How to Give a Critique Without Being Critical

We all start off as makers. Maybe you were a tinker toy, Lego Master, or maybe you decorated your room with paper that you folded, cut out, painted on and otherwise crafted. It could have been anything, but you were born creative.

Parenting four kids has provided a lot of diversity into my thinking about how creativity presents itself. But not long ago, my two oldest started commenting on how their artwork wasn’t as good as that of other kids in their classes. I could see that the comparisons they were making were starting to take away their love of creating, and I didn’t want that to happen.

When a friend mentioned that her kids were gaining confidence in their abilities by using Art Hub for Kids, I checked it out. The videos feature an artist dad, teaching his own kids and anyone who watches how to draw. While the art they make together is fun, it’s his encouragement with critiques that I find really impressive. When a line is too short or the character they’re drawing winds up looking a bit off, he finds a way to compliment the work and make a suggestion about what they could do next time, all the while not passing judgement on the art. It’s not just great parenting, it’s a great life skill.

Offering critiques to our families, work teams and clients is an opportunity to either press into constructive kindness or pass judgment on what’s been done. Here’s my technique for offering truthful feedback without being judgmental:

  • Find the good. I don’t usually sandwich the bad news with good news, mostly because people are on to that kind of talking and because we remember the bad news more than the good news anyway. If you think back to times you’ve received a negative review, it’s probably hard for you to pull up the positive information you got on either side of it. We’re hardwired to focus on the negative because our brains handle disappointment and elation in separate hemispheres ( I’m no scientist, but these researchers shaped my thinking on this topic). Instead of sandwiching bad news, I like to end with as many positive but legitimate notes as I can and put the bad news up front. It’s important to note that offering frivolous praise isn’t helpful. Most people, especially young people, can sniff out disingenuous compliments. But don’t let that thought keep you from offering legitimate accolades. The average person needs five to ten “attaboys” to every negative comment.
  • If I don’t like it, I have to offer a why. Around my office, we are constantly making. We make logos, create brand rules, write website copy and lots of lines of code, all the while asking our team members for feedback. We try very hard to never send something out the door with only one set of eyes on it. That process requires us to give more feedback than just, “I don’t know, something’s off,” even when that’s our first instinct. I know I’m not applying myself to making something better when I don’t have an actionable piece of information for the person who made it. Being specific about what could be better allows the person receiving the bad news to change course, edit and make something even greater than they would have without that information.
  • Related: The Financial Advisor’s Guide to Branding and Colors

    Negative information is much easier to deliver than receive because bad news causes our brains to start unpacking all the details. We produce stronger emotions around the bad stuff because we think about it more. Positive information and stories where nothing goes wrong are less powerful because our minds don’t start looking for solutions around them. They accept the pleasantry and move on to tougher stuff. We’re better for the bad news we receive when it comes to us packaged with action steps we can take to make it better and framed in a box with the things we’ve done well.

    How do you offer critiques to your team? Do they appreciate the feedback? How do you know when you are moving into judgement? What helps you move forward without ignoring what needs to change? I’m always looking for new tools to put in my toolbox to increase my team’s resiliency and efficiency.