Reader Request: Offering Constructive Criticism, Part 1

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Laurel popped this question into the suggestion box:

I was debating commenting on [a recent] outfit post because I didn’t think the outfit was working for me but I didn’t want to seem critical. And I wasn’t sure how to suggest the topic to you! So here goes.

My reluctance to post something critical made me think about how we as women are often reluctant to be critical of others. Oh sure, we’re critical of ourselves, and of others behind their backs in a catty way. But we’re often afraid to speak our minds lest we be seen of being critical of others. How often, in a business meeting, are we afraid to say what we feel when we don’t agree with others, or don’t want to be the only one in the room to say we don’t like something? So, how about a post on how women should hone our skills to be critical in a supportive, constructive way? I am often reluctant to post criticism of outfits on personal style blogs and I suspect others are, too. I don’t have a blog and I’m not putting pictures of myself on the Internet for all to see and comment, and have enormous respect for those who do, so I don’t want to be critical.

Laurel’s question is extremely important, and one that raises hackles for many, many people. Especially women, as she points out. Most of us have been on the receiving end of actual constructive criticism, but also criticism that’s meant to be constructive but ends up being destructive, and just plain hurtful criticism and nastiness. Telling someone that they could do better is never easy, and while it’s no fun to be on the receiving end it can be incredibly stressful to be on the dishing-it-out end, too. And as women, when we pipe up with suggestions and feedback, people tend to drag out the stereotypes: Whiner, nag, Negative Nelly (a female name for a supposedly genderless trait), serial complainer, harpy.

In my work with LOTT, I’ve had to hone my skills in confrontation and constructive criticism with other women, so I’m happy to share my opinions and insights. I would, of course, love yours, too! Since Laurel has asked about offering criticism on many levels, we’re going to start with the general today and move into the style- and blogging-focused topics tomorrow.

What makes criticism constructive?

So, for starters, here’s the Wikipedia definition:

Constructive criticism is the process of offering valid and well-reasoned opinions about the work of others, usually involving both positive and negative comments, in a friendly manner rather than an oppositional one. In collaborative work, this kind of criticism is often a valuable tool in raising and maintaining performance standards.

I can get behind that. Naturally, the idea of criticism being “valid” is subjective, but I think the point is to emphasize that constructive criticism isn’t given on trivial matters or based on erroneous conclusions. This is backed up by the “well-reasoned” requirement. In picking this apart, I see several important nuggets of information.

Constructive criticism is generally about work: You can certainly give someone constructive criticism on their life choices, eating habits, social circles, and other non-work topics – including style, as we’ll dig into tomorrow – but it is most often utilized in a work setting. In my opinion, this is because work systems affect multiple people and if someone in your working environment isn’t pulling weight it will tax the system. By helping others improve, the work setting itself can improve.

Constructive criticism includes positives and negatives: Many people forget this or feel that offering positive input is just a way of softening the blow. But ideally, constructive criticism will stem from genuine interest in and care about the person in question, so offering praise alongside critique should feel natural. Also, since this form of feedback is designed to improve performance, offering supportive comments on what is already being done well can only further that goal.

Constructive criticism is friendly: So subjective, but also so important. Any input or criticism that is offered in an accusatory, suspicious, angry, judgmental, or frustrated way won’t end up being constructive. That doesn’t mean that those types of input are unimportant, as confrontations of all types have their place in human interaction. But for a critique to feel constructive to the recipient, a lot depends upon the delivery

And that’s what I feel is missing from this (albeit short) definition: A discussion of tone. The bald fact is that no one enjoys being told they need to improve or change what they’re doing. No one likes to hear that colleagues or friends have been thinking hard about how they’re behaving or performing, and determined that there needs to be a sit-down talk about it all. So using a friendly, supportive, understanding tone is essential. You can have the best intentions in the world – wanting desperately to help someone, improve their situation, show them a better way – but if you lay it all out in a cold, agitated, judgmental, or patronizing manner, your good intentions won’t do you any good at all.

Of course, striking the right tone is infuriatingly tricky because it involves human beings. Some people may hear what you think is a friendly, non-judgmental tone and get riled regardless. Some people will tune out the praise you offer and focus solely on the critique, no matter what tone you use. You may aim and miss, but that doesn’t mean that trying to offer your criticism in a non-aggressive tone is a futile endeavor. Do your best, back your tone with good intentions. In most cases, your efforts will be appreciated.

When should I offer constructive criticism?

I’m sure I’ll take some heat for this, but here’s my opinion: I think there are very limited circumstances under which it is both important and appropriate to offer constructive criticism. They include:

When someone you know and/or care about is involved: Giving criticism – constructive or otherwise – to total strangers is very seldom helpful or necessary. You don’t know them, you are unfamiliar with their background and circumstances, you don’t understand the forces influencing them, and therefore you cannot possibly know better than them. You may not care about your coworkers in the same way that you care about your grandma, but you know them and will have some basis for offering input. Naturally, if someone you do not know requests your opinion or advice, constructive criticism may be an important option. But those instances are rare, in my experience.

When your own well-being is impacted: If someone else’s actions and choices are hurting you, impeding your success, causing you acute anxiety, or otherwise impacting you in a negative way, opening a discussion that involves constructive feedback will be essential.

When you feel like your input will help: Not just when your input will have an impact, because nearly all criticism impacts people’s feelings. The art of offering truly constructive criticism involves knowing when people may be receptive to it and how to frame it in a way that it will spur positive change.

If you don’t like what someone has chosen to do, wear, say, or think but that person isn’t a part of your life, their actions have no effect on you, and your critique may or may not prove helpful? You may still opt to offer your opinion and suggestions for changes. It can feel almost irresistible to pipe up when you see someone doing something that you feel is ill-advised or beneath them. Even more so if you feel that with just a few little tweaks they could be in such better shape! But doing so won’t always bear forth your good intentions and may just cause hurt and resentment.

How do you know when it’s a good time to speak up? Before offering criticism, ask yourself:

  • Why is it important to share this input?
  • What will it help, and how?
  • If I received this input from someone, how would I react?

How do I, as a woman, offer critiques without making myself look bad?

Laurel brings up the concept of seeming “critical” in her initial request, and I want to touch on that for a moment. Critical means so many things. When someone is in critical condition, things are bad … but when a mechanical part is critical, it is important in a positive way. When someone is thinking critically, they are working hard to draw the best conclusions possible … but when someone is speaking critically, they are often offering something alongside simple critique: Judgment.

Yep, get ready, I’m gonna talk about judgment again.

Humans judge. We are wired to judge. It’s part of how we make decisions and choices about ourselves and our lives. But in my opinion, we have fostered our natural tendency to judge and it has blossomed into a society full of scorn, snobbery, scolding, and endless, overblown judgment. We took our predisposition, put it on steroids, and BAM, tabloids were born. And Joan Rivers. And Perez Hilton. And Reddit. And more streams of judgment are added each day, it seems.

Women use judgment as a tool from the time we can speak, and in our world criticism and judgment often go hand-in-hand. Think about that girl in third grade who told you that if you’d stop being such a brown-noser/show-off/snob you’d be a lot cooler. And she informed you of this in front of everyone you both knew. Was that constructive criticism, offered to help you improve your situation? Or was it judgment, disdain, and disapproval? Unfortunately, since many of us first encounter critique cloaked in judgment, it can be hard to separate the two. And, in reality, any time you are offering your opinion on ways that someone else should change how they are behaving, you are judging them and subtly implying that you know a better way.

But that doesn’t mean that you should avoid offering constructive criticism. OH HELL NO. Not because you’re a woman, not because you risk appearing critical, not for any reason at all. If you have determined that someone you care/know is doing something that impacts you AND that your input will help the situation, you can and should speak up. Period. Will some people react badly? Yes, probably. But if your suggestions create positive change, over time those same people may become your best allies. Will some of the people who react badly be men? Almost certainly. And tough rocks because women make up more than half of the workforce and our input is important, be it positive or negative. Is it risky to offer criticism, even if it’s done in a friendly tone and under the right circumstances? Sadly, yes. But what’s the alternative? Know that there’s a better way, but continue to suffer? Allow your resentment to build until you explode into confrontation? Leave the situation and never resolve anything? It’s your choice, of course, but speaking up and offering input – uncomfortable as it may feel – could bring positive change to your life much faster.

Can you see why I’m splitting this into two parts? THAT WAS A LOT OF STUFF. We’ll dig into offering constructive feedback on style tomorrow.

But first, I want to know what you think: What does constructive criticism look like to you? Do you know anyone who gives it well, or are you a master yourself? What are some examples of helpful critiques you’ve received? What would you say to someone who, as a woman, worries about offering negative feedback?

Image courtesy Kateoo.

  • Fran

    Wow, this is wonderful! I can’t wait to read part 2. I completely agree that constructive criticism should be sparely given, especially outside the workplace and/or if it is not solicited.

    I love your blog, Sally! I am very glad I found it!

  • Laurel H

    Thank you for your excellent reply to my request, Sally. This has certainly given me more food for thought as I continue to explore how I feel about giving constructive criticism. Your points are all valid and I agree with them.

    I’m an editor, so my job is all about offering constructive criticism. When I edit a truly dreadful document, I have to summon all my diplomacy to focus on the positive and yet deal with the problematic. So I say complimentary things to the writer like, “Your expertise on this topic really shines through” or “I can’t imagine how difficult this must have been for you to write and kudos to you for doing it.” Then I use “I” statements to show how I feel about the document, and to take focus away from the document itself. “I had trouble understanding your message” or “I’m afraid I couldn’t follow this part here.” I then switch to using “we” to show the writer we’re a team and I’m invested in the document. “We should make this point stronger” or “If we put this long paragraph into a list, it would be easier to read.” Then I ask them questions to get them involved in the improvements, such as “Have you considered focusing on X?”, “Are you really wedded to this part–could we cut it out?”, and “I recommend we move this part over here–what do you think?” This strategy for constructive criticism works really well for me.

    But… I have a hard time applying this strategy in my personal life, because my friends and neighbours aren’t hiring me to be their life editor! I’m looking forward to part 2 of your post, and to other readers’ comments, as I explore this idea more.

  • Jacqueline Brooke

    I need to disagree with “when you feel it will help”- Constructive criticism should not be provided without a request from the receiver or agreement from the receiver (as in, can you please provide some feedback? or, do you mind if I provide some thoughts on your situation?). Do not offer your “constructive criticism” just because you think you should and it will “help”. If someone doesn’t meet your ideal (how they live, what they look like, how they behave), doesn’t mean their life will be improved if meeting your expectations.

  • Robin

    This post is exceptionally thoughtful and well-written. Thank you for sharing your perspective. I’m bookmarking it for repeat reading and looking forward to tomorrow’s post.

  • Susan In Boston

    One part of this difficulty concerns giving feedback. Years ago, in another life, I learned a formula for this that I have found useful in thinking through sticky conversations and ultimately making the decision about whether to have them.

    Here’s the script:

    When you [describe what the other person did or does that bothers you], I (or the group, perhaps) [describe the impact on you.] If you would [describe desired change], then [describe a benefit to the person].

    When you can state the problem in terms of behavior or output that you and the person you’re talking to (and possibly others folks) can see, you start from a more objective position, which increases the odds that you will be heard.

    But the more important part is that last bit about describing the impact of the behavior on you, which is why you’re having the conversation, and the benefit to the other person of doing things differently. First, the benefit has to be equally objective, proportional to the offense, appealing to the person you are talking to, and within your power to grant.

    I have often been unable to get past variations on this theme: If you were a different person than who you are, I would be a helluva lot more comfortable. When I can’t, I don’t have the conversation, but I understand what’s bothering me more clearly.

  • http://www.practicalparalegalism.com The Goodwill Fangirl

    I very much appreciate this timely post. As an avid style blog reader, and having my own style blog and personal style still be very much a work in progress, I found myself surprisingly stressed when I recently saw a post by a much loved and very beautiful friend, wearing an outfit that seemed rather glaringly unflattering. I really wanted to offer a suggestion, but struggled with phrasing it, and worried that no matter how I phrased it, tone doesn’t translate well in writing. Even though I think this particular friend would receive and even welcome constructive criticism, I was deathly afraid of hurting her feelings. I look forward to your tips!

  • Rose

    One thing to think about is, if they don’t care about you they wouldn’t even mention it.
    I think that helps the receiver attribute friendly intent. It’s very easy to automatically assume snarky, un-friendly intent.

    In my ideal situation I stop and consider whether the person can actually do anything about my suggestion. Telling someone miles from their closet that their skirt is way too tight/short/long/bad color for them/out-of-style isn’t helpful because they can’t do anything about it right now.

    Using the same thinking it means I’ll probably always tell you that you have lipstick on your teeth or offer a safety pin for a tear.

    So if you feel the need to say what you’re thinking wait until they can do something about it. If you forget about it before then maybe it wasn’t really important.

  • http://www.amidprivilege.com Lisa

    I think we give constructive criticism at work because work is, as you point out, so interdependent. By taking a job we sign up to performance reviews, and our behaviors have an impact on other groups. But in life, I would only give constructive criticism if it’s asked for. Now, the ask can be implicit. For example, I have accepted that by writing a style blog I am – if not directly asking for – allowing for constructive criticism of what I wear. But in non-blog life, I try to wait until I’m overtly asked.

    • http://sololisa.com Lisa

      Lisa has hit the nail on the head here with the idea of the implicit ask. Constructive criticism and performance reviews are expected at a job, and therefore more likely to be taken in a positive light.

  • http://saveyourpinmoney.blogspot.com Sabine

    Great topic! Sometimes I’d find it more interesting if comments on outfit blogs were more controversial and still polite. Too much harmony can be a tad boring. And an unflattering outfit can usually be survived.

    What helps with offering criticism, I think, is building a positive rapport first (just like in offline life …) by following a blog, encouraging, appreciating, understanding. A subsequent disagreeing can then be placed in an appropriate constructive context.

  • marsha calhoun

    Wow – what a jam-packed, fascinating topic and post. As a person with a lifelong allergy to criticism (also a professional editor, and therefore critic – go figure), I am going to re-read today’s publication several times and I eagerly await tomorrow’s. I have a feeling that I will really learn something.

  • Jules

    I consider myself a fully rational human being, capable of analyzing situations, even those I’m immersed in, but the truth of the matter is, I have never, not even once, received ‘constructive criticism’ that proved to be legitimately helpful to me. Tread lightly where advice (especially advice in a critical tone) is concerned, we are not programmed to process criticism easily, it generally proves too jarring.

  • http://notdeadyetstyle.blogspot.com/ Patti @ NotDeadYet Style

    Great topic, Sal. I agree with Lisa – at work, feedback is expected and given, and (at least in my workplace) does not offend. I don’t offer criticism, however constructive, in my personal life unless it’s asked for (begged for, probably!). I know having a “style” blog opens me up for criticism of my style in that venue, and that just goes with the territory.

  • http://campinginpurgatory.tumblr.com The Raisin Girl

    What would I say to someone who, as a woman, worries about offering negative feedback? I would ask them how often they see men hesitate to offer negative feedback in the same situation.

    As women, we are encouraged to be passive. We are encouraged to be nurturing, accommodating, and unobtrusive, whether or not we naturally are any of these things and whether or not the situation we’re in calls for them. And of course, we get called all manner of dismissive, derogatory, or downright horrible things (depending on where that “feedback” comes from) for failing to be these things, failing to be ONLY these things, or failing to be these things all the time.

    I have been told that I have too many opinions for a woman, that I speak too loudly, that my personality is too abrasive, that I’m too argumentative, that I talk too much…not in general. FOR A WOMAN. The implication being that women aren’t supposed to talk back, or too loudly, or at all…and that they should certainly never upstage the men in the room.

    I’m pretty sure there’s no painless, easy way to combat this. I doubt very much that society’s viewpoints on how women should behave are going to turn around any time soon on their own. The only way I see to change this–and thus remove women’s worries about being too negative–is for those of us who can to continually challenge the gender roles and stereotypes which teach us that women do not have just as much right to offer both negative and positive feedback as men without being judged more harshly for it.

    I realize that not every woman is in a position where she can safely do this, and that’s okay. I would never ask a woman to risk her safety or her livelihood to make a point. It’s all well and good to talk about sisterhood and solidarity, but the truth is that the playing field isn’t any more level between all women than it is between women and men as groups; the gaps between us are often far apart and sometimes, we just have to have our own backs to get by.

    But for some of us, it isn’t a matter of losing our jobs or being unsafe; it’s a matter of worrying about whether people will like us or think we’re womanly enough if we’re too outspoken. And for me, developing special communication techniques in order to avoid coming off as “too negative” is too high a price to pay just so someone will like me more…especially when it’s not really going to be ME they end up liking, anyway.

  • http://couturgatory.blogspot.com Aya in Couturgatory

    This is a topic fraught with much more delicacy and complexity than I had imagined! Thank you to the asker for her sensitivity and to you Sal, for your well thought-out response!

    I realize now that my do-unto-others approach may not always be appropriate. I like constructive criticism or feedback about my clothes, and either take, re-examine or discard as desired, but another person may have entirely different experiences than I, and take the very same comment in an entirely different way.

    I look forward to your next edition.

  • http://couturgatory.blogspot.com Aya in Couturgatory

    Hm, I completely forgot to respond to your questions in your post, which was my original intent. Hello, ADHD. How do you do.

    I’ve been lucky to receive constructive criticism both on my blog and in real life. Comments have included things like, ‘that garment ages you’ ‘that jacket doesn’t have a waist, and you do!’ and ‘this hits right where your calves are widest, so it makes your legs look shorter.’

    I think key is that all of these comments critique the garment and how they don’t flatter the wearer’s form, rather than criticizing my body, my intent in wearing the garment, or me! The bearers of these comments have never made me feel personally criticized or misinterpreted, and I have always felt welcome to take the advice about a garment, or wear it anyway because I like it.

  • Rachel

    I have very mixed feelings about the usefulness of critiquing someone’s style on a fashion blog. I know that style bloggers are not infallible or above criticism, and that posting pictures of themselves leaves them open to comment. But I just feel there is already so much of this type of negativity in the world – see all those tabloids and magazines shouting “What is Kim Kardashian wearing? I hate it!” The main reason I now read more blogs than fashion magazines is to get away from this culture of constant criticism, primarily directed at women for the way they look and dress.

    I like looking at pictures of people’s outfits online because I find them interesting. Even if it’s not to my personal taste, or I would never wear it myself, I still enjoy looking at the clothes. For that reason I would never leave a snarky comment about an outfit on a blog like this, because I appreciate the picture whether I like the outfit or not. And also because I admire people’s bravery for posting their outfits online!

  • AmyK

    The most helpful critiques I’ve received have stopped with observations: “I’ve noticed that you …” Full stop. Or questions, “how did you decide to …” Just raising my awareness generally gets me thinking, and I ask for more input. In rare cases where more is called for, Susan in Boston’s script makes the bigger picture accessible to me.

    To any woman concerned about the double standard around voicing criticism, maybe it’s better to develop ways of shutting down non-constructive communication (including criticism) that comes from men, than to effect equal-opportunity offensiveness. I’m sorry that Raisin Girl and others feel pressure to be less opinionated etc because they’re women, but offering more unsolicited criticism just because men often seem to get away with it is not the way to beat this.

    I’m not hesitant to voice criticism because I’m a woman; I avoid doing so because it simply isn’t the most effective way of communicating or effecting improvement, regardless of sexual identification. That’s something I’ve learned from the example of bosses and mentors both male and female.

    Sally, in the situation you describe, a constructive alternate solution can very often be offered without criticizing what’s already on the table. The choice isn’t criticism vs. resentment-explosion-confrontation/leaving-nonresolution. Bosses and teams need solutions. Want to be part of the team? Skip the “constructive criticism” and do what it takes to offer viable options.

    To anyone who thinks unsolicited feedback is an acceptable practice, here’s some advice you didn’t request: work on your listening skills before you open your mouth.
    http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/leading_in_the_21st_century/the_executives_guide_to_better_listening

    Style-specific feedback is a little different; I’ll save my thoughts on that for part 2.

    Fascinating topic, Sally!

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