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10 Tips For Constructive Criticism

I heard the phrase “constructive criticism” again and again in school, usually right before my classmates and I were asked to pass our papers to the left for peer-review. Without clear guidance about how to criticize constructively, our peer-reviews were often brutal and back-handed, instead of being helpful, supportive, encouraging, and focusing. We ended up criticizing our classmates rather than their misplaced commas.

As an adult, I’ve found that the need for constructive criticism is even greater outside of school, whether it’s in the workplace, in a volunteer organization, or in the home. But many people never learn how to criticize constructively. How often have you gotten angry at an insult or cutting remark and been told, “I’m only trying to help”? However well-intentioned, ill-delivered criticism can have the opposite of its intended effect, only making the problem worse or creating new problems, such as causing a fight between friends.

Being able to both give and receive criticism (or better yet, ‘feedback’) is essential to living with and working well with others. So here’s the lowdown on how to be constructive:

1) Remember your purpose. The purpose of your feedback should be to improve the outcome, not to be right, or better than someone else, or hurtful.

2) Don’t give unsolicited advice. If you see someone struggling with something and think you may be able to help, ask if you can offer some advice before doing so. Better yet, state your observation and offer open-ended help: “It sounds like you are stressed about not having enough time to do the things you love. I took a time-management class that I found really helpful. If you ever want any tips, let me know!”

3) Listen. No matter how aggravating it may be, if they don’t want your advice, don’t give it. There are a number of reasons someone may not want your advice. They may already be aware of their error or want to figure it out on their own. They may be feeling discouraged. They may have a different idea of how to approach the issue and don’t need your help at all. Respect them by respecting their wishes. Once you’ve offered your help, they know they can come to you if they need to.

4) Be mindful of context. Are you the right person to be giving this advice? Let’s say your friend vents to you about his dieting troubles, while you eat whatever you want without gaining an ounce. Your friend may not be receptive to your advice since you haven’t earned that wisdom from your own experience. It’s also important to consider the time and place. Make sure you have enough time to talk the issue through, and that you hold the conversation in a neutral and peaceful space.

5) Start with a positive. Try agreeing, admiring, appreciating, or affirming, rather than demeaning, denouncing, dismissing or discrediting. The message to give is, “This is good, and let’s make it even better.”

6) Criticize the work, never the person. Rather than telling someone, “You’re missing the point,” try saying, “This essay misses the point.” When you distance the recipient of your advice from the work you are criticizing, they are less likely to feel personally attacked.

7) Stick to the facts. Distinguish facts from judgments and opinions. Rather than say “It’s boring,” take responsibility for your opinion and say, “I found myself getting bored as I read it.”

8) Be specific. “It’s boring” doesn’t help me fix what is boring about it. It would be more helpful to say something like: “To me, the first three paragraphs felt a little long and didn’t hold my attention, but the pace picked up on the second page at the part about the rainforest.”

9) No buts: “I love this, but…” “This is wonderful, except…” Don’t dismiss your compliments as soon as you’ve given them. If you love something, say it and end that thought with a period before moving on to your critique. “I love this. What do you think about cutting the first few paragraphs and starting at this part? I think it would draw readers into the heart of the matter quicker.”

10) Ask questions and avoid saying “should.” Instead of saying “You should do it this way,” try asking, “What do you think about doing it this way?” Then listen to and respect the response you receive. Maybe together you will come up with a solution neither of you would have thought of on your own.

Do you have any feedback for me? Is there something I left out? Let me know in the comments!

Atira Zeoli- Contributing writer for IfiKnew