After you step down off your soapbox, your team member leaves in a huff and there’s tension so thick that you could cut it with a butter knife. “Sheesh,” you think to yourself as you exit the conference room, “People around here sure don’t know how to take constructive criticism. I was only trying to help!”
Stop right there. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the issue here might not be your colleague’s assumed sensitivity. Instead, the issue could be you.
That’s right—when it comes to constructive criticism, you need to pay close attention to your delivery. Avoid these common mistakes to ensure that you come off as a helpful and contributing team member—and not a rude and arrogant jerk.
1. You’re Not Offering Anything Constructive
Despite what you might believe, the operative word in “constructive criticism” is constructive—not criticism. So, that means you need to place the majority of your emphasis on offering solutions, and not just pointing out problems.
Yes, you can still direct attention to an apparent flaw in someone’s way of thinking. However, you need to make sure that you follow up with a helpful suggestion. Let’s look at a simple example: If one of your colleagues suggests that you hold your team meetings on Monday mornings, don’t plan to retort with just, “That’s a bad idea! We’re all way too busy then.” That response isn’t positive or productive.
Instead, try something like, “I know Monday mornings are a little crazy for everyone. How about Monday after lunch? That would give everybody a little more time to wade through their inboxes and come to the meeting prepared.” Using that response, you’ve still made your thoughts known and poked a hole in someone’s suggestion. But, you also brought an alternative idea to the table.
2. You’re Offering Input No One Asked For
I was shopping with a friend, and I strolled out of the dressing room to show her a top I was trying on. Suddenly, an older woman who was waiting in the fitting room line said, “That’s really not a flattering color on you.” She was right—the color was bad. But, who was this woman? And further, who had even asked for her thoughts on the blouse I was trying on?
Sure, you likely won’t chime in unprompted on your co-workers' fashion choices. However, the basic principle remains the same. Before speaking up with your two cents, ask yourself if this is something that really even requires your input. Is this an area where you can speak with some authority and that you truly need to be involved in? Or, are you just an unwelcomed peanut gallery sticking your nose in places it doesn’t belong?
If you find yourself falling into that second category, you’re better off just keeping your mouth shut. Otherwise, you’ll not only be perceived as condescending, but also overly nosy.
3. You’re Starting All Wrong
“No offense, but…” “Don’t take this the wrong way, but…” “This might sound really mean, but…”
I know—we’re all guilty of prefacing criticism with one of these qualifiers every now and then. But, if you’re like most people, you hear those starting phrases and immediately brace yourself for the punch to the gut.
Why? Well, these introductions basically function as an advanced warning that you’re about to say something rather rude or overly personal. So, stay far, far away from them. If you still feel the need to wind up your constructive criticism with something, stick with a phrase that’s more positive like, “I can understand where you’re coming from, but…”
4. You’re Far Too Aggressive
It’s not always what you say. Instead, how you say it often carries more weight. When it comes to constructively criticizing someone, you need to be extra conscious of the way you’re delivering your message.
Maintain a happy and friendly tone with open body language to avoid seeming overly aggressive. You should also put some careful thought into your word choice to make it clear that you’re laying out suggestions—not demands. Strong language like “should” comes off as far too severe. So, stick with softer words like “might” or “could” to emphasize that you’re opening up a conversation, rather than laying down the law.
Constructive criticism can truly be a positive thing. However, if your attempts at offering suggestions keep going over like lead balloons in the office, don’t immediately assume that your co-workers are the problem. In reality, the issue could lie in your delivery of that criticism.
Stay away from these four common mistakes, and you’re sure to chime in and contribute in a way that’s positive and productive—rather than rude and obnoxious.
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