Friday, January 23

Moving Forward: How To Manage Criticism

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


Anonymous said...

That is a needed post. You have had some interesting post but that's probably one of the most interesting articles I've read for a while.

Rich on 1/23/09, 1:46 PM said...

Hey Kevin,

I really appreciate it. It's not often I have the time or cause to infuse psychology into the mix, but Vargas' post really clicked with me, and Maltoni's seagull analogy (one of my favorites) was still fresh in my head.

I've written about critics before, but never thought to turn into a "how to" think piece. So I am vry glad you enjoyed it.


Anonymous said...

I have noticed ratings and criticism for a number of blogs listed on BC and am really amazed at how casually people hand out critiques. I think there must be something of a distance factor in regards to social media.

I myself have to be really ticked to say something bad otherwise I only speak about what I like. I see alot of casual criticism in social media, way more than real life. And I had never read any thing in regards to addressing it untill now.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit ruthless when it comes to written media--which actually keeps me from criticizing it most of the time, since I know how people can get about criticism.

...and I'm not near as good at taking it as I want to be. Getting better, though.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the mention, Rich. I think what you write is valid for everyone, not just communicators. Twitter has made it even easier to hand out hasty critiques.

Geoff_Livingston on 1/25/09, 5:17 AM said...

This is a great post, Rich. I am going to share it with my class. In reality, your post is at the heart of the Cluetrain message, people want to give feedback. We have to learn how to accept it.

Anonymous said...

I pride myself on my ability to take criticism. I genuinely prefer a list of nit and dislikes to a generic "Loved it." Part of it, I think, is the need to have a good product, write a good story, do a good job. If the appearance of doing a good job is more important than doing a good job, criticism is unlikely to be taken well. To me, it's all about doing a good job.

It's interesting because I work in a politically driven environment where there is a lot of groupthink going on so I'm the critic most of the time and I've learned to have confidence in what I do; but no one should be impervious to other views and information. I challenge people to justify their decisions (it's a technical field). If they can, I listen and evaluate. I'm far less likely to be accommodating if their response is (as it sometimes has been) "You're not even qualified to ask me questions!" or "I'm the expert!"

Anonymous said...

By the way, excellent post.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the mention! I do find it ironic that we preach having a thick skin to our clients, but when criticism hits too close to home for PR folks, we tend to take it to heart and not to mind, as you suggest. Before responding, (you may find response is not always necessary) we have to clean up our side of the street first. Thus Communicators Anonymous 12 Step Program...not too far off?!

Rich on 1/26/09, 6:56 AM said...


There certainly is a disconnect for some people in regard to social media, partly because some forget the criticism is public (even on BC).

The best rule of thumb, imo, is focus on the situation/work/concept and avoid judging people, even when they resort to reverse cynicism, diatribe, or personal attacks.


When people are developing models for others to follow, criticism is fine (even ruthless). Great concepts can only be made better by it.

We all strive to take it from time to time. :) The fact that you recognize it and are working to improve taking it makes all the difference. I think we all are.


I love your seagull analogy! I want it to live in as many places as possible. :)

You're right too. Twitter certainly has nurtured a certain rashness about it. I'm not certain everyone considers how their communication comes across (not excluding myself from time to time).


Thank you Geoff. I'm glad it can serve your class. I'll be sharing it, along with some of these comments, in mine as well.

People want to give feedback, and I think we might encourage people to do so. I think we can teach them how to do it without character assignation as well.


Andy Warhol would love you! It's all about the work.

Perceived experience or expert status doesn't exempt people from making a valid criticism. If it did, then there would never be a need to hold another focus group. So, you're example is perfect.

The response — you don't have the experience, case study, etc. — is a form of diatribe. It's an attempt to invalidate someone's argument based not on their opinion but a personal judgement.

It doesn't matter if it is in response to criticism. And I suppose that is one take away people have from this post. When we're criticized, we can accept it, weigh it, learn from it ... and perhaps point out when it is invalid without resorting to a reverse criticism such as ... you don't have this, that, or the other thing.

Thank you.

All my best,

Rich on 1/26/09, 6:59 AM said...


Exactly! As communicators, we have to practice what we preach. The best communication happens from the inside out. It serves as an example. :)



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