are really ugly. Please change it. Next slide!”
Take a moment to really visualize that. How did it feel? Not so great, maybe even like a sucker punch? Almost like being accused of not communicating well, instead of being seen for your hard work?
And chances are, there’s more “constructive feedback” where that came from.
You leave that review feeling like a deflated Pikachu balloon in the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade. I've run out of holiday analogies.
And what about other “constructive” feedback like:
- You shouldn’t have put that there.
- I wouldn’t have done it that way. Or,
- Did you double-check your numbers? They don’t look right.
Or, how about when you’re asked to give your VP feedback and when you do, they suddenly become defensive and argumentative. You find that the conversation has gone from constructive to DESTRUCTIVE in a matter of minutes.
Does any of this sound familiar? If it does, and you’re interested in learning why this happens and how to avoid it, this post is for you!
Click here to download a free script for giving more effective constructive criticism!
The Inspiration for an Effective Constructive Criticism Method
For the last two years, I've been studying a form of conflict resolution called Non-Violent Communication (or NVC). Along the way, I learned productive tools of navigating tricky situations like giving constructive criticism.
But I had an a-ha moment as I prepared for my next data storytelling workshop. At the end of the workshop, I take students through my capstone Live Exercise. This is a simulation where participants present a data story to the class as if we are their stakeholders, and we provide communal feedback.
But as this next workshop approached, I looked back and realized that I had never before used those communication tools during the Live Exercise. Sadly, I recalled the presenting students’ looks of rejection and slumped or closed body language when we all dove in with our assessments headfirst.
It dawned on me that when we deliver our valuable insights in a group setting, this effect is way amplified! A simple piece of negative feedback received alone is hard enough, but in front of our peers and superiors, it can feel like a public lynching.
Giving and receiving feedback is a part of our daily lives as digital analysts and marketers, and yet, I've observed the process degrade into tension, discord, and downright uncomfortable exchanges.
I resolved to change that with my next class and created a solution.
And, I was blown away by the results.
Before I share my constructive criticism method with you, let’s try to understand what’s at the root of this systemic issue.
Why Do We Give Constructive Criticism?
The reason why we give feedback to others is simple: we are too close to our own work, and the more lenses we place on it, the more we reveal useful facets.
But how we deliver that feedback is, in my experience, as important as the feedback itself. Our delivery can affect how receptive to and motivated they are to USE our feedback.
Delivered in a judgmental way, it can build an invisible wall of resistance in the recipient that blocks it from productively landing with them.
This is because we human beings have a core human need to be seen and appreciated for our accomplishments. This core need is called significance, and it makes us feel important and useful to the world.
We all have a need to feel seen and appreciated, and since we spend more waking hours with our coworkers than our own families, that need is quite present in the workplace.
A Closer Look At Constructive Criticism
My alter-ego CSI-loving forensic scientist loves to put concepts like this that we normally accept at face value under the microscope. Let’s dissect “constructive criticism”, starting with “criticism”:
Criticism is officially defined as “the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.” The key word I wish to highlight here is “perceived faults”, or the idea that something is inherently wrong.
In deepening my study of non-violent communication, I realized that I, like so many others, tend to first look for what’s wrong instead of what’s right.
As a result, we generally operate from a scarcity mindset. The scarcity mindset can create a competitive culture in our corporate environments that feels more like prizefighting than partnership. I could go on for days on how adopting abundance vs. scarcity mindsets would transform businesses, but that’s a topic for another day.
Somewhere along the line, we inserted “constructive” in front of the word “criticism” to possibly rationalize the lens of negativity by adding an air of utility.
Well, I hate to be the bearer of negative news, but in my experience, positioning negative feedback as useful may seem to justify giving it, but doesn’t take the sting out of receiving it.
That sting is what creates the wall of resistance that prevents them from wanting to use your feedback despite your good intentions!
Criticism vs. Critique
Now, there’s another term that resonates more deeply when I think about the purpose of giving feedback.
That word is…critique:
A critique is defined as “a detailed analysis and assessment of something.” Notice what’s missing from this definition in contrast with criticism: the inherent negative perception of fault or wrongness. It may seem subtle, but it makes all the difference in how feedback is given and received.
Where so-called constructive criticism defaults to pointing out what’s wrong first, a neutral critique can build a bridge to that person and create receptivity to the feedback.
I’ve crafted a unique constructive criticism method I call the “Conscious Critique”, conscious meaning that you are bringing an awareness to your evaluations and assessments to minimize conflict.
Conscious Critique: The A.S.S.E.S.S. Method
The Conscious Critique is distilled from principles of NVC and the “Sandwich” feedback method, which “sandwiches” critical input with positive appreciation. It was also inspired by techniques outlined in “Good Charts”, my favorite data storytelling book by Harvard Business Review editor and friend Scott Berinato.
I will use the acronym A.S.S.E.S.S. to walk you through our constructive criticism example. My A.S.S.E.S.S. method will help you keep the peace and create a communication culture of feedback without fear.
Ready? Of course you are.
1: ACKNOWLEDGE their effort first.
Victor Frankl once wisely and famously stated:
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
It is one of my most favorite quotes and portrays a philosophy that has taken years to integrate into my approach to communication. This step of the Conscious Critique represents that space between stimulus and response. If you take only one technique from this post, make it this one:
Before you criticize them, compliment them.
Huh, you ask? Why would I compliment them if I don’t like their work? I’ll tell you why: because there must be something redeeming about the work they’ve done, and, they’re human beings who just like you have that need for significance.
When you acknowledge their effort before rendering judgment, you lower their wall of resistance to your feedback. Think of this as the first slice of bread in the Sandwich method: a soft, doughy cushion for the critical filling to come.
You can acknowledge them by saying:
- “Wow, I really like how you…”
- “I love what you did with the…”
- “The way you did XYZ makes it so clear to me…”
- Or simply, “Great job!”
In this constructive criticism example, our VP could have said:
“I really like how you showed the story of search clicks vs. conversion rate, I can immediately see how we need to investigate the dip in late October!”
Can you see how different that feels already, as the first thing they say? What to say is a no-brainer, but remembering when to say it is the trick worth learning.
2: STAY CURIOUS and ask questions about the area of feedback.
If I had to give you communication advice for life, it would be to stay curious. When we stop being curious, we create meanings and assumptions and judgments that most of the time are not true.
I’ll say it again. Most of the time, our meanings and judgments are NOT TRUE. And those pesky judgments can get us into trouble with the person we’re communicating with.
You can prevent sounding judgemental by asking:
- “May I ask a question about…”
- “I noticed on the previous slide that you…”.
- “I’m wondering about this particular area”, or my personal favorite,
- “Tell me more about your approach.”
Notice that these phrases generally start with what’s called I-statements. In communication, I-statements make the feedback come from a place of internal, subjective perspective.
Notice the difference when you hear judgmental phrases like:
- “You didn’t do this right”
- “Why didn’t you…”
- “Shouldn’t you have…”
- “Not to poke holes in this, but…” (I’m guilty of this one)
If those feel triggering, it’s because they are negative YOU-statements. When we use YOU-statements, we convey an air of judgment that can breed hostility. A perfectly sound piece of feedback can fall squarely on deaf ears if given with an offensive YOU-statement.
In our constructive criticism example, our VP could have avoided resistance by withholding their feedback and first asking:
“I noticed you used a pie chart and different colors to represent our budget allocation. Can you tell me more about your approach?”
That would have elicited an explanation from you that would not only increase their understanding of your thought process but possibly change her perspective on their own feedback!
That’s the power of staying curious. Now, while they're responding…
3: STOP…and just listen.
This step is less about what to do and more about what NOT to do. Try to resist interrupting the presenter while they’re presenting.
Learn to embrace silence when you’re listening; this is an incredibly challenging skill to master. I can say that with confidence as a self-reformed, hole-poking busybody that once didn’t hesitate to butt in with my opinion.
Because our work environments are so competitive, we often just listen to respond with our thoughts, instead of listening to understand their thoughts. So when you feel the urge to jump in, take a deep breath and wait for them to finish.
But how do you know when they’re finished? Either they’ll ask for your thoughts or questions, or they’ll just pause. If they only pause, allow them to take at least one full breath before jumping in.
This is harder than it sounds, but it can be learned.
This is the extra bonus: no matter how much you disagree with their perspective, try to keep a friendly or neutral face while they're speaking. I am a facially expressive person, and unfortunately, this works against me because I tend to show my displeasure or confusion while other's are explaining an opposing view.
Practice your poker face as best as possible so that you don't create tension while they talk.
In a corporate culture where jumping in to insert our opinion is not only tolerated but expected, listening to understand is a tremendously valuable skill in making the other party feel seen and heard.
Once they've finished explaining…
4. EXPRESS what doesn’t work for you and why.
Here’s where the constructive rubber meets the critical road. You’ve gotten to the gooey filling of the sandwich, where you’re relaying what you wish to change. Hopefully you’ve laid a cushiony, bread-y layer of appreciation to soften what’s to come.
In this step, notice I didn’t tell you to express what you believe is wrong with their work. Right and wrong are subjective and sometimes accusatory judgments. You want to continue using I-statements by focusing on what doesn’t work for you, and why.
You can express what doesn’t work for you with softer statements like:
- “This doesn’t work for me because…”
- “In my experience, this hasn’t worked for me because…” Or
- “It didn’t quite land the way with me you had intended because…”.
Back to the constructive criticism example, our VP could say:
“I appreciate why you made the choices you did. The pie chart doesn’t work for me because the segments are out of order and similar in size so I can’t quickly understand the ranking of our budget categories, and I want to make sure our stakeholders see it clearly. ”
This specific and observational feedback is much easier to swallow than a simple potshot, and gives the presenter a clear line of sight to improvement.
Once you've (softly) expressed your hangups…
5. SUGGEST how you would approach it differently.
When I say suggest a different approach, I do not mean dictate what they should or shouldn’t do. That is called a demand, which is the fastest road to resistance. I mean suggest using words like “can” and “could”, which positions the feedback as a request or invitation to change.
On the other hand, using demanding words like “should” and negative words like “can’t” or “wouldn’t” imply judgment and may work against you. My relationship coach alerted me to my habit of “shoulding” on other people, and how it was creating resistance in my relationships.
Ask yourself: Are you more likely to be receptive to a request or a demand?
Less productive phrasing includes:
- “You should do it this way”
- “That can’t be right”, or
- “I wouldn’t have done it like that”
You also want your critique to be extremely specific and actionable. Saying you don’t like something without giving specific direction may not be constructive even if delivered in a conscious way.
To give a genuine suggestion, you can say things like:
- “In my experience, XYZ has worked well”
- “You could try…”
- “You can always…”
- “You may want to…”
- “If I had my way, I might…”
- “In this case, I would”
In our constructive criticism example, the VP could have said:
“If we kept the pie, you could try sorting the segments and label them directly.
In my experience, alternatives like bar charts communicate composition more clearly, and I’ve observed fewer question marks when I use them.
But other than that minor tweak, really nice job!”
Notice what I threw in at the end: a reaffirmation of approval. This is the final soft bread layer of the feedback sandwich.
See how different that felt from their original “constructive” criticism dump?
And last but not least…
6. SOLICIT their thoughts on your suggestions.
Remember, this is a dialogue, not a monologue. If they’re inviting you to give your thoughts, absolutely invite them to give their thoughts in return.
Asking for their input on your input shows that you’re curious as to how your feedback landed for them and helps you collaborate on the most effective way forward.
You can try phrasing like:
- “I’d love to know what you think about that…” Or,
- “What are your thoughts on that?”
Not too complicated here…just asking what others think. Which happens in meetings less than you’d think.
And make sure you ask from a place of genuine curiosity, not reluctance. If you’re outwardly inviting them to express thoughts that are energetically not welcome with you, they will feel it.
From here, either your presenter accepts your feedback in full or you have the opportunity to collaborate on a solution. You may find that even if they don’t agree with your input, their willingness to find middle ground is higher when you’ve defused the charge out of the feedback process.
And that’s the Conscious Critique!
Constructive Criticism Example Recap
Let’s take a look at the full Conscious Critique A.S.S.E.S.S. method one more time:
- ACKNOWLEDGE their effort first.
- STAY CURIOUS about the area of feedback.
- STOP…and just listen.
- EXPRESS what didn’t work for you and why.
- SUGGEST how you would approach it differently.
- SOLICIT their thoughts on your suggestion.
To make learning this method even easier, I’ve created a free printable script that you can use to stay on track during the conversation.
Click below to request your copy:
After going through this constructive criticism example, I invite you to ask yourself: what felt better to you? What would you rather receive? If you’d rather receive critique than criticism, the first step is to start modeling it for others and watch the magic unfold.
But if this method sounds challenging to you, or you feel like a “bad” communicator, fear not.
It’s my deepest belief that no one is bad at anything; there are just people who have the tools and people that don’t have the tools…yet.
And I don't judge others for delivering criticism instead of critique if it’s simply a lack of awareness.
That is, as long as your intentions are not to undermine or humiliate your coworkers. If those are your intentions, that’s worth putting under the microscope too.
If this topic resonates with you and you’re interested in creating a culture of constructive critique, contact me for my new keynote and training module on the A.S.S.E.S.S. method.
Final Thoughts on Constructive Criticism
Transforming criticism into critique with consistent practice is an investment that will pay healthy dividends in your professional future. It will help you build strong rapport in your work relationships, and that goodwill can show up in unexpected places.
The coworker you gave gracious feedback to last month to may become your boss next month, so put the investment in now!
I’ve seen dramatic changes as a result of using this alternative method for constructive criticism. I use this critique framework with my own assistant team, and guess what? They actually enjoy working with me!
And in my last workshop, the Live Exercise created a gracious and vibrant energy that was palpable to everyone in the room. I even asked why one student was smiling during his critique.
“Because their feedback is such a joy to receive!” Ahem…boom.
So, in a world that promotes “shoulding” all over each other, let’s do something kinder and more productive with that space between stimulus and response.
And then, let’s politely ask criticism to vacate the conference room.
Stay curious, my friends.
How do you give and receive constructive criticism? Drop your thoughts here!
Photo series credit: rawpixel on Unsplash