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Constructive Criticism: How to Hear It When You’d Rather Not

Dear Crucial Skills,

Constructive criticism. I absolutely hate it and completely shut down when I hear it. It’s still criticism, however “constructive” the giver thinks it is. But I know it’s a popular thing to “give.” How can I overcome my aversion to it?

Fearful of Feedback

Dear Fearful,

Before you work on overcoming your aversion to constructive criticism, I have a suggestion: explore it. It may be telling you something.

In my experience, people are averse to constructive criticism for one of two reasons. They either think the criticism is intended to tear them down rather than build them up—the critic is simply hiding their intent behind the term “constructive”—or they associate criticism with shaming. Any feedback that implies they could or should do something differently negatively impacts their sense of self.

I am not sure from your message what’s contributing to your aversion, but I encourage you to explore it. Until you know, you won’t be able to address it.

Now, assuming you fall into one of the two categories above, here are some suggestions for how to move forward.


If the constructive criticism is more critical than constructive, try reframing it.

For example, someone calls and says, “Hey, Emily, can you talk? I have some constructive criticism about your recent Q&A.”

Now, my hackles might immediately raise because, yuck, constructive criticism. But I can influence how this interaction unfolds by framing my response to highlight the constructive part of constructive criticism. “Sure, that would be great. I always appreciate good feedback and specific suggestions of what I can do better.”

With this framing, I have hopefully communicated that I’d like to hear not just what I did poorly, but also specific suggestions of what I should do differently.

Ask for the FIX

In some cases, people intent on telling you what you’ve done wrong may miss your subtle reframing. If that happens, ask for the FIX.

Years ago, my mentor Kerry Patterson was working with an up-and-coming writer named Liz Wiseman (you may have heard of her). Kerry had asked Liz to copyedit something he had written. Liz diligently edited the piece, marking one specific passage with AWK, a common proofreading mark that indicates awkward phrasing. After Kerry reviewed Liz’s edits, he returned the paper with a note: “Never give an AWK without a FIX.”

When people give you feedback, it’s fair to ask them for a specific fix. Let’s go back to the example above about feedback on this article. Let’s say my editor, or critic, highlights a few things he doesn’t like and then stops. My response?

“Thanks for pointing that out. I’d really like your suggestions on how to fix this or improve it. What do you suggest?”

Make a Choice

You have probably heard the expression “feedback is a gift.” You might have an aversion to that expression too! I know I did for many years—until I stopped and thought about what it meant.

Imagine someone gives you a gift, maybe a piece of art for your home or an article of clothing. The gift is thoughtful and expresses love or appreciation. Unfortunately, the gift is simply not your style. It doesn’t fit in your home or wardrobe. It just isn’t you. So, what do you do? If you are like me, you express your honest and sincere appreciation for the thoughtfulness behind the gift. And then you re-gift it or donate it.

The point is you don’t have to keep it. Just because someone gives you a gift doesn’t mean you must integrate it into your home, your wardrobe, or your life. You get to choose. And so it is with feedback. You can be grateful that someone took the time and effort to share their perspective, and you can choose whether or not to integrate that feedback.


Finally, don’t expect feedback to be delivered perfectly. Your critic may have valuable perspective, even if delivered poorly. For some great insight on how to listen to a poorly delivered message, check out Joseph Grenny’s presentation “Feedsmacked” from Crucial Learning’s 2019 REACH conference.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Conversations for Accountability

6 thoughts on “Constructive Criticism: How to Hear It When You’d Rather Not”

  1. Stephen Butler

    Thank you for these two simple ideas, Reframing and Asking for the Fix. As someone who resisted feedback early in my career, I experienced the value that constructive criticism can offer by using these two skills you reference, particularly asking for the fix. My shift in attitude helped me hear criticism, learn from it and grow new skills and develop new behaviors. Now when offered constructive criticism, I always try to ask myself this question: What can I learn from these comments?

  2. Tim Rinko-Gay

    As an alternative to asking for the fix, one tool I’ve used is asking the person to identify the “real problem” (as I call it).

    Asking for the fix is a great tool to draw out what someone really wants but isn’t stating outright. It’s also important to invite someone to part of solving problems, not just identifying them. However, I think it’s important not to discourage feedback from people who aren’t sure of the fix. (Thanks to the “ask for the fix” approach, I’ve found myself failing to have crucial conversations in cases where we can’t solve without brainstorming together from a pool of shared meaning.) When someone uses feedback to take a jab without offering a fix, I think it’s dangerous to assume bad intentions. Maybe they have valuable perspective to help me be better, and they’re just bad at giving feedback. That’s why I suggest guiding the person to shift focus from my behavior they dislike to the actual outcome of my behavior that’s the real problem. Once we can see the shared problem (getting to mutual purpose), I can invite the person to be part of the solution by brainstorming a fix together with me.

  3. David Benjamin

    Depending who is giving the feedback can also it will be received.
    A poorly delivered feedback from a trusted friend will be well received in spite of the tone.
    However, even a complement from a person you distrust and dislike will be seen as insincere and rejected.

  4. Peter

    Thanks, Emily. Well done. And thanks for link to Feedsmacked. I had not seen that before.

  5. Victoria

    Feedbacks can be tolerated when it’s not ususual,

  6. How to take criticism constructively - WellTuned by BCBST

    […] if you take the criticism constructively, rather than personally, it can lead to improved performance and communication—even if it’s […]

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