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How To Give Constructive Criticism Effectively

Criticism can be an incredibly powerful tool in not only voiceover directing but in all fields of work and all facets of life. It can give us the power to guide our colleagues towards better performances. It can help our friends become better support systems. It can lead our partners to be better people. It can lead us to become better versions of ourselves. Depending on how we deliver it, criticism can either be a mechanism for positive change or a recipe for disaster, causing people to build resentment towards us for shattering their fragile self-perceptions. Thus, we need to be strategic with how we relay criticism.

So how can we ensure that the criticism we give in work elicits a positive outcome? Drawing from my experience as a voiceover director who gives constructive criticism for a living and my education in communication studies, my goal in writing this post is to help you give more effective criticism — and help you utilize this powerful tool to achieve a more efficient and happier life.

Team leader giving effective constructive criticism to their team of freelancers and employees

Respect that receiving criticism can be hard. Start from a place of flattery -- you will be amazed at how much more open people will be to criticism.

The best way to convince someone to change their views on something is to begin speaking to them from the viewpoint they already possess, and then gradually shift towards the opposing viewpoint — Rhetorical theory 101. This better ensures you’ll have the audience’s ears and attention since people like to affirm their existing views. From here, a potential shift will be coming from a place of pre-established trust. But when you try to convince someone of something and open with the opposing view, they are far more likely to resist than had you started from a place they could connect with.

I believe the same principle applies to criticism. We as humans tend to think pretty highly of ourselves. Criticism can feel like a direct disturbance to our personal identity. This explains why a lot of people react to criticism with great resistance. Instead of looking at themselves with a critical lens and embracing the value for improvement inherent in criticism, they firmly defend their pre-existing image of themselves.

Criticism alone can feel like a personal attack. So how do we make people more comfortable when we give them constructive criticism? By giving them praise alongside criticism.

Balancing criticism with compliments transforms and softens it. It increases the chances that the person will listen to the criticism and not meet it with resistance. So rather than serving up a platter of criticism by itself, add some flattery or recognition and make it a balanced meal. Just like rhetorical theory suggests — you best capture your audience's attention when you reaffirm their pre-existing beliefs. Starting from this non-threatening place will give you a much better chance of the person being open to examining themselves and hearing your criticism and hopefully applying it.

Compliment what they're doing well. Frame criticism as a GOOD thing.

When done expertly, criticism itself can feel like praise. Say for example you want to constructively criticize someone for talking to fast and not annunciating their words — start by complimenting that exact quality, i.e. “I love how conversational and natural you deliver your lines, your pacing sounds so real and inviting. I think it would work wonders to slow down a bit though, that way you can annunciating the information more clearly while still keeping your natural inflections that work so well.” What I did there is a little technique for delivering criticism I learned when writing report cards back in my days as a lifeguard called “the sandwich” recipe: a) start with a something positive, b) then give your criticism, c) then end off with one more compliment. “The sandwich” works because when you build the foundation of your messaging out of positivity, you banish resistance causing self-doubt and replace it with motivation. We would much rather work on the good parts of ourselves than the bad.

Use yourself as an example.

Criticism feels a lot harsher when the audience feels singled out. Confronting our flaws takes vulnerability, and we can’t change our behaviour until we confront them. Using yourself as an example is a great way to make your audience not feel alone in their weaknesses. By sharing your own experience having overcome a weakness you show vulnerability and allow your audience to safely do the same.

Recognize and respect their effort.

Criticism doesn’t come in isolation. Whether it be multiple touch-points for the same critique or new pieces of criticism that may arise, real change takes time. Recognizing even the smallest improvements goes miles. Not only do you validate someone in the efforts they’ve been making, but that compliment is also a reminder to them that the change they’ve made is noticeable and inspires them to re-commit to future steps that promote change.

Practice what you preach.

You can tell someone to do something a thousand times, but it won’t be very convincing if you’re not practicing it yourself. Sometimes it can be difficult to recognize that you aren’t practicing what you preach. So use the critique you give, as an opportunity to look inwards and ask yourself if your actions do indeed align with your words. Leading by example is wildly powerful. By practicing what you preach you supply your audience with concrete evidence that change is possible, inspire them, and show them what that behaviour looks like in action. Plus, there’s the added benefit that chances are practicing what you preach will positively impact your life.

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