The Key to Giving and Receiving Constructive Criticism

patrick-bailey.jpg  Professional writer focusing on mental health, addiction, and living in recovery.

  WWS contributor



Imagine the last time a boss, respected peer, friend, parent, or spouse sat you down and gave you constructive criticism. How did you feel?

While people often consider criticism as stressful and difficult, constructive criticism is highly important. Without it, you could continue making the same mistakes or not realize how you could improve.

Just as important as the criticism itself is the way you receive it. How you deliver similar advice to others is also crucial and must employ good intentions.

If you give or receive criticism and frame it in a positive light, this message could lead to benefits for both you and others.

First, we'll cover receiving constructive criticism and then we’ll discuss ways to deliver it.


Criticism and its effects on the brain


Let's begin with what happens in your brain during a moment of constructive criticism. At the most basic biological level, our brains often perceive criticism as a threat to our survival.

Stop and think about that for a second. You could be receiving criticism about something minor, such as whether a client liked or disliked some small aspect about your project. Even if that aspect of the project is completely insignificant to your ability to stay alive, your brain may still perceive it as a threat to your continued survival. This means your brain may go into fight or flight mode pretty quickly.

A great way to visualize the impact of criticism is to determine where it fits on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Developed by psychologist Abraham Maslow, psychologists around the world use this pyramid-shaped structure to understand the importance of certain human needs.

In Maslow’s hierarchy:

  • The bottom level of the pyramid: This level includes the needs that help keep us alive, such as breathing air, eating food, and sleeping. Needs in this level serve as foundations for other needs in the hierarchy.
  • The next level: This level includes safety and security needs.
  • The level above that (the middle level): This level includes needs that relate to belonging and love.
  • The next level: This level addresses our needs that relate to esteem.
  • The highest level. This level includes self-actualization needs such as creativity and problem-solving.

One would think that criticism falls into the esteem category. But, given our intense reactions, it appears criticism relates to the safety category of Maslow’s needs hierarchy, a category that deals with the security of a person’s body, health, morality, family, employment, and resources.


Receiving Criticism


Understanding the impact constructive criticism may have on the brain can help us develop a strategy for receiving and giving criticism. Upon receiving criticism, one important aspect of this process is to ensure everyone is heard and communication is clear.

You could start by making sure the person giving criticism has good intentions and means to help you rather than hurt you. Ask the other person what their intentions are and why they are giving you criticism.

Secondly, upon hearing the criticism, your biggest barrier might be yourself. Remember to breathe and reframe the situation. Consider the situation from different perspectives.

Your brain may want to assume that this moment is directly tied with your ability to survive, pay the bills, support your family, and so on. Remember that criticism may give you a chance to improve, so if anything, this moment is a good one.


Focus on actions, not the person


It’s important to consider many things when you’re giving criticism as well. One mistake people make when giving criticism is framing statements as if they’re addressing the person behind the actions instead of the actions they want to correct.

Instead, clearly state your purpose and intent of the interaction. Speak more about the actions and work instead of the people themselves. For instance, if a sales employee isn't meeting sales goals for the month, consider addressing the person’s actions. Does the employee spend lots of time talking with coworkers? Do they contact leads enough? Does the salesperson show up on time?

Asking about actions instead of people can help pinpoint problems and develop ways to solve them.


Lead with questions and positivity


Another aspect of giving criticism in a healthy way is by expressing your intent. Even if you stated your purpose in the beginning, it could be important to prove that intent throughout the interaction.

Try leading with questions in order to make the interaction feel more like a brainstorming session instead of a lecture. You could begin by asking that person about the behavior you want to correct.

If you’re addressing an underperforming salesperson, you can ask this employee if they think they are calling enough leads per day. This creates a dialogue where you can offer advice in a friendly manner without seeming like an adversary.

In the course of your conversation, it also helps to include positive remarks and genuine compliments. For instance, you could say, something like, “The way you handled the client’s concerns on that recent sale was great. I wonder how we can keep that kind of thing going?”

Overall, the key to giving and receiving constructive criticism is about understanding why it's occurring and framing it in a positive and constructive manner. Even then, receiving and giving criticism may lead to stress.

Stress might lead people to use substances such as alcohol or drugs to find relief. Prolonged use of such substances can lead to substance abuse problems and the need to find help from a rehab for alcohol.

Instead, learning to give and receive criticism in other ways can prevent addiction and keep people physically and mentally healthy.

Patrick Bailey is a professional writer mainly in the fields of mental health, addiction, and living in recovery. He attempts to stay on top of the latest news in the addiction and the mental health world and enjoy writing about these topics to break the stigma associated with them. If you want to find more articles by Patrick, you can find them on his personal blog or in Sunshine Behavioral Health.