Relationship Tips

People *Want* Constructive Feedback—Here’s How To Give It Without Being Mean

Photo: Getty Images/Thomas Barwick
Ever worked really hard on a work presentation that went well but wished someone would’ve told you where there was room for improvement so you could make it even better next time? When we dedicate effort to an endeavor, we want to do well, and it's human nature to feel that if we're not improving, we're backpedaling, which runs counterproductive to doing as well as possible. That's why receiving constructive feedback is a natural channel for facilitating this growth, but often, folks feel a little funny doling it out, with worry that they're harping on the negative rather than supporting the positive. Well, for those who are nervous about giving constructive feedback, know that recent research found that people underestimate others' desire for receiving constructive feedback.

Experts agree that giving constructive feedback certainly provides value, given that humans mostly get to know themselves through the relationships they have with others.“People giving us constructive feedback lets us know how they are interacting with us, perceiving us, and getting along in a relationship with us,” says therapist Christiana Awosan, PhD. And the effects of such constructive feedback extends to professional, romantic, platonic, and familial relationships alike.

“Constructive feedback lets us know how people are getting along in a relationship with us.” —Christiana Awosan, PhD

How can you know when the right opportunity to give constructive feedback might be? According to the research, published by the American Psychological Association, a great personal litmus test is simply asking yourself whether you'd like to receive the feedback if you were in a similar situation. “Take a second and imagine you’re in the other person’s shoes and ask yourself if you would want feedback if you were them. Most likely you would, and this realization can help empower you to give them feedback,” Nicole Abi-Esber, doctoral candidate at Harvard Business school and lead study author said in the study.

As far as what to keep in mind when giving constructive feedback to ensure it lands as positive reinforcement, not a tool to put someone down, Dr. Awosan says it's crucial to avoid being mean. “Your goal is to build up someone, for them to get to know themselves better,” she says. “If you are being mean to them, that doesn't allow them the space to even try to do something better or see it differently. It just really cuts off the ability to be able to build somebody up and to say that you are invested in their growth.”

Read on to learn four tips for giving constructive criticism in a way that demonstrates you care about the other person's development.

4 tips for giving constructive feedback that's actually, well, constructive

1. Utilize the VCR Method

Therapist Kenneth V. Hardy, PhD, developed the three-step VCR Method, which stands for validate, challenge, and request, says Dr. Awosan—and it can be used to effectively give constructive criticism. To validate, you want to tell the receiver what they’re doing well. To challenge, follow up the validation by acknowledging certain behaviors or actions may have an impact on you that you may not appreciate. In terms of requesting, be clear about what, exactly, you’d like them to change.

Let’s say your roommate is leaving a mess around the apartment. If you want to give them constructive feedback, says Dr. Awosan, you may want your message to sound a little something like this: “I really like living with you because X," which is a validation. "But I’ve also noticed that sometimes the apartment is a mess," which is the challenge. "Might you be able to be more mindful about cleaning up after yourself?" which is, finally, the request.

2. Be aware of your non-verbal communication

“Communication is not just verbal,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Omar Ruiz, LMFT. “It also includes your tone, volume, effect, and body language. Any shifts in these can misconstrue the statement that you are hoping to get across.” (Just consider how you might feel when someone is slouched over as you’re sharing important information.)

Instead of waving a finger, for instance, you might want to take a seat, keep your limbs by your sides, and be mindful of any negative-leaning facial expressions. “You may not have control over how someone perceives your constructive criticism, but you are in full control of how you deliver that message,” Ruiz adds.

3. Get specific

Even if the VCR method seems too formulaic for you to deliver in a natural way, you still want to be specific about where the receiver might be able to grow. This is especially true if someone is asking you for your feedback, specifically, says Ruiz because “that means they value what you have to share.” You might also want to ask this person what suggestions they have already received, which Ruiz adds can be helpful for avoiding repetition in feedback.

4. Ask whether the feedback you provided was helpful

“After you have given your feedback, ask the person if they found it helpful or not,” says Ruiz. “Even if they didn't, the feedback they give you will help you learn how you can improve the ways you provide constructive criticism toward others.”

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