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Big Ideas

How to (Gracefully) Manage Your Critics

"You can't please all of the people all of the time," as they say. Rather than getting upset and anxious, try these tactics for responding to your critics.

Many of us have an innate reflex to please everyone. It is a curious and burdensome responsibility that we have assumed since childhood. As creative leaders, the need to address critics is a reflex that is liable to override other more important uses of our energy. While we carefully weigh the costs and benefits of most decisions we make, criticism has the tendency to lead us astray. Of course, criticism is important. Early detection of disappointment or misunderstandings can save us a whole lot of turmoil further down the line.

But, oftentimes, our efforts to address our critics become an obsession. Even worse, our efforts can backfire by fanning the flames. A single harsh comment on a bulletin board can turn into an aggressive and insulting exchange that is not constructive but still liable to keep you up at night. For this reason, many prominent bloggers and companies have removed comment boards altogether.Don’t cut off your critics. Feedback helps us correct our course and spurs a dialog that serves to build community. Instead, you should decide how and when to respond.

Consider the following tips on how to manage your critics:

1. Let your critics work it out, but don’t fan the flames.

That saying “crying makes you feel better” has some merit to it. Often, providing the space to complain can help assuage the pain. So, if you’re debating whether to keep the discussion live or remove it, err on the side of keeping it. Most of the bloggers I’ve spoken with agree that a harsh comment left unaddressed tends to be forgotten. By contrast, a harsh comment that receives an immediate retort can create a bigger fire. Your engagement will only lengthen the discourse. Sometimes it’s worth waiting 48 hours to let the smoke clear a bit. Doing so will provide more clarity and strip some of the emotional tension from the issue at hand.

2. Don’t be someone else.

If and when you do respond, always do so as yourself. Acting under a pseudonym or pretending to be someone else isn’t wise. Impostors inevitably stand out and only make things worse.

3. Acknowledge fair points.

Correcting facts is important. If a critic claims that you had a bad citation, you should factually answer it with a correction or a short statement addressing the point. Do it with a neutral voice. What you want to avoid is feeding the frenzy with defensiveness. It is also best not to address the same criticism twice. Instead, refer people back to your previous answer. Doing so streamlines the conversation and isolates this particular criticism to one topic and discussion rather than spreading it. You will also want to refine your answers over time in one place rather than having many versions of it in different places.

4. Invite them for a one-on-one.

Some community managers at various online companies address heated critics with an invitation to call directly and discuss their grievances. Doing so often ends the exchange, regardless of whether your critic follows up on your offer or not. The best practice here is to transform an anonymous (and often slanderous) outcry into a more human exchange. A simple comment like “feel free to call me directly to clear this up -Joe @ 555-555-5555” can immediately diffuse the problem or at least provide a step toward resolution.

5. Post updates.

Critics love to know that they have caused change. When the exchange is constructive, you should take every opportunity to let your critics know that they were heard and had an impact. Post updates on your team’s progress to address their concerns. Doing so is a validation of their efforts and can serve as powerful acknowledgement.

Inevitably, as we launch products, promote services, and write books, we will anxiously put an ear to the ground. There is no denying it: We care what people think – and with good reason. Rather than attempt to extinguish criticism, embrace it thoughtfully.

More Posts by Scott Belsky

Scott Belsky is the Chief Product Officer at Adobe and is the co-founder of 99U and Behance. He has been called one of the “100 Most Creative People in Business” by Fast Company, and is the author of The Messy Middle and the bestselling book, Making Ideas Happen.

Comments (13)
  • Helena

    I can’t avoid making some criticisms and I know very well how they can be misunderstood depending on how you speak.
    I want to thank you for this great article which clarifies this controversial subject.
    Constructive criticism is an art that needs to be taught and learned.


  • Chris B.

    You really make some excellent points here. Humility is a really important skill that some people never fully develop. Be content that somebody actually cared enough to critique your efforts, and then thank them for it!

    Also, a really strange coincidence…I just read an article about this same topic, written from the point of view of a DIY hip-hop artist/producer. It really is quite good, check it out if you’re interested (i’m not affiliated with the article in any way):

    Great post, I have subscribed to RSS.

  • Steve Cullen

    I can speak with some recent experience to this, and have thought about the impact of public negativity on internal cultures.

    We’re underway with a daring, sweeping, and radical rebranding effort for a very large coffee company, Seattle’s Best Coffee.

    Certain parts of the rebranding effortâ??specifically the logoâ??have been released to the public. And frankly we have received large scale negative criticism, but only at first. In fact, the positive support, encouragement, and quality review of some of our early work has been down right fantastic.

    But what’s said first is often heard loudest. And even though, literally statistically, the feedback is overwhelmingly positive, the thing I hear most from peers is “I heard you got beat up in the press, about…” This has made me think a little about the PROCESS of criticism.

    When talking to our teams about the public discourse around our work I try to emphasize a certain neutrality around the things that are said. So far here’s some themes we come back to, to help manage our internal cultural response to public discourse:

    1. Criticism will happen. It’s a fact. People love to hate. People love to hate change. People like to put others down. People lash out at change, innovation, and newness. Try doing anything new and you will get blasted 9 out of 10 times. But like a friend and college of mine, Mike Cina, told me, “If you aren’t getting blasted, you’re not doing it right.” Which to me, says that the process of dealing with negativity surrounding both failure and success IS part of the process of doing anything worth doing.

    85% of the commentary is from unqualified hacks. The rest is from people that know what they are talking about and so ask yourself if you value their opinions and if there is anything useful in it. If not tune it out. This is why cultivating a strong set of internal recognition that supercedes public recognition/criticism is so important. What is said internally starts to become more important than what is said externallyâ??and that’s a powerful buffer.

    Also, honestly, we’ll fuck up. We’ll get some stuff wrong along the way. Get over it. Stay focused on moving forward and improving. That’s an attitude we can rally behind win or lose.

    2. Praise will happen. Winning awards, getting massive press hits, meeting and working with famous people, becoming a famous person, etc. is part of the job. We’ve tried to develop an attitude that success is as inevitable as failure. It’s a culture of intelligent risk. Therefore when it pays off you should be ready for it. and when it doesn’t be ready for it.

    Just like criticism has up sides, praise has down sides. People try and siphon off credit for your work. Large groups of people try and work their way into your organization. More public attention follows. Clients show up with a bizarre set of new expectations, stakes raise. In the wise words of hip hop revelation Kid Cudi, “More commas equals more damas.” The list is hefty.

    So, our answer to public discourse internally (with no disrespect to our PR efforts, which is important for many reasons) has been remarkably consistent through highs and lows of our progression as a company. In many ways, it boils down to what most people’s dad’s told them when they were kids: “No matter what we love you. Just give it your all everytime.”

    Steve Cullen
    Design Director

  • Samuel - unblog yourself

    What critique actually is for every person is a different perspective. But most of the time, it really is about a projection, a reaction, a trigger that has little to do with the actual topic. Sometimes we are just reacting to what our parents said, for example.

    Mostly, criticism is considered negative but it might not be. While I very much agree on the great insights in this article I also think it is valuable to understand ones reactions to critiques in the first place and why one agrees with the critique.

    (comment disappeared – sorry if this posted twice, please remove other comment if that happens…)
    Because we only get hurt by critique we agree with.

    It is also worth it to say that many critics are just experts at deconstructing but have in fact not created seomthing on their own. Everybody can criticise and deconstruct because it is “safe”. And as mentioned before, and in the comment from Steve, there is a lot of reactions that really has no or little value and it is better to focus on the critique/feedback that actually makes you grow.

    So, an open view to critique is healthy, as Scott mentiones, taking some distance and waiting 48 hours is the best advice. Then you can relax and see clearer what is really important instead of just reacting.

  • denise lee yohn

    great words of wisdom — i would add:
    #6 — thank your critic for their comments — at least they’re listening to you? i’d rather be listened to and criticized than ignored. also thanking them usually diffuses some of the negative emotions which arise on both sides.

  • lisa

    Great points thank you for sharing.

  • Parin Patel

    That’s a really good article Chris.

    Dealing with criticism is always an interesting balance – it’s your art, your life’s work, that’s being rained on, so your natural tendency is to defend it. But you have to step back and look at it objectively.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Parin Patel

    Great read!

    Love tip #1. Never a good idea to respond in shear emotion. It’s always good to step away from it.

    One thing that I do sometimes is open up notepad and write out my response at that time. Then I’ll walk away from it … literally. I’ll leave the computer.

    That way, my initial emotions are taken out and written down. They’re not brewing in me. By walking away from it (whether it’s a few hrs, 24hrs or 48hrs or longer) and then coming back, I can review it with a clear head like you said.

    But by capturing my initial response, I have the advantage of seeing how I actually felt at that time and can learn more about my immediate reaction to these situations. And I can actually take that and transform it into the correct message that won’t turn it to a flame war :).

    Thanks again Scott!

  • professional resume

    the main attitude of respect for each other. in my opinion

  • Shirin

    real eye opener!
    criticism could really help redevelop self if taken right.
    that was quite an insight to dealing with it..
    thanks !!

  • essay writing service

    Interesting article, I am surprised by the information.

  • William Bertram

    Or just kick them in the knee caps. Usually they shut up then.

  • Gene Smith

    “Always level the camera”
    Four little words that made my blood boil many years ago as a young lion. The criticism was sincere and from a heavy hitter who didn’t need to help me. Guess what- Now no matter what I’m trying to do, I ALWAYS start with a level camera. Honest criticism is one of learning’s greatest tool. Embrace it!

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