How to Give Constructive Criticism

When I was in high school, my classmates hated me.

…just a little bit. I was trying to give them some ideas on how to improve their artwork…which should be a good thing, right? Turns out, my approach was absolutely horrendous.

For one thing, someone eventually told me that whenever I gave a compliment, I would start with the word “actually.” As in, “hey, this is actually pretty good.” I didn’t even realize I was saying it that way, but I was coming off as passive-aggressively insulting.

For another thing, I was telling my friends what they were doing wrong. The truth is, no one likes to hear that, and when you tell someone they’ve done it wrong, they shut down and act defensive – not very productive.

Here’s a better system:

  • Start and end with a compliment. Sandwich your critique between the two.
  • Be gentle. Instead of saying “my grandmother could do better, and she’s dead!” say “here’s a helpful suggestion that someone gave me, and maybe you can benefit from it too.”
  • Don’t transition from compliment to critique with the words “but,” “however,” “yet,” “even so,” or “still.” That negates everything good you just said. Just say what you’re trying to say: if the transition is smooth enough, they may even internalize the advice without realizing it was a critique at all.
  • If they really messed up, let them save face by saying “you know what? This is a lot better than where you started. Continue working hard, and I know you’ll keep getting better.”

Imagine someone isn’t getting enough contrast where they need it, and their painting is looking washed out and unfocused as a result. A good critique might sound something like this:

“Excellent job on this grassy area – you’re getting a good feel for the texture! Don’t forget to make the shadows down below nice and dark; that will really make the focal area pop. Keep going, you’re doing great!”

The Burger of Criticism

To quote Charles Schwab, “I have yet to find the person, however great or exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than he would ever do under a spirit of criticism.”

Be sincere in your praise and don’t overdo it. If there’s truly nothing good to say about the work, say “I can tell you’ve worked hard on this.” It may be fun to criticize others, but it’s not very effective. 

What about you? Have you ever been criticized too harshly? Comment below and let me know the worst criticism you’ve ever gotten, and how you responded to it. Let’s all get better together!