Why there is no such thing as constructive criticism

“Let me give you some constructive criticism. “

You’ve heard this phrase before.

Either from a friend, your partner or your boss.

Every time you hear the phrase you cringe.

Here it comes. The judgement.

Many people who give advice believe they are doing so to help the person whom they are speaking to.

Well I call bull….

Often constructive criticism and feedback are words that are interchanged. But have you ever stopped to really think about what it is you are saying when you offer up constructive criticism?

Let’s break it down.

The definition of constructive is : serving a useful purpose, serving to build up

The definition of criticism is: the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes. Synonyms are: censure, condemnation, disapproval, fault finding, attack.

So I want to build you up so I can tear you down in the same sentence. Got it.

Umm, no.

When we are given constructive criticism we are essentially then being knocked down, judged, shown our faults, shown our mistakes.  So if we preface the word criticism with constructive that seems to make the giver feel justified in what they say.

I cannot stress enough how our language needs to change around this.

Brene Brown in her books Daring Greatly and Rising Strong has spent years researching vulnerability and shame. She speaks of the stories that we tell ourselves and how they prevent us from living a fulfilling life and having the confidence to be ourselves.  How much of what she teaches people about vulnerability, self esteem, boundaries, shame, resulted in a direct cause  of so many of us receiving constructive criticism in our lives? From parents, from teachers, from friends, from bosses.

As a coach I spend hours with clients getting them to look at where their internal beliefs and stories have come from and how could they change them.  Those negative tapes we keep playing over and over in our heads were created by our life experiences and the fact that we tend to internalize a great deal of what people in power say to us. (by people in power I mean, parents, teachers, bosses etc.)

I was a Toastmaster for five years. (Toastmasters is a public speaking and leadership organization.) It was here that I learned the difference between constructive criticism and feedback.

The definition of feedback is:  information about reactions to a product, a person's performance of a task, etc., used as a basis for improvement.

I don’t see anything negative in that definition. Do you?

When we were taught to give feedback on someone’s speech we were taught to point out an area where that person could improve and then give them ideas, tips or suggestions on how they could improve it and what the result may be from that change.  And here was the other piece. These were not professional speakers giving their feedback, they weren’t experts, simply other speakers working on their own skills. So often you would hear them say, this is only my opinion.  Meaning, you can take it or leave it.

Never once have I felt that I had permission from my parents, a teacher or a boss to “take or leave their constructive criticism because it was only their opinion.”  Sure we have the choice to do that, but do you?  Do most of us?

If you're a teacher, a parent or a boss/supervisor try using these steps the next time you have to give information to someone that they may not want to hear or may not be positive:

  1. Listen to your words & tone of voice. Are you judging and criticizing them?
  2. Preface your conversation with, “this is only my opinion, it is not right or wrong.”
  3. If you’re going to point out something that you feel could be done better, ensure that you have a suggestion on exactly how to do that, or even an example of where you have seen this suggestion work. If you really can’t do this then you are simply criticizing their approach.
  4. Be prepared to “let go” of your suggestion. Feedback should be up to the receiver to take or not. Your way is not the “right” way for everyone, it is only your opinion and perspective.
  5. Remember, this is not about trying to “fix” someone.

Want to learn more about how to give feedback that will be received better? Consider working with a communications coach to look at ways to change your approach and create a better connection with those whom you interact with.

I promise the result will be more rewarding for both of you.


Know someone who could benefit from reading this post? Feel free to share it on your social media. 


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