How to Give Constructive Criticism That Doesn’t Offend: 15 Tips From Expert Coaches

by | Sep 19, 2019 | Forbes Expert Panel Contribution

As a coach, giving feedback to a client on what areas they need to improve on can easily run the risk of being perceived as criticism—ultimately alienating your client instead of helping them learn and achieve their goals. Chances are, if your client feels offended by the feedback, they won’t bother to listen to what you have to say.

However, when balancing on the line between criticism that is constructive and criticism that is harmful, there are strategies you can use to ensure you’re giving the right kind of feedback that will help your client understand how they can improve their skills and behaviors. To help, we asked members of Forbes Coaches Council to share their best tips for giving honest, useful feedback in a way that doesn’t offend. Here’s what they had to say:

1. Focus On The Impact Of Their Actions

Feedback should be focused on the client’s behaviors, actions or language versus them as a person. Share how these behaviors may be impacting their own psyche and/or that of others. Break your feedback down into fractional questions or key points while monitoring their response. If the client reacts with interest, you can ask another question or make another point to take them a little deeper. – Beverly Harvey, HarveyCareers, LLC

2. Build Trust

Building trust with my clients is really important—the foundation of our relationship. I ask powerful questions and the client comes up with the constructive feedback for themselves, which is insightful and liberating for them and fun for me to watch. The right kind of feedback for my clients is where I’m lifting their awareness and energy up and moving them forward. It’s a safe space to grow. – Frances McIntosh, Intentional Coaching LLC

3. Have A Fleet Of Delivery Vehicles

I have found that I must diversify my delivery vehicles. To create positive change it takes community. My community consists of assessments, speakers, authors, influencers and yes, me and my messaging directly to them. I want my clients to obtain multiple ways to receive and respond to the challenges I give them and to create a body of encouraging resources to power the change I know they need. – John M. O’Connor, Career Pro Inc.

4. Get Permission To Challenge Them

In the beginning, I spend time setting engagement expectations with my clients. I share that, in the interest of their growth, I will be both their best cheerleader and worst challenger. I ask for their permission to do that. When the time comes to challenge the client, I give them a little heads-up and remind them of our agreement. This opens them up to listen to what I have to say next. – Marina Cvetkovic, The Peak Alliance

5. Connect From The Heart

The number one way to tell if what you are saying is constructive or harmful is to be aware of how they are receiving it. What is their energy? What’s your energy? Are you telling them what they should do from your head or from your heart? It is your ego speaking? Never give feedback when you are not in rapport and always give feedback from a place of believing in them to be even better. – Kimberly Roush, All-Star Executive Coaching

6. Give Evolutionary Steps Forward

When human beings make progress using evolutionary steps, they move forward with ease. Evolutionary steps hold two criteria: they are safer than what they have been doing and they are more attractive. If you could always take a step forward utilizing measured steps that are more attractive (More fun? More money? Less hassle?) would you move forward naturally? Offer evolutionary steps when coaching. – John Hittler, Evoking Genius

7. Express Your Feedback As A Positive Goal

Rather than offering a criticism—what the person is doing wrong—tell them the behavior that will make them successful. For example, rather than saying, “You interrupt people all the time,” you might say instead, “Let other people finish their thoughts first, and let them know you heard them; then offer your point of view.” It’s easier to embrace and achieve a positive goal. – Lesly Higgins, Lesly Higgins

8. Focus On The Inner Game

The one thing I share with all my clients right from the beginning is the “Inner Game” formula developed by Tim Gallwey: High Performance = Potential – Interference. So when we’re discussing ways to enhance performance, I use this formula to frame my feedback and to explore what behavior changes could expand potential and reduce interferences. It’s usually quite an animated discussion! – Gabriella Goddard, Brainsparker Leadership Academy

9. Be Real, Be Honest, Be Timely

In order to give the right feedback it has to be honest and in real time. It is wrong if you allow things to linger and fail to give them feedback. When the feedback is received and people don’t go on the defensive, you’re on the right track. You’ll know it is successful feedback if the person is receptive and you achieve the goal of involving them and empowering them—and don’t cut them down. – Jon Dwoskin, The Jon Dwoskin Experience

10. Know Your Client

As you begin to get to know your client, ask them the question, “How do you like to receive feedback?” Understanding who your client is and what works for them is critical in meeting them where they are. As a coach and a leader, we must flex our style in order to interact in the best way possible with who we work with. One size does not fit all. – Monica Thakrar, MTI

11. Focus On ‘Doing,’ Not ‘Being’

Before giving any feedback, know your client well. Resist if they ask for feedback very early in the relationship, explore what is important to them and understand the context. Constructive criticism starts with empathy. People engage best with criticism when they believe they are understood and valued for who they are. Focus on “doing,” not “being”—what they do, not who they are as a person. – Lindy Brewster, ORConsulting

12. Empower Them To Draw The Right Conclusion

The most powerful way to avoid giving unhelpful and harmful criticism to clients lies in guiding and enabling the clients to draw their own conclusions. This can be a bit tricky at the beginning as you don’t want to be manipulative, but it can be a real eye-opener for clients, without the risk of harm. Coming to your own—guided—realization is always superior to someone else figuring it out for you. – Tim Windhof, Windhof Career Services

13. Balance Your Objectivity and Empathy

Giving constructive criticism is a balancing act between objectivity and empathy. Look at the specific situation your client is in, extract yourself from the equation to allow you to view it objectively and, when delivering the feedback or constructive criticism, make sure you do it with empathy and in solvable terms. – Peter Jansen, Radio Latino Inc

14. Promote Awareness As Key To Learning

As a coach, my role isn’t to criticize my clients, rather to promote their learning and awareness. When clients have had a less than optimal outcome, we explore the personal, cultural, systemic and external factors that may have contributed. We then build a strategy to promote optimal future results. This strengthens multiple facets of awareness that clients can apply to future challenges. – Barrett McBride, Ph.D., MCC, Barrett McBride & Associates

15. Ask Powerful Questions And Wait

Sometimes the most powerful insights are generated by our clients themselves if we ask powerful questions and wait, wait, wait for an answer. One trick that works for me is to say, “If you were giving this feedback to yourself, how would you say it in a way that you could actually hear it and thoughtfully consider what to do about it?” Then I give them plenty of time to think it through. – Gregg Ward, The Gregg Ward Group

As seen on Forbes Coaches Council

Check out my other contributions to the Forbes Coaches Council:

“How to Give Constructive Criticism That Doesn’t Offend: 15 Tips From Expert Coaches”

“15 Ways To Prepare For Your Company’s Next Generation Of Leaders”

“Getting Client Buy-In: 13 Approaches Coaches Can Use”

Our Approach

People are people, not just resources

We don’t believe in quick fixes to whip an organization into shape. We believe that people know the answers to the problems they face; they just need to be asked the right questions. And we are very good at asking questions.

We start from the belief that everyone has a contribution to make and that people work best when they are excited and engaged by what they do.

Problems can arise in work relationships, and individuals can lose their way. This is evidence for human complexity. People have problems, but they also have potential.

As clinical psychologists, that’s how we see it.

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