6 Tips for Giving and Receiving Criticism
- Know your limits. While it’s certainly a boost to your ego when someone who respects you asks for your opinion, if you’re not truly an expert at whatever you’re being asked to critique you’re really only providing your best guess. Is that what you want to give to someone who thinks highly of you? There is nothing wrong with referring your friend to one of your connections who can be more helpful. For example, if you’re a bartender being asked to critique a logo you could say, “I know I am a master at mixing the perfect mojito but I don’t know anything about the psychology of color choices. I do know a great creative director who could give you some insight.”
- Before you give feedback, ask the right questions. Truly understanding the problem that needs to be solved will help you give solutions instead of opinions. Sometimes, when asking the right questions, you may discover that the person who has asked for your critique doesn’t really understand the problem, which may be why they’re unsure of their solution in the first place. “How did you arrive at this result? What are the limitations of this project? What are the goals and how will you measure success?” are just a few examples of how you can steer the conversation toward the correct conclusion. Asking insightful questions can lead to the right direction without you ever having to be critical at all.
- Don’t give feedback based on personal preference. If you’re truly an expert at the task at hand, you should be able to provide sound reasons for any changes you suggest. “I don’t like this” should never be uttered if you’re basing your judgement on principles of your field rather than your own subjective feelings. If a colleague asks for your thoughts on what appears to be a half-baked idea, instead of shooting down the idea, suggest they do more research about X or point out the risks that could derail their plan so they can be prepared with a plan B. Whatever the idea or product being analyzed, if the best you can say is “that won’t work” or “I don’t like this” or “this isn’t the solution” without any principles, data or facts to back up your instinct, see tip #1 above.
- Walk away. Just as you should recuse yourself from administering advice that you aren’t qualified to give, recognize when someone who isn’t important to you is simply being mean for their own sadistic entertainment. You are so much better than that drama. Don’t give them the satisfaction of acknowledging anything they have to say.
- Ask questions. On occasion someone who is important to you might stoop to the level of put-downs or disparaging comments. This could be an angry co-worker or a dissatisfied customer or your mother. (She only wants what’s best for you.) You can’t simply walk away from these people. Sometimes the best way to diffuse this situation is to ask questions that show you really do care about what they think, even if you don’t agree with their assessment or delivery. “How can I do a better job with this moving forward?” “How would you handle this?” or (if you’re actually in the wrong) “What can I do to make this right?” You’ll be surprised how quickly someone will soften their tone when you respond in a way that takes the high road.
- Smile and nod. Then there is that outlier situation when a total stranger, well-meaning but a bit naive, offers you some really bad advice. Your instinct might be to roll your eyes (that’s my go-to annoyed facial expression). Resist this instinct. Smile, say thank you and roll on. There is no reason to waste one second of your lifetime dwelling on this. Save your energy for the task at hand.
Jan Badger, Shape Shifter at Fifth Letter, is handy when you want to start a fire and fills many roles including making sure projects deliver on time and on budget. She is willing to share her opinion on just about anything just about any time. Contact Jan at firstname.lastname@example.org.