Lauren Vargas, principal of 12Comm Public Relations, calls them killer bees or "jackals feeding off the blood and weakness of others." Valeria Maltoni, who writes the Conversation Agent (among other things), calls them seagulls — those who fly in, make a mess, and fly out again. And Umesh Sharma, clinical psychologist, includes not being a critic among his secrets for a stress-free life. Critics are like needles in a balloon factory, he said.
There is certainly some wisdom in their words. Seagulls and bees or needles and jackals don't make the most pleasant company. However, as Vargas points out and Maltoni has too, constructive criticism is not only welcomed, it's needed.
That leaves some communicators in a quandary. How do you tell the bees from butterflies and seagulls from eagles?
After all, very few people really like criticism, but everyone offers it from time to time. In fact, our aversion to it tends to be a prominent social media discussion point any time I speak with business people. "What if someone says something bad about us?" they ask.
I generally muse that people probably are already saying something bad about them, they just don't know it.
After all, the most common question after a dinner, show, movie, book, product, new car, etc. is "How did (or do) you like it?" or "What did you think?" One of the benefits — or setbacks — of social media is that it amplifies these criticisms from private conversations to public discourse. In some cases, it can even cause a crisis.
Personally, I consider it a benefit, but not all people do. So regardless of how you feel, what's a communicator to do?
1. Recognize the difference between critics and cynics. Critics strive to be open, objective, and offer suggestions for improvement or make an effort to understand various points of view. Cynics generally are closed, biased, and reject that any merit exists or tend to promote their point of view while dismissing the validity of any other. They deserve different approaches.
2. Distinguish criticism about something and criticism about someone. Valid criticism, even if you do not agree with it, tends to focus on the situation, work, or action. The worst criticism presents judgements about specific people. Care what people think, but don't care so much about what they think about you.
3. Consider the intent of constructive criticism and negative feedback. The intent of negative feedback, even if it appears offensive, or constructive criticism, which is generally non-confrontational, is to provide guidance. Even when comments seem inappropriate, focus more on the message and not the delivery.
4. Distinguish the difference between communication and diatribe. Someone opening up a conversation that makes us feel uncomfortable might even be an asset. Diatribe, on the other hand, does not promote conversation or communication. It aims to shout the other person down (sometimes by encouraging others to do it).
5. Recognize that cynicism communicates more about them than you. While criticism can sting if it is well presented, cynicism says more about them than it does you. Even when real time situations seem to favor emotional aggressors, post- event analysis tends to favor a steady hand. How you respond will always overshadow what is being critiqued.
If you don't manage the message, the message will manage you.
Communicators have to accept that we cannot control what other people say or do. We can only manage what we say or do, even when we are responding to what others have said. Planned action is always better than unplanned reaction. In fact, in preparing for such instances, the first person we need to consider is ourself. Are we oversensitive to criticism?
While I'm not a fan of psychological self-tests, I did vet one at Psychology Today for this post. It asks: Are you sensitive to criticism? Can you handle negative feedback or do you find you have to resist the urge to bite your critic's head off? Try it out. (The summary is free; the full analysis, which didn't seem necessary, carries a fee.) The exercise itself might be eye-opening.
Once you do, then consider the closing quote from author William Arthur Ward. Because if he were alive today, he might artfully remind people that how one receives and interprets criticism or cynicism is the key to being an effective communicator. He might also note that even the most practiced communicators, when confronted with criticism, tend to respond (or encourage others to respond on their behalf) much like the critics they profess to dislike.
"In the face of unjust criticism, we can become bitter or better; upset or understanding; hostile or humble; furious or forgiving." — William Arthur Ward