How To Give Criticism: 80 Year Old Lessons From Dale Carnegie

When I was 15 years old, I foolishly discarded a PDF file of Dale Carnegie’s “How To Win Friends And Influence People”.

I didn’t realize the value of the lessons in those old stories.

I’m gracious the book found its way back into my hands some ten years later. The book is a grail for salesmen and managers. But the lessons apply to all walks of life, including art.

There are many things you could learn from the book, and I encourage you to read it. I want to talk about one lesson though.

The lesson is how to give criticism. I’ll start with a story.

At a previous place of employment, I had two bosses. One had no formal power over me, but still had influence. Which was a problem, because this man did not know how to give criticism. He started a conversation of critical feedback by pointing out only the things I did wrong, and what I needed to do to correct them. It was always unpleasant, and at worst it left a sting.

The other boss was the company’s general manager. She was fantastic at criticism, following the Carnegie method successfully. It always went like this:

Boss: Hey Roland, the way you do _____ is really great. It shows that you put effort into it.

Me: Thanks.

Boss: Now I’m wondering if you could change this one part by doing _____ a bit differently. Would that be possible?

Me: Of course. How did you want that done exactly?

[blah blah blah]

Boss: Great, thanks for your assistance. I can see you improved already. We’ll look at this again later if you have any questions.

Me: Ok, thanks.

The right way begins with a compliment, or highlighting another positive aspect of whatever you are about to criticise.

It is much easier to take criticism if the person built you up beforehand. Only then is the criticism delivered, and indirectly: My boss in that story asks me if it could be done differently. The obvious answer is “yes”, otherwise she wouldn’t be asking. But because the question came from my mouth, it feels more cooperative when she explains how she wants it done.

How does this apply to music production? (Artists in general can follow along here.)

As music producers, we often give feedback on each others’ work. Your collab partner puts a kick drum exactly where you were about to use a fill. An acquaintance sends you his finished track, and you want to say something honest about a part you don’t like. Whatever. How do we achieve the result we want without offending?

Start with a positive, then highlight indirectly what you want changed.

“I like what you did right over here, but could this other part be done another way?”

“Your idea with the _____ sounds really good, now how could we make this part here better?”

This is especially important to know in a creative collaboration, as criticism quickly shuts down creative thinking.

Start with a positive. Draw attention to the desired change indirectly.


Buy Dale Carnegie’s book on people skills here because you understand how important communication is to success.


Further recommended viewing:



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