How to criticize someone in an empowering way

>I just had an email from someone I had recently given some feedback to, regarding the design and content of her all-singing, all-dancing new website, that she had built and designed herself. Tricky.

I have spent years perfecting my Art of Empowering Criticism. Having been on both the giving and receiving end many many times – I know how important this skill really is.

If someone has asked you for an opinion about their work, then take note: he/she must value your opinion, and with that value comes a very real responsibility. You can inadvertently completely shatter their creative confidence in a few seconds flat!

My first tip is the most important and an absolute MUST…

1. Start with a big YES.
SAY ‘yes’ FEEL ‘yes’ EXUDE ‘yes’. (Even if all you want to say is no, no, no!) Start with the word yes and then go further and enter into appreciation… for the sheer effort, time, concern and energy that person has put into his/her creation.

2. Appreciate and acknowledge the fact that everyone on the planet has (and is entitled to) his/her own taste, interpretation, methodology and perception.

3. Acknowledge the person’s intention was true; to produce something that would do whatever job it was intended for… be it to entertain, sell, improve, explain, illustrate etc etc. The fact that it may actually do non of these things (for any number of reasons, eg: the style may be wrong for the intended audience) is completely irrelevant at the first instance.

4. Know that once creativity has been expressed – it can be applied again and again and to an even greater extent.

I believe is my biggest secret.; the fact that I know more is possible. If someone is newer to his/her creative expression than me, then softly softly catchee monkey. I try to gently and patiently help them experience how they can come up with more, (and more and more) which may be the case if what they’ve produced needs adjusting.

KEY THING: You mustn’t fake it, this appreciation must be genuine.

2. Use the magic words… ‘Tell me….’
This is a great tip, literally say the words. Pick something which you think needs adjusting and ask them to tell you about it.

“Tell me about this picture… tell me why you used this colour… tell me about this scene… tell me about this layout…”

This will help you both work out whether you are singing from the same songsheet. However, you must listen to what the person is telling you. Not just their words but also to their subtext, listen to what lies underneath their words. It’s important to understand a person’s motivation.

Remember your main objective is to communicate that you are not criticising them… but offering reflections about their creative work.

As the person is talking (telling you about why they did such and such) it is usually possible to then clarify the objectives, add new information or remind them of facts, that will help you both agree that such and such needs adjusting.


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