How to Know the Difference Between Constructive and Non Constructive Criticism

Three Methods:Giving Constructive CriticismKnowing if You’re Receiving Constructive CriticismMaking Criticism More Constructive

Everyone receives criticism sometimes. The best kind of criticism is constructive criticism, which aims to help the person receiving it understand ways to improve. Not all criticism is constructive, however. It can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between constructive and nonconstructive criticism, whether you're giving or receiving it. Once you understand the difference, you can determine if the feedback you're giving is actually constructive. Understanding this difference can also help you determine if the feedback you're receiving is constructive and if it's worth taking to heart.

Method 1
Giving Constructive Criticism

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    Focus your criticism on a particular situation. This means that rather than critiquing someone as a person, or a pattern in their behavior, you should keep the criticism focused on one incident. This way, the person receiving the criticism will understand that the problem is not with them as a person, and that they don’t necessarily always do things poorly.[1]
    • Keep criticism in the present. If you’re talking about something that happened long ago, or relating a current situation to something in the past, that may not be constructive.[2]
    • Refrain from saying things like, “This is the same thing you did last time, too,” or “I’ve noticed that you always do things that way.” Statements like that are not constructive and can be hurtful.
    • Instead, you can say, "I noticed that you were late this morning," or, "I noticed that your presentation today hadn't been edited."
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    Keep criticism specific. Constructive criticism addresses specific flaws, and provides advice on how to improve on them. The receiver of critique is left with a clear idea of what actions to take in order to do better. An example of the difference between specific and vague criticism is:[3]
    • Specific: "Some of the women feel that they're being talked over. It would be helpful if you spoke up if you noticed group members interrupting each other, or brushing off what others had to say. If certain members are feeling hesitant, you might even ask for their opinion to make sure people know their thoughts are valued."
    • Vague: "You aren't showing enough leadership. Your group is unsuccessful, and its atmosphere is unpleasant, particularly for the women. I expect to see better morale and more equal participation."
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    Use objective language. Objective language lets the person know that you’re not judging them. Objective language means simply stating the facts, or things you’ve observed. Your feedback does not negatively evaluate their personal attributes or abilities. An example of the difference between objective and judgemental language when talking to an artist is:[4]
    • Objective: "The anatomy in this picture resembles a child’s, which contrasts with the more adult-like face. If she had a smaller head-to-body ratio and slightly longer limbs, she’d look more adult. Spending some extra time with anatomy books may be helpful to you."
    • Judgemental: "To be honest, you're lousy at drawing. All ego and no work ethic. I question how much commitment you have to art."
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    Observe the impact of your comments. If you care about your comments being constructive, you'll want to make sure they had the desired impact. If the person seems particularly offended or hurt, you may have been too harsh.
    • If the person doesn't seem to take your comments to heart, you can ask them if they understood, and why they aren't making changes.
    • It's possible that you were too vague or gentle and the person didn't think the feedback was meant to incite direct change.

Method 2
Knowing if You’re Receiving Constructive Criticism

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    Look for the value of the criticism. If the criticism is truly constructive, it will be given with the intention that you or your work improves somehow. See if you can see how the criticism is geared toward that. If the criticism does not offer clear guidelines on how you can improve something, it may not be constructive. An example of the difference between valuable constructive criticism and criticism that isn’t valuable at home is:[5]
    • Valuable: "I wish you would put the dishes in the dishwasher when you're done with them. When I come home and see a sink full of dishes, I feel frustrated and exhausted and I feel like that makes spending quality time together difficult." This makes it clear why the criticism is being given, how the person can change their behavior, and what the value of that change would be.
    • Not valuable: "You're such a slob! I hate how you always leave the dishes to me." This does not offer a solution or make it clear what a change would do for either party.
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    Consider how specific the criticism is. The criticism should be clearly about a specific behavior or product, not you as a person. If you’re unclear about whether the criticism is specific, ask for clarification. You may discover that the critic simply hadn’t been clear, or that the criticism isn’t in fact constructive.[6]
    • You can say something like, “I hear that you’re upset with my work this week. Can you tell me exactly which reports you had trouble with, and why?”
    • If the person has been specific but you suspect there is more that they’re not saying, you can say, “Thanks for clarifying that I need to spend more time on this week’s report. Is there anything else you’re concerned about?”
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    Listen actively. Receiving criticism can be difficult. You may feel embarrassed, hurt, or even angry if you feel you’re being unjustly criticized. However, unless you listen carefully, you won’t know whether the criticism is actually constructive or not. Once you know that it is, you can make changes so that things will go more smoothly in the future.[7]
    • Paraphrase what the person critiquing you says. Repeat what you understand back to them, so that they can see that you’re taking it in. It will also help you both clarify that you understand.
    • Ask questions if you don’t understand. You can always say, “Can you give me an example?”
    • Avoid becoming defensive. You may want to argue or defend yourself. However, if the criticism is constructive, remember that the best answer is to say, “Thanks for letting me know. I’m going to do my best to make those changes in the future.”
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    Make the changes suggested in the criticism. Constructive criticism always aims to help you grow and improve. It should also be specific. Therefore, if you make the changes to the specific situation, and do the work to improve and grow, that should satisfy the person who critiqued you.[8]
    • Once you’ve made the changes, check back in. You can say, “So, I made those changes. Have you noticed a difference? Do you have any further suggestions for me?”
    • If you make the changes but the person critiquing you still seems unsatisfied, they may simply have a personal problem with you and their criticism may not actually be constructive.
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    Pause before reacting. You may feel reactionary to feedback, even if it's constructive. Before you respond to feedback, take a moment to let it sink in. That way, even if your reaction is justifiably strong, you'll have the calm and presence of mind to respond from a grounded place, rather than rashly.[9]
    • Count to ten and take some deep breaths before responding.
    • If you're receiving the criticism face to face, you may need to let yourself be silent for a moment before responding. That's okay. You're never required to respond to someone immediately. You can even say, "Excuse me, I need to think about that for a moment."

Method 3
Making Criticism More Constructive

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    Use the “sandwich” method. The “sandwich” method of criticism is very popular because it offers positive feedback and constructive feedback at the same time. This makes it easier for people to receive without getting defensive or feeling badly about themselves.
    • Begin by mentioning positive things about the person or their work. Then mention the parts that need work, and then end on a positive note. This helps keep the receiver's self-esteem strong and keeps them interested in improving.
    • An example of a critique sandwich in a public speaking class could be, "I thought your speech was really convincing and motivating. It started off a little slow, and you could probably shave off a minute from the beginning to retain audience interest. Nonetheless, you made really strong arguments and your delivery was clear and convincing. I saw the audience nodding along by the end."
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    Choose the right time and place. The context in which feedback is given can have a big role in how it’s received. If you’re the person giving the criticism, as to speak to the person privately, at a time when they don’t feel too stressed or upset. If you’re the one receiving the criticism, you can ask to speak somewhere that you feel comfortable at a time that is good for you.[10]
    • Never give criticism in front of peers or coworkers.
    • You can always say, “Is this a good time?” or, “Could this wait until a better time?”
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    Communicate how you feel about the criticism. If you feel you’re not being given constructive criticism, let the person know. You can explain the way the criticism makes you feel by using “I” statements. You don’t need to reject the criticism, simply let the person know what is difficult for you about it.[11]
    • At work, you can say, “When you said that I’m always late, I felt that was unfair. My timecard actually shows that I only showed up late once last week.”
    • You can also say something like, “I understand that my past behavior was really upsetting. However, I’d like to focus on the incident you’re talking about that happened this morning. Can we figure out a way that something like that could be avoided in the future?”
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    Make sure the criticism reflects the subject’s goals. If you’re the one giving feedback, make sure you think about what the other person’s intentions are. They’re more likely to take the feedback into account if it has to do with their personal goals. For example, if they want to get promoted to another department, let them know that the changes you’re requesting would be required for a promotion.[12]
    • If the person wants to be well-liked in the office, you can say, “I really want everyone here to get along and respect each other. When one person doesn’t pull their weight, that becomes difficult.”
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    Recognize the role of tone. Tone can vary widely in constructive critique, but there is a difference between blunt and cruel. Because a constructive critic cares about improvement, they will not tear down the recipient. Ideally, constructive criticism is gentle enough to be taken in by the recipient. Blunt feedback can be okay, too. However, some people may bristle at it. Cruel feedback should always be avoided. For example, when working with a designer:
    • Gentle: "This is a really good start. While it would be great in most situations, for a company presentation it's a little brightly-colored. I would recommend using a plain white, off-white, or black font with a simple background, and maybe substituting some of the clip art with photos. Still, I found the text itself highly readable, and the organization is perfect."
    • Blunt: "Your power point had too much silly clip art and contrasting colors. Give me plainer text colors and more photos. Then you'll be good to go."
    • Cruel: "That looked like it was made by a thirteen-year-old who just discovered MS Paint. Too many bright colors and wacky pictures."


  • As a critic, be open to receiving criticism yourself. You may even want to ask for an evaluation of your own advice after you give it.


  • Some criticism was never intended to be constructive. If you feel you’re being unfairly treated or picked on, let a supervisor or other authority figure know.

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Categories: Education and Communications | Managing Conflict and Difficult Interactions