Constructive criticism can sound like a contradiction. “Construction” means building something up, but how can we be critical without bringing others down?
Giving constructive criticism is an art that requires practice and patience to master. But when a leader does it well, they help others grow, improve their team’s well-being, and boost the success of their business.
As coaches, we inevitably have to intervene when a client hits a roadblock or strays from their goals. But if we deliver our feedback clearly and provide a constructive route forward, the client will learn a valuable lesson, feel empowered, and take a step closer to their objective.
Let’s explore how to provide constructive criticism and prevent feedback from taking a negative turn.
Constructive criticism versus destructive criticism
Negative feedback is never easy to give or receive. Even if we’re well-intentioned, we can hurt others by pointing out their errors. To avoid this, strong leaders, like coaches, must learn the difference between solution-oriented feedback that helps others grow (constructive criticism) and negative comments that don’t serve a greater purpose (destructive criticism).
Constructive criticism is providing feedback that points out areas for improvement while remaining positive. This feedback isn’t spontaneous or driven by emotions — instead, it should be specific and focused on a positive outcome.
This type of feedback should be clear, respectful, and based in actionable advice. Because constructive criticism recognizes a person’s strengths and ability to improve, we uplift the recipient instead of tearing them down. To support those in our care, we must also ensure they have the proper tools and knowledge to do better work.
Contrastingly, destructive criticism focuses on a problem without offering a solution, route forward, or encouragement. At its worst, destructive criticism is passive-aggressive, cutting, or derogatory.
Rather than motivating others to make positive changes and flex their skills, this type of feedback can damage self-esteem, ruin relationships, and decrease productivity. After all, demoralized people don’t feel motivated to make changes and may resent the person who provided feedback that felt like a personal attack.
The role of constructive criticism in the workplace
Constructive criticism is essential in professional environments — including one-on-one coaching relationships. If a client or colleague isn’t following through on action items or doing their best work, it negatively impacts outcomes.
When others are underperforming, it’s time to implement constructive criticism. This type of feedback:
- Builds trust: No one is perfect. Those seeking coaching are looking to improve, which means we have to acknowledge where they’re lacking.
If a client never receives negative feedback, the professional relationship may seem surface-level and dishonest. Candid conversations build trust, and when a coach gives feedback that translates into results, the client can feel confident trusting their mentor.
- Provides context: Constructive feedback is more comprehensive than simply citing something that’s off. We should provide the recipient with a clear view of what needs to improve, backed by observations and action items that place the criticism in a greater context.
Of course, context requires an ongoing dialogue — not just negative comments sprinkled in occasionally. Coaches need to provide positive feedback when a client is doing well, too.
- Clarifies expectations: Clients seek out coaches because they want someone to support them on the journey to their goals. As a result, coaches are in a leadership position and play a big role in setting out the milestones on the way to success.
In order to meet expectations and achieve results, clients must understand exactly what we expect them to accomplish. When they stray from the path, constructive criticism can clear up confusion and help them map a new route forward.
How to take constructive criticism
Excellent coaches don’t just dole out critical feedback — they seek it out, too. It’s an essential tool for improving our practices, client interactions, and communication skills.
Learning how to receive constructive criticism gracefully is an integral part of professional development and a skill we can impart to clients. Here’s how to accept constructive criticism with grace:
- Avoid reacting immediately: Excellent constructive criticism doesn't intend to hurt the recipient or put them on defense. Even so, it’s natural to want to respond quickly and explain ourselves. It’s best to resist this urge and sit with the feedback until any initial feelings of surprise or tension wear off. This allows us to mull over the criticism with a clear head and avoid making comments we may regret.
- Ask questions: We can channel the urge to respond to criticism into asking questions that help us understand the scope of the issue and plan a way forward. Constructive feedback sessions should offer action items, and clarifying these points in the moment helps us implement them later.
- Say thank you: Even if a piece of constructive criticism catches us off guard, it’s necessary to be polite. The person giving the feedback is trying to help, and we can end the conversation on a professional and positive note by showing gratitude. Even if it’s hard to feel grateful right away, chances are once we apply the feedback, we’ll see results worth being thankful for.
3 examples of constructive criticism
It’s not always the right time to share constructive criticism. We should only provide constructive feedback when there’s a veritable need — otherwise, the criticism might feel out of turn and hinder progress.
Here are three circumstances when giving criticism makes sense:
- Lack of motivation: A coach who senses a client is losing the will to follow through on a program should intervene. Perhaps the person is hitting a roadblock, feeling burnt out, or needs to try a new strategy.
A lack of motivation is a pattern, so we must ensure it’s a legitimate issue (and not just an off day) before reaching out. When approaching the client, we could open the conversation with a question: “You don’t seem motivated as normal. How can I better support and inspire you?” This approach shows a willingness to support the client and help them bounce back.
- Missing targets: If a client isn’t ticking off the necessary action items, they may need more direction. Perhaps the client is putting in the effort but expending their energy in an unproductive way.
For example, a health coaching client may find a fitness plan frustrating and fruitless. Instead of watching the client spin their wheels, the coach should intervene and work with them to pinpoint barriers to success. Then, they can work together to draft a new and effective plan.
- Lateness or missed payments: If a client consistently shows up late or fails to pay invoices on time, they might be navigating extenuating circumstances. We can get to the heart of the matter by asking, “I noticed it’s becoming difficult for you to get here on time. Does our schedule still work for you, or should we adjust it?”
With this approach, we remind the client we enjoy working with them and are dedicated to the process. Our goal is to improve time management or land on a payment plan, not shame them.
Improve your professional communication with Practice
Coaches may be expert communicators, but that doesn’t mean every client conversation is easy.
Take help where you can. Practice’s blog is an excellent educational resource for new coaches and seasoned professionals alike. We can teach you the best practices for feedback, how to build healthy relationships with clients, and where to apply emotional intelligence in the workplace. Plus, learn new skills, including how to foster patience, improve active listening, and boost your business performance.