business across cultures

Giving Constructive Criticism: Phrases and Tips

How are you at giving constructive criticism?

Giving praise to someone, for example on a job well done, is easy and direct: “Well done!” – but what about doing the opposite, giving constructive criticism when someone’s performance is unsatisfactory?

The problem is that if the constructive criticism you give is too negative or direct, you might risk destroying a good working relationship with a valued member of your team.  Working  internationally means you also have to consider cultural factors when delivering constructive criticism, and it is very important to handle this with sensitivity.

Below are some standard phrases for giving both praise and constructive criticism, as well as some tips which can be used in a variety of cross-cultural situations to help you make your point sensitively and ensure that you get a positive outcome. After all, the reason for giving the criticism is to improve things in the future, right?

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Phrases for giving constructive criticism


Praise:  This team works very well together.
Constructive criticismI’ve noticed that the team has some problems communicating.

Praise: The performance of the database is excellent.
Constructive criticism: The database performance needs to be improved so that

Praise: That sounds like a good idea.
Constructive criticism: I’m not sure that idea would work because

Praise: I love this application.
Constructive criticism: I can see some difficulties with this application, it could be improved.

Praise: You are very well-trained in ABAP.
Constructive criticism: How about getting some training in ABAP?

Praise: The project was a great success.
Constructive criticism: What do you think is the reason we had problems with this project?


5 Tips for giving constructive criticism

  1. Where possible, give concrete examples for your criticism. This helps the other person to really grasp what you are saying.
  2. Give the other person a chance to explain and to fix things if possible, make sure this is a two-way conversation.
  3. Say what you would like in future – and why. Let the other person see the bigger picture and get an understanding of your perspective.
  4. When discussing lessons learned, make sure you get input from the other person i.e., the expert, on how to solve the problems.
  5. Agree on specific targets and timelines. That way, the person receiving criticism walks away with a concrete guide on how to move forward.

By making sure your criticism is truly constructive and culturally sensitive you can have more meaningful discussions and avoid damaging relationships. Just remember, in most cultures you can be more direct when complimenting people than when giving constructive criticism. Let us know if you have any other tips that have worked for you in the comments areas below.  Do you want to improve your ability in communicating difficult news?  Click here to learn more.

6 replies
  1. Máire Olsson
    Máire Olsson says:

    Hi Beth,

    There are many layers to this issue but at the core of great leadership is the ability to draw out the best in others. Using ‘coaching’ questions to enable the other/s to think through the area being critiqued, allows personal development, improved performance and job satisfaction (to name a few positive outcomes).

    The tips that you suggest are really valuable and both Will and Chad also offer useful insights.

    An area that could bog things down however, is giving too much attention to to the first part of tip 2 ‘Give the other person a chance to explain’. Steering people away from excuses into constructive reflection will also help move the discussion away from feeling attacked to feeling empowered.

    Ways to keep people on track is to avoid questions starting with ‘why’. For example:
    ‘Why did this happen?’ is asking for someone to make excuses. ‘What happened?’ can have a similar effect.

    ‘What do you think the problem/solution is?’ invites reflection and open conversation.

    What do you think?



  2. Will Dover
    Will Dover says:

    Dear Beth,

    Regarding your ideas on giving constructive criticism, particularly point 2 – give the other person a chance to explain – , do you think that the use of distancing language can improve the effectiveness of the feedback? One example of what I mean is using questions instead of statements:

    Statement: ‘The database performance needs to be improved so that…’
    Question: ‘Could the database performance be improved so that…?’

    Another word which could be useful is the verb might. E.g.:

    Direct: Please delete the entries to the database you made yesterday.
    Indirect: It might be a good idea to delete the entries to the database you made yesterday.

    I would be interested to hear any comments or queries on these points.



    • Beth Hampel
      Beth Hampel says:

      Hi Will,

      Thanks very much for your comment – I couldn’t agree more actually. The main idea at point 2 is to use open questions to get to the heart of the matter and to ensure that it’s not just a top-down discussion. Using distancing language, especially in an intercultural context, means that any sensitive issues will be approached respectfully.


  3. Chad
    Chad says:

    Hi Beth,

    In my opinion, this is a solid, useful post – and I particularly like that your constructive criticism is either an opinion of one person, or an invitation to conversation. In my view, there’s a big difference between, “This idea won’t work” and “I’m not sure this idea will work.”

    One feels like a statement of fact, which could almost always be debated. The other feels like an opinion and a chance to discuss the facts around the case. This way, a two-way channel of communication has been opened and not just one-way – with one person giving thumbs up, thumbs down about the work of another person.

    • Beth Hampel
      Beth Hampel says:

      Hi Chad,

      Thanks a lot for your comment. You’re absolutely right, this kind of discussion should be a dialogue and not merely a top-down judgement. In my view this will encourage the recipient of the feedback to take ownership for his or her work, which has a beneficial long-term impact on company culture and productivity.


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