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Make Constructive Comments Without Making Enemies

In my survey of 686 people working in the United States, 77 percent indicated that they have felt extremely hurt when receiving negative written feedback on the job. That hurt shouldn’t be happening. Feedback should be constructive—not destructive. To give feedback that helps rather than hurts, avoid these Don’ts.

1. Don’t exaggerate. For example, don’t write, “On a 10-point scale of confusing, your budget proposal is a 12.” Instead, be careful and courteous. If a budget proposal is confusing, write, “While reviewing the budget, I got confused several times. I will be glad to go over those places with you.”

2. Don’t be vague. If you comment on a speech by saying, “Your introduction doesn’t work,” the presenter will not know why it doesn’t work and how it might work better. Instead, write something like this: “The introduction goes on too long. I understood and agreed with your approach within the first minute. Why not explain it just once? If your audience wants more information, they can ask you when you invite questions.”

3. Don’t be cute or clever. Don’t write, “Your film is the solution to my insomnia. I pressed Play and was asleep in seconds.” Don’t comment, “I’d rather have a root canal than try to sell your design to our client.” When giving negative criticism, your job is not to make yourself look good. Your job is to make the other person feel good while absorbing the criticism. In the situation of commenting on a boring film, write something like this: “The film did not keep my attention, and I wanted it to. I found my mind wandering repeatedly.” Then give examples of one or two scenes and suggestions for editing them.

4. Don’t equate rudeness with straight talk. Edit your gut reactions. Instead of writing, “Your resume is a mess,” make comments like this one: “It’s hard to find certain standard information in your resume.” Then give specific examples. Don’t say, “You’re the worst intern I’ve ever had.” Instead give specific, applicable feedback.

5. Don’t be dense. For example, don’t write, “I have no idea what you mean.” You must have some idea. Try to understand. If you cannot understand despite trying, write, “I tried, but I don’t understand your point yet.”

6. Don’t communicate only negative comments. Even if a project, proposal, plan, or customer interaction feels like a disaster to you, some aspects of it must be worthy of praise. To avoid blindly focusing on the negative, widen your feedback criteria. Some things on a wider list of feedback categories are sure to be positive or at least acceptable.

Example: I use a 12-point checklist to give people feedback on their writing. Among the 12 areas for feedback, there will be at least 4 the writer does well. Perhaps the tone is professional, the message is complete, contact information is included, and the writer avoids inappropriate passive verbs. By ensuring that all writers get to recognize and enjoy what they are doing well, I can freely share what each writer needs to do better. (Note: I don’t use the word but after positive feedback. I let the good feeling sink in.)

7. Don’t hold too tightly to your view. Recognize there are many ways of doing things. You may see a graphic design as cluttered, while others see it as intricate. To you, a recommendation may be too direct, but others may find it straightforward and confident. It is even possible that your approach is risky, inefficient, outdated, or overly conventional. In your feedback, describe what your views are based on.

8. Don’t be a hit-and-run critic. When you communicate negative comments, have the courage to sign them–with your real name. In online comments, on evaluation forms, and sometimes even in email, it is easy to slam into someone with a truckload of negativity, then sneak away anonymously. If your comments are legitimate and helpful, you deserve credit and thanks for writing them. If they are unreasonable and destructive, destroy them before they do harm. Also, don’t give  feedback and disappear. Give others the chance to process the information and ask questions.

9. Don’t assume someone else has a problem you can help to fix. Recognize that some problems are yours–not the other person’s. For example, if you can’t stand to look at your colleague’s long bangs (fringe) hanging into her eyes in meetings, she doesn’t have a problem–you do. No amount of “helpful” feedback will make her accept your advice. Similarly, if you can’t bear a coworker’s nasally voice, thick accent, or continuously cheerful outlook, you have a problem.

10. Don’t give feedback when it’s too late to incorporate it. If the individual will not remember or care about the situation, it’s too late. If the proposal is in the client’s hands, it’s too late (unless you are doing a “Lessons Learned” follow-up that includes positive and negative observations). If you have saved up a dozen examples that span weeks or months, it’s too late! Start afresh with immediate feedback if the situation happens again.

11. Don’t copy other people on negative feedback. Broadcasting constructive criticism is the same as criticizing a person publicly. If a third party asks for a copy of your written feedback, encourage the individual to get it from the person who received it.

12. When it is your job to give feedback, don’t shirk that responsibility. Receiving effective constructive feedback is an essential part of everyone’s professional growth.

Please add any Don’ts I missed. I’d love to know about your experiences, both positive and negative.

These ideas come from my book Business Writing With Heart: How to Build Great Work Relationships One Message at a Time. 

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By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English.

6 comments on “Make Constructive Comments Without Making Enemies”

  • Congratulations for a great article (once again)! Seems we are in an era where we tend to forget our words have the power to either deeply hurt people or encourage them.

  • Mahenina, thank you for your wise comment. In the article I did not focus much on encouraging people–I’m glad you mentioned it.


  • The challenge for many authors is to let go of the ownership of their writing. That’s why it’s so important to give feedback on the text rather than criticize the writer. This applies whether you’re giving feedback inside or outside the organization and no matter what the organizational relationship between writer and reviewer is.

    If you’re a supervisor and give feedback on a direct report’s writing, it’s also particularly important to set clear expectations when assigning the task. Your direct report can’t read your mind, so don’t set them up for failure by not setting clear expectations. Feedback from a supervisor often stings more than feedback from others might.


  • Excellent comments, Maria. I especially like the idea of giving feedback on the text rather than the writer.

    Thank you!


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