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How to Give Constructive Criticism
Mom with a View

How to Give Constructive Criticism

Or: Why I'd Rather Get a Facial in Georgia than in California


My husband and I were on a 25th anniversary trip through the South. We traveled through Georgia and South Carolina, exploring islands, old lighthouses, homes and plantations. It was fascinating and beautiful and our kids think we're crazy. Never were they more grateful not to be with us. Their favorite joke is a variation on how eager they are to see our pictures, especially the ones of old Southern plantations. This was a grown-up trip.

As a treat I booked a facial for myself at the newly renovated spa at our hotel. I rarely get facials and when I do, the beauticians in Los Angeles always give me a hard time "Look at your skin. It is so dry. You need to have facials more often. Don't you use any moisturizer?" And my favorite: "Let me see what I have for mature skin." (What makes skin mature anyway? Isn't maturity a result of experience and wisdom?) Who needs the humiliation?

So when I entered the treatment room at the hotel I was prepared. "I have old skin," I told the clinician, heading her off at the pass, "dry and wrinkled."

"Nonsense," she responded, "you have beautiful skin with just a few dry patches."

Oh that southern hospitality. I would have followed her anywhere.

Not only did she make me feel good about myself (all right, it was only about my skin, not my character), she made me more receptive to my flaws and more inclined to work on them.

Lots of praise followed by some gentle redirection is most likely to be more effective.

This style is not just effective in trivial areas. When a teacher wants to describe a child's difficulties to his parents, she should begin with the positive. She should list many of the child's strengths and describe examples of good behavior before mentioning a small area that needs improvement. It will get much better results -- from the parents and the student. Too much criticism will just lead to resentment (from the parents) and defiance (from the student).

Lots of praise followed by some gentle redirection is most likely to be more effective.

The same applies to the teacher. If we have questions about her relationship with our children, it's much better to first describe all the wonderful things she's teaching, her creativity and her warmth, and then mention our one concern.

Of course this applies to co-workers and employees and siblings and friends.

Most of all, it applies to our children and our spouses. If your son doesn't pick up his clothes, list the areas where he is responsible before requesting assistance with his laundry. Tell your daughter how helpful and thoughtful she is before discussing how she hurt her sister's feelings.

Describe to your husband how much you appreciate everything he does for you before asking why he didn't call when he knew he was going to be late. Compliment him on how considerate his is before pointing out that he forgot your birthday; how helpful he is before reminding him that he didn't pick up the dry-cleaning.

Praise your wife's cooking and your appreciation that she makes dinner every night before suggestion that the very red meat may need to go back in the oven; tell her what a good mother she is and how much you admire her care and patience before discussing that perhaps she was too harsh with your daughter tonight; tell her how solicitous she is of your needs before mentioning that she seemed a little abrupt with you this evening.

It's not new advice but it's wisdom we usually forget, at our own peril. And that of those around us. And it's not the general behavior of society around us (if my LA beauticians are any example!) I don't know if the lesson was worth the trip to Georgia (although the trip was worth if for other reasons despite what our kids think!) but it may be an incentive to get another facial soon...just for the learning experience of course.

March 14, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 11

(11) Bob, March 21, 2009 9:53 PM

Toastmasters Calls This Evaluation

For over 80 years Toastmasters has used this technique, which we refer to as Evaluation, to help men and women all over the world improve our communication skills, especially in public speaking. It must work, because I have been a member for 27 years and there are currently over 200,000 members in more than 10,000 Toastmaster Clubs practising and teaching this skill.

(10) Anonymous, March 19, 2009 9:35 PM

Great Article

One point worth mentioning is the importance of not using the word "but" after complimenting someone as an intro to the criticism, as it negates what was said. It's better to use the word "and" - say something like "you're usually so considerate, AND that's why it bothered me to see you do such and such" or "...SO it was surprising to hear you say such and such"

(9) Anonymous, March 19, 2009 8:34 AM

you're wonderful, but...

how does that make you feel? i wouldn't want my praise to always be attached to something negative. kinda makes you stop believing the positive when it's always just a precursor to negative!

(8) Suzanne, March 18, 2009 12:48 PM


It is important to remember to make sure the good is of the same type as the bad. For instance, being told "You're such a good wife" doesn't mean much when the rest of what you here is how you don't prepare the food properly, or do the laundry or the dishes right. A big general compliment followed by specific criticisms just make the person wondering what in the world they could have possibly done right to deserve the big compliment when every little thing they do is somehow wrong. Also this advice only holds true if sometimes (perhaps even most of the time?) the praise is not followed by criticism. I know several people with whom I internally wince whenever they give a compliment because I know it's just their way of giving themselves license to tell me everything they think I should remake about myself.

(7) Miriam Adahan, March 18, 2009 9:40 AM


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