Cooperating successfully in teamshonestly and constructivelyMANAGING DISAGREEMENTS CONSTRUCTIVELYReceives and phrases criticism respectfullySkill to recognize disagreements and apply specific ways and methods for dealing with disagreements

Are you able to phrase criticism and feedback constructively?

It's not only what you are saying but also what is the situation and how you are saying it

Good communication tops most people’s lists of important skills for working in a team. One of the most important person-to-person communication skills is the ability to give and receive criticism effectively. It is also one of the most challenging skills. In the text bellow, we are going to talk about some techniques that can be used for developing the ability to give and to receive criticism.

As a teenager, I had a rebellious character. I wasn’t afraid of confrontation and I always spoke my mind. I was able to enter a delicate conversation and to advocate my opinions in a very raw way. Often those discussions included criticism or negative feedback, especially with the closest family and friends. We were sometimes ending in confrontation, escalating discussions, win-lose scenarios, or even when it was win-win or lose-lose there was a feeling of “it is not worth it”.

After the teenage years, while I became more self-aware, I noticed that my relationships with my family and coworkers are improving because I consciously choose the situation in which I phrase criticism, I pay attention to my tone or I control my gestures. The improvement of my relationships, resulted with – cooperating, respecting each other and appreciating the extra efforts and kindness in a positive atmosphere that made the things to go more smoothly, faster and better, even when dealing with strong opinions. That made me dive in, learn and master the skill on how to phrase criticism better, since I already noticed an immediate effect on my relationships and cooperation with my family, friends and coworkers.

Often when we hear the word criticism, we connect it with something negative, with giving or receiving unfavorable comments. Actually, the meaning of the word criticism is “art of estimating literary or artistic worth”. Even though most of the criticism is focused on something that can be improved or done better, criticism can also be positive, appreciation of someone’s work. A critic is a person giving criticism, the one who expresses a reasoned opinion on any matter especially involving a judgment of its value, truth, righteousness, beauty, or technique.

Whenever we respond to another person, we are giving that person a feedback. We may be reacting to any number of things:

  • The way a person looks
  • His or her actions or behaviors
  • Something he or she said
  • Or a combination of factors

Similarly, our criticism can take many forms. We can show our reactions verbally, through speaking or writing, or we can react nonverbally, using our body language and facial expressions. As useful as criticism can be, many of us are reluctant to give or receive it. This is the result of misperceptions we have about criticism. Often, people still associate criticism with hurtful words. They don’t want to hurt the feelings of others, and also they don’t want their own work to be criticized. Criticism doesn’t have to be negative and hurtful. If used with certain techniques, criticism can be effective and beneficial for the recipient, thus strengthen the relationship. We are going to focus on effective criticism, how to give it and how to receive criticism effectively.

There are two main types of effective criticism:

  1. Redirection – identifying job-related behavior and performance that do not contribute to the goals of the organization, the team or the individual and helping team members to develop alternative strategies.
  2. Reinforcement– identifying job-related behavior and performance that contribute to the goals of the individual, the team or the organization and encouraging team members to repeat and develop them.

When constructive criticism takes the form of redirection and reinforcement, it has several useful characteristics:

  • It is focused on acts, not attitude – useful criticism is a response to certain actions that are done in the process of performing one’s job. Commenting on someone’s attitude or attacking a person’s talent, abilities, educational background or physical attributes is not a useful type of criticism.
  • It is directed towards the future – the purpose of the feedback is not to live in the past- it is to plan for the future. Useful criticism uses past actions as a jumping-off point for the criticism recipient to develop effective plans for future actions and change of behavior.
  • It is multidirectional- successful teams use ongoing criticism among all team members as an important tool to reach the goals of the team. Criticism shouldn’t be hierarchical, it should be multidirectional and the team will cooperate better and will have healthier relationships among each other if everyone shares his or her unique insight.
  • It is supportive – one and only purpose of giving criticism is to help the team members to improve the quality of their work in order to reach the goals. It should never be given in a way that discredits the recipient or make others look good at that person’s expense.
  • It is ongoing – when criticism is ongoing, team members feel comfortable responding to each other on an ongoing basis. We need to know immediately when we should redirect our efforts so that simple mistakes don’t become costly errors, and we need reinforcements when those changes have been successful so that we continue to develop a specific action.

A key feature that helps make the criticism useful is the number of details it provides. Criticism is most helpful when it provides as much detailed information about our actions as possible. Detailed criticism should be:

  • Specific– before giving criticism, it is good to recall as much specific information as possible about the action you want to redirect or reinforce. Answering these questions can make criticism more detailed: what happened; where and when did it occur; who was involved; how did it affect others?
  • Accurate – always be sure that you have an accurate understanding of the situation before you begin the criticism session by describing actions or events that never happened, since that will result in the recipient of criticism taking a defensive stand as he or she attempts to describe what really happened.
  • Inquiring– learn all that you can about the complicated situation before you give criticism and continue to ask questions during the criticism process itself. It will help you understand the situation better that might result in completely different feedback or you might realize that the feedback is not needed in that situation at all.

In order to incorporate as many details into constructive criticism as possible, it is best to get as close as possible to the time when the act in question actually occurred. It is always easier to discuss something when events are fresh in everyone’s mind. It is important to balance the need for a timely response against the need to prepare for the criticism session.

According to the Poertner and Massetti Miller, authors of the book “The art of giving and receiving feedback”, there are 7 main steps for giving effective feedback/criticism:

  1. Preparing to give your feedback
  2. Choosing an appropriate time and place
  3. Beginning the feedback session
  4. Presenting your feedback
  5. Giving reinforcement
  6. Describe behavior or performance you want to reinforce
  7. Explain the positive impact that act has had on the organization
  8. Help your feedback recipient take credit for his or her success
  9. Thank your feedback recipient for his or her contribution and encourage similar future actions
  10. Giving redirection
  11. Describe the behavior or performance you want to redirect
  12. Listen to the reaction of your feedback recipient
  13. If needed, clarify expectations for your feedback recipient’s behavior or performance. Explain the negative effects of those actions on the organization.
  14. Help your feedback recipient to acknowledge that a problem exists and take responsibility for it
  15. Develop a plan that will help your feedback recipient adjust his or her action.
  16. Thank your feedback recipient for his or her effort.
  17. Staying on track
  18. Documenting your feedback
  19. Providing a higher level of information

For a detailed explanation of all these steps, refer to chapter 4 from the earlier mentioned book: “The art of giving and receiving feedback”.

How does this apply to being a trainer?

Phrasing criticism can encourage a behavior of correcting the actions, which is exactly what the critique is meant for. It can also provoke other unwanted reactions such as avoiding, denying, ignoring, or even re-allocating responsibility. Being able to phrase constructive criticism and feedback, will increase the cohesion, the cooperation and the understanding in your teams and it will contribute to achieve better results. Your participants will be able to see that in real life and follow by example. The team is the biggest asset that you have and improving the skills of phrasing criticism should be a priority in all teams of trainers.

Exercises / how to apply it in everyday life

  • Assess your own abilities to give constructive criticism and identify which things you need to improve
  • Ask your teammates about their reactions when poor feedback and criticism is given by someone. Identify how the situation can escalate when poor feedback is given.
  • Talk with your team and give them feedback about the things they do and what they could improve
  • Pay attention to the communication inside your team, how are your team members giving feedback to each other
  • Talk with your team and create an atmosphere inside your team in which constructive criticism is welcome
  • Be open to receiving criticism and encourage your team members to give you criticism

Sit down with your team and openly discuss with them about giving criticism. Talk about the earlier mentioned steps. Lead by example and give feedback to others and invite them to give feedback to you. What is done well by you and your team members? What can be improved?

Reflection Questions

Why is it important to give and receive criticism respectfully, honestly and constructively?

What can you do to improve your skill of giving and receiving criticism? What can you do to improve this skill of your team members?

How do you feel when someone gives you harsh feedback? How do others feel when you give them harsh feedback?

Why do you need to pay attention to the communication inside your team? What should you do if you notice a problem in the communication between your teammates?

Co-Author of the article Aleksandar Cickovic

is vice president and co-founder of the Croatian NGO Ocean Znanja, main coordinator for mobilities at NaturKultur e.V. Aleksandar has been actively doing youth work since 2013 and has since participated, organized or worked as a trainer on more than 60 projects in Erasmus+/Youth in Action. He is facilitating and leading international workshops in Germany, Croatia, and other countries.

After getting his master’s degree in marketing, he worked in big companies such as and IPSOS. His main focus is on team building, teamwork and development of an entrepreneurial way of thinking.

Click here to read more about Aleksandar Cickovic

Co-Author of the article Darko Mitevski

Darko Mitevski has been an international trainer, project manager and youth worker since 2002. In his career, he has been a trainer for different kinds of NGOs and social enterprises, a lecturer at different universities, trainer for companies and consultant for development of organizations. He has been leading the “Train the trainers – It’s up to me” which is going to have its 7th edition in 2020 and is the founder of the Trainers Library. He is passionate about innovation, the development of young trainers and transfer of know-how. Darko has created many manuals, tools, guides in a formal and non-formal education environment. He has experience in managing virtual multinational teams, leading a different kind of organizations, taking part in a variety of task forces and initiatives. He has an MBA degree and a Bachelors in Business Administration.

Click here to read more about Darko Mitevski

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Shirley Portner and Karen Massetti Miller: “The art of giving and receiving feedback” (1997)Hardavella G, Aamli-Gaagnat A, Saad N, Rousalova I, Sreter K B: “How to give and receive feedback effectively” (2017)

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