How to Criticize (Without Looking Like a Jerk)

Get-It-Done Guy helps you keep things running smoothly by delivering criticism without the sting. 

Stever Robbins
5-minute read
Episode #348

Frame Your Criticism as a Best Interest

All is not lost, however. You can still communicate the all-important corrective message, just frame it as being in their best interest.

Think about the good thing that will happen if they realize they're wrong and follow your advice. Then frame your message as if their current state of affairs is good, and you're helping them go from good to better.

So let's take the example from the beginning of this episode. Instead of saying "Your user interface made our users throw up on the keyboard," ask yourself what good will come from a better UI. A better UI will make your product a joy to use, reduce support costs, and maybe win the user interface designer a design award.

There's no guarantee they'll take your advice.

To that end, say something like, "You know, the user interface is key to making our users joyous, reducing support costs, and, of course, winning industry awards. I have some ideas that might help bring out the brilliance in your design even more. If you'd like to hear them, let me know."

This way, you're acknowledging the value of what they do, the happy consequences of them doing it right, and then simply offering to help their existing amazingness be even more amazing.

They May So "No"

There's no guarantee that they'll agree to listen to your ideas. Or that they'll take your advice even if they do listen. But if you offer help sincerely, at least they won't get mad.


Just to make sure, practice your voice tone. Think of someone who really wants your help. Someone you love, like your niece or nephew (with that hair, and a name like "Sage," you don't necessarily know).

Now practice offering them help out loud. "Sage, I have some ideas that can help with your advanced topology homework. Want to work on it together?" Listen to yourself carefully. Now take that same tone of voice with your work colleague. "Teammate, I have some ideas that can help with the next UI interface. Want to work on it together?"


Sometimes you can streamline things by apologizing.

For example, when someone misses an appointment, I'll start out a follow-up conversation by apologizing. "I'm sorry we missed each other. Your confirmation email must have gotten lost in my spam folder." When other people unfairly blame you, it's bad. But when you take responsibility yourself, you can quickly shift the conversation back to scheduling, rather than getting into a useless debate about who dropped the ball. We're all overloaded these days. We all drop the ball sometimes. And even though you're apologizing to take the pressure off them, sometimes you'll find their confirmation email did end up in your spam folder.

Apologies can also be useful when someone turns in an inadequate deliverable. "I'm sorry I screwed up by not giving you the full specifications. We need the proclamation of Oreo Ice Cream Cake as the official Olympics health food printed on parchment paper, not newsprint. Could you reprint it? Thanks!"

I'll only do this when the stakes are low, however. Also, if I have responsibility for the person's professional development, even if I apologize, I'll add, "Next time, how can you be sure to get the full specifications, even if I don't think to give them to you?" That way, I'm acknowledging my part of the situation, while making it clear that it's still their responsibility going forward. If someone's mistake incurred extra cost, then we may, indeed, have to have a difficult conversation about who will pay the price. And difficult conversations are a topic for a future episode.

People don't like being told they're wrong, especially when they are. It hurts their self-image. So when you need to correct them, do it by offering to improve what's already good, not by pointing out that what they did was bad. Use a genuinely helpful voice tone, and apologize if that would help. Even if you apologize, though, you can make it clear that just because you screwed up, doesn't mean that they can't account for that in the future.

I'm Stever Robbins. I'm always right and I help people accelerate their careers and businesses, and generally kick butt in their professional lives. If you want to know more, visit SteverRobbins.com

Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!


About the Author

Stever Robbins

Stever Robbins is a graduate of W. Edward Deming’s Total Quality Management training program and a Certified Master Trainer Elite of NLP. He holds an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a BS in Computer Sciences from MIT. 

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