What is Constructive Criticism and Why is it Important?

by Greer Welte, age 13
What is Constructive Criticism and Why is it Important?

“Have you ever asked someone for feedback and only received an ‘It’s fine?’ When giving someone feedback, are you ever worried that they might react in a negative way? For my inquiry project, I decided to research criticism. What makes feedback constructive and helpful? What makes feedback unhelpful?”

Have you ever asked someone for feedback and only received an “It’s fine?” When giving someone feedback, are you ever worried that they might react in a negative way? For my inquiry project, I decided to research criticism. What makes feedback constructive and helpful? What makes feedback unhelpful?

I love to draw and write, and the opinions of others are very important to me. I have noticed that whenever I share art with someone, I almost always get feedback. Even when I don’t ask for it. I researched this partly for myself, because I wanted to improve my criticism and how to respond to unhelpful criticism. I wanted to know what to say to get more out of someone who says something like “I don’t know, but something’s off about your work…”. I think it’s very important to know how to give and receive feedback. If you know these things, I believe that you will improve your work faster by critiquing others, yourself, and learning how to receive feedback.

To start off my project, I wanted to research the basics. What is criticism? What is helpful criticism? Why is it important? According to The American Heritage Student Dictionary, “Criticism is the art or profession of forming and expressing judgements, especially about literary or artistic works.” I also found another definition that is as follows: “Criticism is unfavorable judgement; finding fault; disapproval: constant criticism with no encouragement.” In all of these definitions, the word judgement comes up. To me, judgement sounds harsh, not helpful, really. It seems that this dictionary views criticism as a bad thing. I believe that it can be bad or unhelpful, but it isn’t always. So what is helpful criticism, then? Helpful criticism includes tips and things to improve on. Believe it or not, saying “I like it, it’s perfect.” is one of the most unhelpful feedback lines to give someone. It implies that you are unwilling to give detailed and personalized feedback. Since humans, just like any other natural thing, are incapable of being perfect, there are always things to improve on. Saying something is perfect cuts you off from learning more and recognizing mistakes that will help you grow. But why is criticism important? Feedback equals improvement, and improvement should always be your goal. It’s not about getting it done fast, it’s about getting it done well. To get something finished and polished, you need feedback.

To understand more about feedback, we have to break it down into the three types of feedback. It is important for the giver and the receiver of feedback to understand these categories.  The first type is Appreciation. Appreciation feedback is mainly fostered off of human relationships. It’s the giver of the feedback showing that they understand your work and maybe even agrees with it. Appreciation is the feedback that makes us feel good about our work. Most commonly, it motivates us the most to keep going. This is because we are reassured that what we are working on is “worth it”, so to speak. The main purpose is to acknowledge the person’s work. An example of Appreciation would be “Wow! This poster you made for the fair is so cool. You’re so good at this. Keep going!” The second type of feedback is Evaluation. Evaluation feedback is when you or your work is compared against standards. It’s purpose is to rate or rank someone’s work and align expectations. An example of this would be “Your drawing is good, but do you see Maria’s? She shaded her piece, so it looks a little more finished. That’s what we’re going for.” The last type of feedback is Coaching. In my opinion, coaching is the most helpful type of criticism. Coaching helps you learn, grow, and change a piece of work or skill you have. The goal is to fix and improve, which I believe is the purpose of feedback. Speaking of purposes, the purpose of Coaching is to expand your knowledge and sharpen your skills. You can also address your feeling on a situation or work with Coaching. An example of Coaching would be “I like the green, but in my opinion, some red would make it pop even more.” or “Your really good at soccer, but I’d like you to work on your passing so you can improve before the next game.”

So now we know the benefits of each type, but there are some shortfalls to each. Appreciation is great because it makes you feel good about your work, but it also teaches someone to only expect good feedback and take Coaching feedback poorly. It tends to seem fake and lazy because it’s almost as if you don’t have time to give a person good feedback, so you just say “I really love it.” To improve Appreciation, tell the person what you like about their work so they can add more and know what they’re doing well. The shortfalls of Evaluation are the opposite of Appreciation. Instead of a person not saying enough, someone giving Evaluation feedback can seem more opinionated than helpful. Sometime it doesn’t inform how to improve, leaving the receiver to figure it out for themselves. This is not the point of good criticism. For these shortfalls, Coaching is a better alternative. But saying that, Coaching is not perfect, either. This kind of feedback can make the receiver feel targeted and attacked. With Coaching, it’s hard to find a balance between good things and bad things, which is a main ingredient for good feedback.

The main thing to understand with Coaching is differentiating between hearing and meaning. What a person hears can be different than what you intend. For example, if someone tells you to be more confident, you may hear it as “You’re not good at this because you aren’t confident,” even though that’s not the giver’s message. You message may have been that confidence helps you improve and realize what you’re capable of.

Opposite of the three types of feedback, we have the three feedback triggers. Feedback triggers flip a switch in someone’s brain that makes them defensive. The first trigger is the Truth trigger. This trigger is set off by the actual feedback. Some common responses you my be familiar with giving or saying are “That’s not true!”, “That isn’t what they said!”. The feedback makes the person feel wronged, so they get defensive. The way to help this problem for the giver is to make sure your tone is passive and not aggressive at all. If you are the receiver, try to understand that the person is trying to help you improve, not hurt your feelings. The second type of feedback is Identity feedback. This trigger is all about us. Who we are and what we believe in. When we feel that someone is attacking who we are, we fight back. When the giver of feedback gets this kind of response, they need to reevaluate what they said and make sure it wasn’t hurtful. One’s person shouldn’t be criticised unless permission is given. The last kind of trigger is the Relationship trigger. These have to do with the relationship between the giver and the receiver. The receiver’s reaction is based off of what they believe about the person. The receiver needs to make sure that they aren’t reacting to the person when they should be reacting to the criticism.

The person giving you feedback should not be trying to hurt you. If their criticism isn’t helpful, you do not have to use it. Thank them politely and move on. Don’t feel like you have to take it, but it’s important to be kind.  

If you are giving feedback, it’s important to focus on the situation, not the person. Here are some examples of critiquing one’s dressing style, one of which is constructive, the other not:

“You’re too old-fashioned. You’re always wearing old people’s clothes that make you so boring.”

“From my recollection, the clothes you wear tend to be dull in color and dated compared to current trends. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just can make a person appear to be older.”

The first example is not very constructive and helpful. The person may of had good intentions, but the conveying message is that YOU are the problem, which is not constructive.

The second example is much better. It detaches the situation from the person. They aren’t blaming the person, so it doesn’t feel like an attack.

There are some things to remember when giving criticism. First, make sure you detach the situation from the person. Take the person out of the equation to better focus on the situation. Make sure your comments are directed to the situation, not the person. For example, “The report is late.” not “You are late.”. You’re not accusing the person, you’re helping them. Use a passive voice when giving feedback, you don’t want to sound aggressive.

All of this is good for when you are giving feedback, but what if you’re receiving it? How do you receive and understand feedback well? That’s what I wanted to explore next. One of the obvious things about feedback is that positive feedback is always easier to receive well. It makes you feel good about your work, and usually the giver knows this. With this kind of criticism, it either helps or it doesn’t. It rarely hurts a person’s feelings. This feedback doesn’t make you rethink your choices. It is, in a nutshell, neutral feedback. If neutral feedback does hurt one’s feelings, it’s because compliments can make some people feel put on the spot. They may feel pressured to keep doing well.

But how do you receive feedback that isn’t a compliment? First, you must understand that this feedback includes any information you get about yourself and your work. It’s most constructive if you ask for it.  People give feedback so you can improve your work, not to make you feel bad. Feedback isn’t about ranking value, it’s about improvement and learning from error and experience.

If you are giving a person constructive criticism, you want it to be as helpful as possible. One of the most important things to remember when giving criticism is to be specific. Try not to be vague, because it can come across as unconstructive. The person shouldn’t have to ask additional questions to get basic feedback. So you might have guessed, saying things like “It’s okay.”, “It could be better.”, and “It’s missing… something.” are not constructive. But how do you make your feedback more specific you may ask? Focus on the objective and start with the specific things you would change. It can help if you break down the feedback into key points. Don’t mush everything into one big lump, because it can be hard to process. Something to really help the receiver understand your point of view is to give examples with the feedback. For example, instead of “I think you should alter the colors.” say “I think you should alter the colors. Maybe make the text a little darker. That may be beneficial for the legibility.”

Sometimes a person giving you criticism is unaware about what makes feedback constructive. So what can you say to get more out of person? For example, if someone says “This looks bad.”, ask them why it’s bad. What elements make it bad? If they tell you that your work is fine, ask them that if they were to change one thing about your work, what would it be? It’s important to not just accept unconstructive feedback, but instead ask questions to improve your work.

While I was researching, I came across a lot of information about the Sandwich method of feedback. This is constructed by giving someone a positive, then an improvement, and lastly ending on another positive. This method focuses on strengths and things the giver thinks the receiver is doing well. While you are doing this, you are still providing criticism. The last positive can include that if the receiver considers the given feedback, their work will improve.

The best time to use the Sandwich method is when you are giving feedback to a person who you don’t know because the positive buffers make your feedback seem passive. So what makes this method so good? It helps the person recognize what they are doing well. Additionally, it gives a foundation to show what can be improved on as well. The last part helps articulate the beneficial things that can be seen if the subject of improvement is worked on.

The last topic I wanted to research was how to discard feedback kindly. People giving you feedback are usually trying to help you. You don’t have to take their feedback, but you should still thank them. For example, if someone tells you to make the text blue but you think it should be black, instead of “No, I think I’m going to keep it black.” say “Thank you, I’ll consider your suggestion.”. You can, however, be firm if someone is pushing their feedback on you. If someone keeps pushing their ideas on you, it’s no longer constructive. You can say “Thank you, but I’d like to figure the rest out for myself.” Criticism is important, so you should listen to other’s views because they will  help you improve.

In conclusion, I learned a lot while doing this project. I hope my research has helped me become a better giver and receiver of feedback. Feedback is important to improvement. Learning how to give constructive criticism and receive it will improve your work and view on others. I learned about methods for giving and receiving criticism well and about different types of feedback. This project was very interesting to me, and I really liked reading different people’s views on constructive criticism. To me, the different types of feedback were the most interesting part of my research. I believe that constructive criticism is important and we should all take a second to learn more about it. I enjoyed learning more about this topic and hope my research will be helpful to me in the future.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

“Criticism” The American Heritage Student Dictionary, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1994.

Pillay, Nishlan. “How to Give Constructive Criticism. Six Helpful Tips.” Linkedin. April 9, 2015. <https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-give-constructive-criticism-6-helpful-tips-nishlan-pillay>

Scott, A.O. Better Living Through Criticism. New York: Penguin Random House LLC, 2016.

Stone, Douglas, and Sheila Heen. Thanks for the Feedback. New York: The Penguin Group, 2014.

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