Constructive Criticism

I don’t know about you, but I have always had trouble dishing it out as well as taking it. The words “constructive” and “criticism” constitute an oxymoron to me, a contradiction in terms. “Construct” means “to build.” “Criticism” means “to tear down.” Even with the best of intentions, it’s mighty hard to “build up” by “tearing down.”

Maybe an enlightened definition of constructive criticism would help in its delivery and reception. Constructive criticism is in fact positive, not negative. It is defined as remarks or advice that are useful and intended to help or improve something, often with an offer of possible solutions. But for many of us, criticism in any form still crushes the spirit and triggers defenses, or just plain hurts.

So, why bother giving constructive criticism, especially when the risks of hurting more than helping seem so high? I think Winston Churchill may have said it best, back in 1939: “Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body; it calls attention to the development of an unhealthy state of things. If it is heeded in time, danger may be averted; if it is suppressed, a fatal distemper may develop.”

In a civil society, many people believe that we have a duty, a mandate to actively participate in critical actions and discussions with the goal of improving outcomes. To do any less is irresponsible. This mandate applies to all kinds of interaction – interpersonal, parent-child, supervisor-employee, teacher-student, political, governmental. Constructive criticism is essential to the process of change, growth and improvement in any and every domain.

With giving and receiving constructive criticism being equal parts important and difficult, how do we proceed? I say that we proceed in the same way as we would to pet a porcupine – very carefully. We need to learn to rapid-fire lots of questions at ourselves and answer them quickly. What are my true intentions (to help or hurt)? Am I the right person? Is there truly a problem, and are there other viable solutions? Is this the right moment? What is the cultural context, the receiver’s personality, the nature of our relationship? One question may trump all the others: what good can come of this?

There is an art to giving constructive criticism in a way that encourages improvement rather than defensiveness. It is more likely to be embraced if the criticism is timely, clear, specific, detailed and actionable. Focus on the behavior or problem in question, not the person. In addition to basic communication skills, such as using “I” statements, instead of “you” statements, one technique is particularly useful.

Couch your remarks in terms of future behavior instead of pointing out something negative in the past or present. “Next time, would you please be sure to check with me before you…” And there is always the “sandwich method” of delivering constructive criticism, sandwiching the meat of a criticism between two positive comments.

I think that being on the receiving end of constructive criticism is actually easier to handle than dishing it out. Whether delivered well or poorly, it remains our choice to take or leave criticism. And we retain the right to keep and make our own decisions. It may sound euphemistic, but by adopting an open attitude toward criticism, we open ourselves to personal growth and development, learning things that we are unable or unwilling to learn by ourselves.

We are all “perfectly imperfect” and will notice that about one another from time to time. Whether dishing it out or taking it, the only way to avoid criticism is, in Aristotle’s words, by “saying nothing, doing nothing, being nothing.” Not an option.

Each month we are highlighting one of the nine principles of the Door County Civility Project. This month Door County Civility Project team member Susan McAninch writes about Principle No. 8: Give Constructive Criticism. For more on the project or to sign the Civility Pledge, visit

Have you witnessed a Random Act of Civility? Let us know about it at [email protected].

Susan McAninch is a retired clinical social worker and psychotherapist.