Chronicles of Giving and Receiving Criticism (Efficiently and Respectfully)
By Michael Whaby
Criticism, no matter who you are—a writer, a student, a professional badminton player—is key to both personal and professional development. The ability to give and take criticism are some of the most important skills to sharpen to excel in any line of work. Giving criticism is not as simple as just highlighting what is good or bad about one’s work; accordingly, receiving criticism is not as simple as just hearing what others say about your own work. Critique is an art that, if not treated properly, can yield counterproductivity.
Below, I’ll talk about some ways that criticism—both giving and receiving it—can go well or awful. For instance, how can giving someone poor criticism affect not just the person on the receiving end, but also you? And how can taking criticism poorly affect you? We’ll talk about some of the “best practices” in the art of critique.
On the giving end of criticism
Providing criticism on another’s work may seem as simple as telling someone what you think. On the contrary, it’s not this simple. Being on the giving end of criticism puts you in a position of power, and you have to be careful not to abuse this power. Whether providing written or in-person criticism on one’s work, keep in mind that while the work itself does not contain emotion, the person who produced it does.
Emotions play an important role in how your given criticism will be handled by the person receiving it. You must consider how you would feel receiving the criticism that you are giving. No matter how good or bad you perceive the work, only highlighting what can be fixed or improved will likely discourage the person on the receiving end. Your goal, as the person with power, is not to break down someone’s confidence but to give them reasons and ideas to strengthen it.
When providing criticism, glorify what was already done well and provide suggestions on areas where modifications can be made. It is easier to accept criticism given with knowledge that your work indeed had strengths—ones that can be improved upon. These suggestions should help strengthen what was already good to begin with to build a foundation that would improve the overall piece of work.
I emphasized the word “suggestions” because as it is not your work that you are criticizing, you should not demand changes to the work. You should only suggest things that you feel, from your perspective, would make the work better. This also helps to the person on the receiving end become less defensive in having their work criticized.
On the receiving end of criticism
As mentioned above, of the biggest hurdles in handling criticism effectively are emotions. Its hard not to feel personally offended when someone is criticizing your work. To manage this: Take yourself out of the equation. Make the criticism about your work, not you. The overall goal of receiving criticism should be to improve your work. To do this, you must accept the fact that your work will never be perfect. Improvements can always be made.
Perfectionism isn’t the answer nor the problem. If you believe your work to be perfect, you will not seek criticism; you will always be disappointed or offended in the end when you come to find that, in fact, your work is not perfect. However, the best way to improve your work is to realize that improvements can always be made.
How do you take action to make these improvements? Consider who the work is for. If you are a writer, your work is for your readers, not you. Therefore, it is imperative to gain access to insights from readers about your work before it is finalized. This holds true for every other line of work, too.
Lastly, and maybe even more importantly, seek criticism from those working in the same field as you. Asking a colleague to criticize your work will not only benefit you from getting another experts perspective, but it could also benefit them by letting them see a different perspective as well.
It is always up to you whether to consider criticism to make changes to your work. Sometimes the feedback you receive just doesn’t align with what you were aiming for, and perhaps the person criticizing your work missed that. When you receive criticism and are unsure whether to act on it, you can always get a second opinion. Second opinions are maybe the most underutilized resources when deciding what to do with criticism. Just like when a doctor tells you what to do with your health, it’s always good practice to get a second (or third) opinion.
Some are great with words and can speak in such a way that is helpful and not offensive. Some are shameless, and critique, no matter how harsh, will not offend them. Others, however, should proceed with caution and carefully keep in mind some of the “best practices” of the art of criticism, as it is one of the best tools to improve, or help others improve, work.
To highlight some key points, here are some considerations:
The giving end:
Don’t abuse the power of being the criticizer. Consider others’ emotions.
Glorify work that was already done well; suggest changes that might improve upon these strengths.
SUGGEST. Do not bluntly demand people that changes should be made.
Keep in mind, that the work being criticized is not yours.
The receiving end:
Take yourself out of the equation as the criticism applies to the work, not you.
Remind yourself of the overall goal—to improve your work.
Multiple perspectives—those of colleagues and those of whom the work is for—should always be considered.
If you are unsure what to do with criticism you are receiving, get a second opinion.