co-workers talking
Shutterstock

I once had an editor who was all about peer editing, and because of that, my fellow writers and I were regularly expected to look at, read through, and critique each other’s pieces. He always began our reviewing sessions with a long reminder on how important it is to be honest, even if brutally so, with our commentary. His reasoning? We certainly wouldn’t become better writers by staying in the dark about our mistakes.

Yet in Gregory Ciotti’s piece for Help Scout, he talks about how this sort of criticism is exactly the kind people are afraid to give—out of fear of being too harsh toward their peers. “If we aren’t careful,” Ciotti warns, “this simplistic thinking can confuse what it means to be nice with what it means to be kind.”

And I get it. Whenever we had our reviews, I still would try to dilute my negative comments down or add something positive to soften the blow. Unless the writing was blaringly painful to consume, I even considered keeping my thoughts to myself. After all, these were people I enjoyed spending time around, and I didn’t want to be the person who pointed out issues with a project that someone worked hard on and cared about.

“People start tip-toeing around each other and resort to using undecipherable soft language that’s sole purpose is to ward off conflict and protect feelings,” says Ciotti. “The truth inevitably becomes buried under a pile of pleasantries.”

It’s easy to fall into that kind of mindset when you have someone’s feelings in mind, especially in a place as fragile as the office. No one wants to be the person who discourages someone, to imply she’s not skilled, to make her question herself. And while that’s coming from a nice, well-meaning place, it ultimately also comes from a selfish one.

In reality, the most critical comments I ever received from those sessions were also the ones that fundamentally challenged the way that I approach my writing process—for the better. And allowing my peers’ writing to go unchallenged meant doing a disservice to them as creators who want to grow and improve.

So, the next time you’re in a meeting and you’re thinking twice about giving strict feedback, remember this: If you think something’s off, chances are you’re not the only person receiving it that way. Telling whoever to fix the colors in his presentation, or the formatting in his meeting notes, or the organization of ideas in a draft, will only make that person better at the task for next time.

This is what Ciotti calls a “built-in good faith clause,” also known as assumed benevolence. If everyone assumes first and foremost that feedback and judgment from a team member is coming from a good place, then comments will feel less about your value and ability as a person and more about the work itself.

And of course, this goes hand-in-hand with making sure you’re giving constructive criticism, rather than just criticism. Your framing can make all the difference here. For example, saying “Adding more graphics to your slides would help keep people’s attention” instead of “Your slides are boring” will help your co-worker make positive adjustments, rather than feel bad about his work (and annoyed with you).

While you might not have control over your team, you can make moves toward making this environment a reality by giving this kind of feedback yourself. That way you can spend less time stressing about being “mean” and more time pushing forward.