Episode Two: How to Give Constructive Criticism 

Or what the heck is collaborative problem solving?

“Hey,” I called out to my inner-self, “You said that you would help me to explain the difference between constructive criticism, and all those other forms of criticism that people use.”

“Sure, sure,” came a chorus of voices. “Persuasion, you should be the one who answers this question,” said a solo voice from within the chorus.

An older gentleman with a short white beard and a weather beaten face stepped forward to squat in front of me. “Howzit,” he grinned. “Catch any fish lately?”

“Nah,” I shook my head. “I haven’t been fishing sine we had our interview.”

“You never gonna improve if you don’t practice,” he teased. “So what you wanna know about criticism?”

“Well, when we had our interview on the persuasion process, we skipped the part about how to keep criticism constructive, and I wanted to go over that now.”

“I actually don’t like the term constructive criticism,” he said shaking his head. “It sends the wrong message.”

“How do you mean?”

“Well criticism is pointing out what someone has done wrong. That’s never constructive. It’s one of those oxymorphisism thingies.”

“You mean oxymoron?”

“Yeah, like if I say that’s a giant shrimp, or it’s an open secret. Same thing with constructive criticism. The only thing criticism ever does is make people defensive, or depressed. It never builds anything constructive.”

“So would you change it to constructive advise?”

“Nah,” he flapped a hand at me. “Advice is almost as bad. People only listen to advice when they have asked for it.”

“So what would you call it?”

He scrunched up his face for a moment, “How about collaborative problem solving?”

“Has a nice ring,” I admitted. “A bit of a mouthful though.”

“Hmm,” he shrugged. “But much more constructive.”

“So how does it work?”

“Well first,” he said, holding up a finger to my face. “You never wait to bring up whatever behavior that you want changed, never. Nothing worse than somebody pointing out a problem weeks after the problem happened. People think, ‘Why you wait so long to tell me?’ Or sometimes people let stuff slide until their frustrations all comes bursting out in one giant complaint.” He shook his head, “Both are bad news.”

“I know what you mean. I know people who hold grudges for years, and then they dredge them up whenever you do the smallest little thing, as though you can do anything about the past.”

He chuckled, “Yeah, that’s not even trying to make criticism constructive. That’s just criticism. Bet you really love those people, yeah?” he cocked his head to one side.

“No comment,” I answered. “What’s the second thing?”

Second,” he said turning his single finger into a peace sign. “Never try to solve more than one problem at a time. It’s too overwhelming. It makes people feel bad. It brings up bad feeling. One problem at a time, if you want somebody to stay open to change.”

I considered for a moment. “ I remember reading somewhere that the damage done to someone’s self-esteem by criticism versus the healing power of praise has a ratio of like 10 to 1.”

“How you mean ratio?”

“It’s like if you criticize someone, you damage their self-esteem, and it takes ten acts of sincere praise to heal that damage. Something like that anyway.”

“That would explain a lot. Makes it worse if you criticize people in public. That’s actually the third thing to remember,” he suddenly looked stern. “Never bring up someone’s mistake in public, do it privately. Not unless you believe in public shaming.”

“You know,” I said hesitantly. “There are some cultures that use public shaming quite effectively. My assistant told me about a Micronesian custom where they cut the hair of girls who have shamed their family.”

“Yeah,” he admitted. “Can work. But you have the danger of creating resentment, or making people want to live up to the role of villain. Tough choice. I think public shaming is only good as a last resort. Better to catch ineffective behavior early with some collaborative problem solving.

“Good point, so what’s number four?”

Four, you never attempt collaborative problem solving when you are emotional. If you do that, the sessions is gonna be all about you, and will achieve no effective change. It’s kinda the same as trying to solve two issues at once, your issue plus their issue. Just not gonna work. Not at the same time.”

“So how do you make sure that you don’t get emotional?”

“Before you approach the other person, you gotta give yourself some of that emotional air we’ve been talking about. Work through the issue on your own. Sometime you figure out that you don’t need to do any collaborative problem solving because the problem was with you all along. Other times you are able to plan the steps you want to follow if you do decide to attempt some collaborative problem solving. Either way, you end up approaching the problem logically instead of emotionally.”

“I think that makes sense,” I nodded thoughtfully. “So now, let’s say I’ve decided to move forward, and I’ve also found a time to approach the person privately. What do I actually do?”

“You lead them through the Nine Steps of Persuasion that we talked about in your book,” he said as though it were obvious. “You establish trust. You choose your challenges wisely. You gain favorable attention. You introduce the problem. You ask questions to create and confirm understanding. You reach an agreements of need. You offer solutions. You confirm the agreement. You follow up.”

Hmm,” I said impressed. “I wasn’t expecting that answer, but you are so right. It sure does put a twist on what people call criticism.”

“It’s constructive too. It actually creates meaningful change nearly eighty percent of the time.”

I laughed, “Never forget Pareto’s old 80/20 rule, huh?”

“Never,” he smiled. “Now there are a few other things to keep in mind if you want people to say open to you while you take them through the persuasive process.”

“Hit me,” I said.

“Try to avoid trigger words like always and never. Telling someone that they are always late, or never prepared will only make them defensive.”


“And whenever you can, turn your statements into questions.”


“Instead of saying, ‘You’re late nearly every day,’ try asking, ‘Why are you late so often?’ he offered. “Here’s another tip, try using I phrases instead of you phrases.

“What are I phrases and you phrases?”

“Instead of saying, ‘You need to calm down,’ which will only make them angrier, you say, ‘I can’t understand you when you get so excited.”

“I get it,” I nodded my head. “So instead of saying, ‘You need to set things straight with that guy,’ I could say, ‘I don’t see how things will improve unless you guys start talking.’ Is that right?”

“Perfect,” he smiled happily. “There’s also a pretty cool technique that John Maxwell talks about in his book, Developing the Leader Within. He calls it, ‘Serving people a compliment sandwich’.”

“I used to teach that technique,” I told him with excitement. “It’s where you sandwich your criticism between two honest and sincere compliments; you know, between two specific actions that you have noticed people doing right.”

“That’s the one,” he beamed. “And as an example, I might say to you, ‘You know the last time we we went fishing, your casting really started to improve. I was hoping that you might practice more, so that we could go again. Your last cast went nearly as far as mine.”

I laughed, “That is a much nicer way of telling me that I should practice more.”

“Did it work?”

“It would have worked if my goal was to beat you at fishing.”

“You mean it isn’t?” he asked with a mock pout.

“Sorry,” I said reaching out to pat his hand. “I only fish to hang with you.”

“Fair enough,” he squeezed my hand back. “One last point, and we are done. If you really want to help people change, help them to focus on specific behaviors that can be changed, not on generalities. You shouldn’t go pointing out problems unless you are willing to help people discover solutions as well. If you tell someone that they are doing something wrong, you need to be ready to show them an alternative that will work better. Got it?”

“Got it.”

“So I think that covers it.”

“Sorry I didn’t take you fishing.”

“Where do you think I’m headed now?” His eyes twinkled, and he was gone.


This post is part of The Invisible Friends Series inspired by the characters in Lynn Marie Sager’s newest book, Navigating Life Through Turbulent Tides. If you enjoyed the article, you should check out her book. If you found this post interesting, please share it with your friends on social media. Don’t forget to take a moment to explore our websitejoin our mailing listtake one of our Internet classes, or write a comment bellow.