I have seen a lot of criticism in my days. And not all of it is constructive. Criticism is simply the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes. But the expression of that criticism, and the goal in expressing it, varies. Criticism given without the intent or delivery to help, is not constructive. There’s a notion going around that if someone responds negatively to criticism they just ‘can’t handle a little constructive criticism’. If you criticize something someone does and they take it ‘badly’, consider that maybe you’re not being as constructive as you think.
But that’s alright. Giving constructive criticism is a skill. And like any skill it’s something that needs to be taught, practiced, and grown. In an attempt to help bridge the gap between the criticizers and criticizees (yes I know that’s not a real word), I would like to run you through the basics of how to turn criticism into constructive feedback.
Rule One: Only Offer When Asked
This, obviously, does not apply to things such as a job. If you are a boss, and your employee does something incorrect, you need to step in and fix it, regardless of if they want to know about it. (They probably do, you’d be surprised, as most people like to do their best work). For art, however, not everyone putting something out into the world is asking for critique.
Sometimes, as often happens, you just make something kinda cool or fun and just want to show it off. Like when a kid draws a stick-figure version of their family. They aren’t asking for their parents to sit them down and go over proper proportions and color theory. No, they want their parents to say “Hey, you made something, and that on it’s own is pretty neat,” and then stick that drawing right up there on the fridge. Art is a skill that needs time and practice to grow. You may now know someone’s skill level. They may just be at the point where they want you to say “Hey, you made a thing, and that’s cool!”
The act of sitting down and making anything is, by nature, pretty dang awesome. So unless someone has shown you something and specifically asked for honest, critique-like feedback, just be in awe by the very fact that they sat down and devoted the time to making something that didn’t exist before. This person has made themself vulnerable by sharing their art with you. And that alone is quite the accomplishment.
Rule Two: Start With the Good
Nothing, and I mean nothing, is ever without an inherent goodness. Art, work, relationships, everything has a positive outlook to it. I’m reminded of an episode of Friends, where Joey’s character was in a pretty lack-luster T.V. show. After watching the pilot, the rest of the characters sit around trying to dool out what small compliments they can muster: It had good lighting, the costumes were good, oh, the marvels of modern technology. Although small and seemingly non-relative to the overall ‘goodness’ of the show, there’s still a goodness to be found.
If you can’t find something to compliment someone on for a task or piece of art, then you may not be looking hard enough. A worker comes to you and says they messed up placing an order? “Thank you for coming to me first instead of trying to fix it on your own or letting it go unnoticed. I appreciate your honesty and willingness to admit your mistakes”. A child’s stick-figure drawing of their family? “I can tell you really care about your family because you spent the time to specifically pick out their favorite color for each of them and that shows a real awareness of what they like”. A friend calls you ten minutes before you were supposed to meet to cancel your outing? “Thank you for calling me instead of just sending a text or not even contacting me at all. I know you’re busy and I appreciate you letting me know”.
There’s a good spin to everything, and finding it and explaining it helps the critique go well. A spoonful of sugar and all that…
Why before and not after?
You may be wondering why you wouldn’t want to start with the bad and end on a good note. Get the bad news out of the way and then you can go off listening to the good. I don’t know what it is about the human brain but good news and bad news don’t hold the same lasting effects.
For whatever evolutionary advantage it brought about, the mind tends to linger on the bad more than the good. And, worse yet, being in a state of bad-lingering makes it harder to see anything good.
If you spend ten minutes telling someone everything that didn’t work in their piece and then end with ‘hey but your use of rhyming was cool’. They probably didn’t even hear that last part. They’re too busy obsessing over everything else.
However, if you start with ‘first of all, I love how you used rhyming in this’, and then went into what needed some work, the person is going to remember how you liked their rhyming. They may even use that to help work on the rest of the issues. And, they’ll have been so happy that you liked their rhyming, they might not take as big a hit from the rest of what you said.
So, please, start with the good.
Rule Three: Change Your Language
No, I don’t mean start speaking Russian or Cantonese, (unless you already speak Russian or Cantonese, in which case don’t start speaking French or Italian). I mean re-frame your state of mind, and the state of mind in the person you are critiquing, by changing certain words you use. You’ll notice I have yet to use the word “wrong” in this posting. I used incorrect. Inaccurate. Lack-luster. But never wrong. Never bad.
Because good and bad are subjective. And critique needs to have an objective tone to it. An objective style helps battle RSD (rejection sensitive dysphoria). By removing your subjective indications, you tell the artist/worker/etc. that this isn’t personal. Granted, it’s hard to talk about certain things, especially art, without some kind of subjective opinion. But the overall tone should be factual-based.
Re-shaping how you say certain things plays a good note in the human mind. You can think ‘it’s bad, horrible, awful’ all you want. But don’t say that. Think first, and ask yourself how hearing what you would say would make you feel.
Here’s a handy list of some common critique languages and their less-intense counterparts:
This is bad – This doesn’t have the same weight and effect as the rest of the piece
This is wrong – This part could use a little work
You’re bad – You’re still learning
I don’t like this – I find this bit a little jarring
This is too *insert adjective here* – This area is a little heavy handed, maybe some subtlety would serve it better
This is stupid – This doesn’t stand up to your usual quality of work
Here’s how you should do it – May I show you a different way that might work better?
The argument for sugar coating:
You catch more flies with honey.
But in all honesty, Mary Poppins was right. A spoonful of sugar does help the medicine go down. You can ‘tough-love’ it out all you want, but not everyone reacts well to that. In fact, I’m not sure how many do react well to tough-love, but I’m betting it’s a little lower than you’d think. I’ve come to notice that a lot of people who claim that tough-love toughens a person up, are actually really bad at receiving criticism themselves (be it constructive or not). Now, I’m no psychologist, but I’m betting it’s some kind of cycle. Everyone was hard on me so I’ll be hard on everyone…
Now, I use the term ‘sugar coating’ here because I can guess some people (who made it past the first section without quitting outright) might look at this list and say something about special snowflakes. But it’s hardly a secret that being in the right frame of mind makes learning something a lot easier. It’s why breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Being well-fed, well-rested, and generally well taken care of eases your day.
And the same is true for receiving constructive criticism. If you tell me something is bad, I will feel bad, and I will not be in the right state of mind to learn what is good. But if you tell me something is good and just needs a little work to be better, I’m all ears. I’m eager. I want to learn, and I want to be better.
And that’s the ticket.
People want to be better. Everyone wants to do their best, and the closer they are (or, importantly, think they are) the harder they will work to reach that better goal. But if they think they’re already bad or wrong, their motivation lessens. They see a longer stretch of road before them and sometimes they just don’t have the strength or energy to deal with all that.
So shorten that road and help them along.
Rule Four: For the Love of All That is Holy, Please Be Specific and Give Examples
Imagine this: You are tasked with building a lego house. You are given a pile of bricks and set about your business. You build a truly awesome house. It took you hours. You are really proud of that house.
Then the person you told you to build that house comes along, says, “No, that’s not right, fix it,” and then walks away.
Fix what? How?
If you are going to criticize someone, you should be ready and willing to offer advice on how to be better.
Let me repeat that, just in case you skimmed over it.
If you are going to criticize someone, you should be ready and willing to offer advice on how to be better.
Critique, by nature, implies that the critic knows what they are talking about, one way or another. Maybe they spent years in school learning how to be a manager. Maybe they’ve published seven best selling novels. Maybe they’ve just watched a lot of movies and interacted with other viewers to see what was ‘good’ and ‘bad’. For whatever reason, a critic has some factor of authority on the matter at hand. Therefore, if you feel you are in the position to offer constructive criticism, then you should know why the things you’re pointing out don’t work and ideas on how to fix them up.
The flip side to this is if you are not actually in a position to be properly critiquing something, but the person who made that thing or did that job is asking for your feedback. In this case it’s even more important that you offer some kind of advice with your comments. Harder, of course, because you may not know the answers. But you should at least be able to vocalize why something doesn’t feel right or fit. For example: you may not have the poetic knowledge to understand that every other line of a poem is written in iambic pentameter but one line isn’t. But you do know something is off about it. The rhythm doesn’t flow. You can pinpoint. And all good constructive criticism pinpoints.
This act of specifics and advice goes back to the concept of humans wanting to do better. You really wanted to build a good lego house. You really wanted to impress that person and knock their socks off with how cool it was! But they didn’t think it was cool. And you have no idea why. You’re lost, and each time you try to fix the house they keep saying ‘it’s wrong’. How many times do you try before you give up?
Now imagine that person comes back after that first house building. They say, “This is a cool house, but I need that lego house to have a pointed roof, not a flat one.” How many tries would it have taken you to figure that out? But now, you know. You can build that roof they wanted and finish the task with a job well done.
Apply that policy to any piece of art or job that needs to be done. No one can read your mind. No one can read the mind of art. (And if we could, I guarantee you it would be scary in there). Everyone needs a little direction or, at the very least, a little indication. If an employee fills out a form wrong, show them how to fill it out right. If someone shows you a painting that feels off-balance, point out where in the composition things are askew. If your roommate keeps putting the dishes away in the wrong spot, show them where the right spot is (or get together and decide as a team where things should go).
Pinpoint, explain, advise.
Giving good constructive criticism is hard, and it takes a great deal of time and effort if you’re going to do it correctly. But doing it correctly is the number one way to make sure it is well received and, in the end, helps the person you’re critiquing. And if your goal in criticizing someone isn’t to help them improve, then I suggest you don’t criticize them at all.
It can take a while before you naturally start to get the flow of giving constructive criticism, but keep at it and soon you’ll find that it comes easily.
Remember this, most of all:
Constructive criticism should be more constructive than criticism. If your feedback doesn’t pave a proper path for improvement, then it’s not constructive enough. Re-frame your language and point out specifics with advice on moving forward.