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Occasionally, I will find myself in a position where I believe I have some insight as to how someone could improve. I have been thinking about how to give good constructive criticism and although situations change and I will not always be able to perfectly help everyone, having some solid ground-work would be immensely helpful with deciding how to approach these conversations.

Edit: Answers should assume that any scenario is one where constructive criticism might actually be listened to. This rules out strangers, stubborn parents and the like. Other, more specific questions may analyse how you should alter your approach for a unique and difficult scenario but this question is not that.

What researched skills can I use to ensure that my criticism is as constructive as possible?

  • What sort of opinions have you already heard? This could help us find out what researched skills you haven't already came across. – user8671 May 17 '18 at 8:00
  • By saying "researched skills" you seem to be excluding anyone's own experience and are effectively asking others to do your research for you. This is an interpersonal skills site, isn't the point of your question and the answers that may follow that this will become a place where researchers will find in the future? – Astralbee May 17 '18 at 8:05
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    @Astralbee asking for "researched skills" is not off topic. Note the academic-research tag description. If you disagree I suggest taking it up on meta or voting to close – Jesse May 17 '18 at 8:20
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    We do encourage questions about actual, researched, interpersonal skills on this site, and since we've already had a few on constructive criticism that aren't asking for research, I feel this is a good start for a research based question on Interpersonal Skill, with answers that are actually backed up. – Tinkeringbell May 17 '18 at 8:24
  • In what sort of contexts are you talking about people 'improving'? Are these work based situations where you are involved with the same piece of work, random people you think could be exercising more efficiently in the gym, people you see on the street who you think have terrible child rearing skills? I think the skills might be different according to setting and relationship to the person you think you can help and it would be useful if you could indicate the sort of situation you have in mind. – Spagirl May 17 '18 at 9:57
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This article 1 gives a short and sweet definition of what makes feedback constructive or unconstructive:

In Study 1, 83 undergraduates received either constructive criticism (feedback that was specific, considerate, and did not attribute poor performance to internal causes) or destructive criticism (feedback that violated these basic principles) of their work.

The study focused on providing a specific kind of criticism, and called that constructive, and a type of criticism lacking these characteristics, which was called destructive.

A second article 2 provides a definition focused on teacher-student relationships:

Research suggests that faculty constructive criticism should be immediate (i.e., timely), specific to the level of performance and skill or task, offer useful and varied strategies for skill improvement, and end with the goal of mastery learning

This study 3 did some research into how students experienced constructive feedback and asked them to define constructive criticism. They identified several categories in students definitions:

a) improvement—definition mentions that the feedback is intended to lead to improvements or to be helpful or beneficial;
b) strengths—definition mentions that feedback identifies correct or wellperformed aspects of the task;
c) weaknesses—definition mentions that feedback highlights incorrect aspects of the task;
d) kind delivery—definition mentions that the feedback is stated in a face-saving manner;
e) harsh delivery—definition mentions that the feedback is stated with a critical tone;
f) honest/unbiased—definition mentions that feedback seems straightforward, sincere, and lacking “sugar-coating.”

All in all, this research on constructive criticism seems to support the methods suggested on wikihow:

  • Begin in a positive way
  • Keep your emotions out of it
  • Smile and use warm body language
  • Watch the tone of your voice
  • Avoid negative language, blaming and personal attacks
  • Be specific
  • Encourage self-critique
  • Focus on the behaviour, not the person
  • Make your feedback helpful
  • Don't say too much at once
  • Know when to stop critiquing
  • Follow up

Making sure your criticisms begin in a positive way, that you keep your emotions out of it and that you watch your body language and tone of voice are all a part of a kind delivery, and being considerate. Mention the parts of the task this person performed well, have them realise it's not all bad.

Avoiding negative language, being specific and focusing on the behaviour instead of the person will ensure they feel encouraged to actually try and change their behaviour. It also helps in avoiding attributing a poor performance to internal causes: You're not giving the criticism because the person is bad, but because something they did was poorly performed.

Make your feedback helpful and don't say too much at once: this helps making your feedback more specific, instead of leaving the person feeling that everything they did was wrong. Focus on one thing at a time, and know when to stop. Offer useful insights into what this person can improve and how they can do this, to become better at the task they did.

Since learning is an ongoing progress, it's important to follow up on critique you made. You offered someone points to improve, offering a compliment when you notice the improvement is encouraging, no matter how small the improvement is. Focus on the improvements made. If you do this, it's likely to encourage the person on the receiving end of the criticism to be more open to try and improve the next time too.


All of the above is written from the perspective you mentioned in your question:

Answers should assume that any scenario is one where constructive criticism might actually be listened to.

The third study 3 I mentioned before is an interesting read when it comes to this: Students were divided into groups based on whether they were feedback-seekers (people actually looking for feedback) or feedback-avoiders (people that rather didn't get any feedback at all). It turns out that feedback-seekers are actually the kinds of people that will react better to both constructive criticism and negative feedback (you messed this up) as feedback-avoiders.


1: Baron, R. A. (1988). Negative effects of destructive criticism: Impact on conflict, self-efficacy, and task performance. Journal of Applied Psychology, 73(2), 199-207.
2: Cole, D. (2008). Constructive Criticism: The Role of Student-Faculty Interactions on African American and Hispanic Students' Educational Gains. Journal of College Student Development 49(6) 587-605
3: Fong, J. et al (2016). Deconstructing constructive criticism: The nature of academic emotions associated with constructive, positive, and negative feedback. Learning and Individual Differences, 49, 393-399

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  • When you are not in a position of authority, ask the person you are about to criticize nicely whether you are allowed to give them some feedback. If the answer is no, accept that gracefully – GretchenV May 17 '18 at 21:43
  • @GretchenV Considering the earlier edit to my question. And the fact that the student related study actually investigated the difference when feedback was sought or not, I don't see how this comment is suggesting any improvement. – Jesse May 18 '18 at 2:14
  • @Jesse Assumptions are the mother of all f**kups. First of all, all studies you mentioned share a position of (informal) authority of the feedback giver (teacher-student, researcher - student). Asking first serves a dual purpose: 1) it asserts consent - which may be withweld simply because it is not convenient at the time - and avoids accusations by non-receptive audience 2) it grabs attention promoting active listening. Study 3 explicitly does this by asking 3 questions before feedback is given. – GretchenV May 18 '18 at 10:02
  • @GretchenV I think you're misunderstanding the study method used in the third study: Participants were asked to provide their emotional responses to imagined feedback situations. There is no mention of asking these students if the researchers could give them feedback... – Tinkeringbell May 18 '18 at 10:08
  • And Jesse is right: their question already works from the assumption that feedback is listened to, whether that be due to a power balance or asking first isn't being asked about here... – Tinkeringbell May 18 '18 at 10:09
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Research

You asked for researched skills, here's one.

To sum up the points listed in the article, these are the 6 pointers listed:

  1. Use the Feedback Sandwich method

With Positive-Improve-Positive, your feedback is broken down into 3 segments:

  1. You start off by focusing on the strengths — what you like about the item in question.
  2. Then, you provide the criticism — things you don’t like, the areas of improvement.
  3. Lastly, you round off the feedback with (a) a reiteration of the positive comments you gave at the start and (b) the positive results that can be expected if the criticism is acted upon.

It’s called the “feedback sandwich” because you wedge your criticism between an opening and an ending — like a patty wedged between two buns.

  1. Focus on the situation, not the person

Some simple steps to apply this tip:

  1. Firstly, detach the situation from the person. This distinction is crucial. Take the person out of the equation and focus on the behavior / action / situation / issue at hand.
  2. Comment on the issue, not the person. For example, “The clothes are dirty” and not “You are dirty.” “The report is late” and not “You are late.” “The food is oily” and not “You are a bad cook.”
  3. Don’t make personal attacks. Comments like “I’m so sick and tired of…” or “You’re so stupid / negative / lazy / unorganized / ” come across as accusatory. Stay away from attacks.
  4. Don’t use active voice; use passive voice. Example of active voice vs. passive voice: “You gave a bad presentation.” vs. “The presentation you gave was bad.” Notice that the passive voice shifts the attention away from the person and brings it to the subject matter.
  5. Share how it affects you. Rather than go on and on about how bad the thing is, share how it affects you. This shifts the focus away from the person and onto yourself, which lets the person take a step back to evaluate the situation. It also gives him/her insight to where you are coming from.
  1. Be specific with your feedback

That’s not to say that vague feedback is stupid or bad. It’s just that specific feedback helps me understand the user’s needs more easily, which makes it easy for me to serve his/her request. Likewise, it’s the same for you — if you want very actionable outcomes, if you want people to help you in a more targeted way, give specific vs. vague feedback. Specific feedback that doesn’t target the person as I shared in tip #2.

Here’s how to make your feedback specific and hence actionable:

  1. Focus more on objective points than subjective opinions. Just saying “I don’t like it” is not helpful. On the other hand, stating the specific things you do not like, is helpful.
  2. Break your feedback down into key points. Don’t give your feedback as one big lump. Break it down into various key points, then give your feedback point by point.
  3. Give specific examples of each point. What are the exact situations or examples where the person exhibits the behaviors you highlighted in #2? Point them out. There is no need to highlight every single example – just pointing out 1-2 key examples per point will be sufficient. The intention here is to (a) bring the person’s awareness to things which he/she may be oblivious about and (b) illustrate what you mean.
  1. Comment on things which can be actioned upon

The whole point of giving feedback is to help the person improve.

Hence talk about things which the person can do something about, rather than things that are out of his/her control. Critiquing the former makes your criticism constructive; critiquing the latter just makes the person feel bad because he/she can’t do anything about it, even if he/she wants to. While you can make points on latter especially if they are very crucial, balance things out by talking about things he/she can control.

Knowing what’s actionable and unactionable requires you to be empathetic. Understand the person’s situation and his/her objectives, then provide your critique based on that.

  1. Give recommendations on how to improve

Firstly, your recommendations will tie up your critique in a nice bow. Everyone has varying perspectives, which means every critique can be interpreted in different ways. Giving recommendations will give the person a clear idea of what you have in mind. Secondly, recommendations provide a strong call-to-action. You want the person to act on what you have shared, not procrastinate.

With your recommendations, I recommend to

  1. Be specific with your suggestions
  2. Briefly explain the rationale behind the recommendation.
  1. Don’t make assumptions

My final tip for giving constructive criticism is not to make assumptions. When providing criticism, do so within what you know as fact about the person and the subject. There’s no need to make any assumptions. Not only does it make the person look bad, it also makes you look bad — especially when your assumption is wrong. Not having a presumptuous attitude will go a long way in any communication, not just in giving criticism.

I believe this information is reliable and shows credibility as the article:

  1. Wasn't solely based on opinions; there were loads of examples given on the site itself.
  2. Had listed known concepts like the "feedback sandwich" for example can be found on many other sites online, including WikiHow.

Also, the site holds courses and has many other articles about personal excellence.


My experience

Back in college we often had to do projects together as a team and I find myself working with counterparts that are slightly weaker than me in the field of study. However I wasn't good with giving my feedback to them, so I mostly just said "Can all of you just read up and research more on this topic you're writing about? I can't be vetting everyone's work." Little did I know I fell victim to point 1, 2 and 3 of the article.

  1. I didn't really give any positive feedback to the team.
  2. I was (unintentionally) nitpicking on my teammates instead of actually focusing on the matter
  3. All the feedback I ever gave was vague. ("Can all of you just read up and research more on this topic you're writing about? I can't be vetting everyone's work." sounds as vague as a feedback could get.)

So yea, I probably would've been better off researching more about how to get my point across in a better manner, and maybe I'd have spared myself the effort of vetting through the entire contents of the reports throughout the years. Just a little anecdote of mine. :)

Hope this helps.

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    Hello! Since links may get broken over time, SE encourages you to copy and reference the relevant parts from your links into your answer. Would you please take the time to do so and edit your answer to include the relevant parts? – Tinkeringbell May 17 '18 at 10:07
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    @TinkeringBell sure give me some time. i'll edit it asap – enlighten_me May 17 '18 at 10:11
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    @enlighten_me: I think the link you gave is pretty good advice. Yet, I seem to have missed any mention of research about that advice. Can you maybe also point to said research for the ones that are as blind as me? That would make this good answer great! – user6109 May 17 '18 at 10:48

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