The Ben Folds Five-Point Critique

Criticism is difficult for most people to receive, even from the most trusted and respected sources. Yet constructive criticism is essential to creative collaboration, idea evaluation and successful innovation. Learning to deliver feedback effectively can be the difference between building consensus and destroying team morale.

If you want to see what effective, even inspiring, constructive criticism looks like, look no further than Ben Folds. Yes, that Ben Folds. As a judge on the ABC series, The Sing-Off,  and in a recent guest appearance on American Voices with Renee Fleming, Ben Folds doesn’t just give a master class in musicality–he’s offering lessons in effective critique. When Ben Folds finishes his analysis, people never look defeated–they look determined to try again. How does he do it?

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The Ben Folds Five-Point Critique 

1. Honor the Intention

The first thing Ben always does is express an authentic form of gratitude for getting the opportunity to experience the talent of a performer. He honors their courage and intention in sharing their gift.

2. Provide a Broader Perspective

Drawing on his own experience as performer, Ben often offers a broader perspective that takes his feedback out of the context of the specific performance and frames the critique as an opportunity to develop a skill that can be utilized in other situations–subtlety enhancing the value of the offered information.

3. Give Specific Insight Based on Expertise

This part is essential. Ben Folds is not offering just vague opinions, he is offering expertise steeped in a knowledge of the field he is critiquing. His feedback is precise and specific, therefore, more credible.

4. Partner For the Solution

Ben will often include a challenge to his critiquee. “Try it like this…” or “Experiment with this…” These sort of thought-starters show shared vulnerability and a service-orientation to the feedback that develops a sense of partnership with the receiver.

5. Demonstrate Empathy

It’s hard not to love Ben Folds, who might be the closest thing we have to a Muppet in human form. But it’s not just his “aw-shucks” authenticity that makes people receptive to his feedback. He often wraps his critiques in personal anecdotes or humor that help people connect with him–transforming him from judge to friend.

So what does the Ben Folds Five-Point Critique looks like in the real world? Use the following script as an example.

“John, thanks for sharing that idea–it’s fascinating to understand the accounting department’s perspective on the problem. I feel like overall this isn’t just a payroll issue, but possibly a communications challenge. When I worked in PR, we always learned that in a crisis, it’s best to get out in front of the story, that way we could frame the narrative. So here, maybe a good approach could be to send out a quick alert telling everyone you know there’s an issue and a solution is actively being worked on. This kind of thing happened to me once around a news story. I found if I beat the reporters to the punch—I sort of took the wind out of their sails.”

This technique might just seem like an advanced “compliment sandwich”, but it doesn’t rely on false flattery to help people choke down harsh criticism. Instead it’s a five-layer dip of trust-building goodness. Next time you have an opportunity to just blurt out your opinion, just ask yourself WWBFD instead.