How to (Gracefully) Manage 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 insights on: Iteration

Scott Belsky

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Scott Belsky is Adobe's Vice President of Community and Co-Founder & Head of Behance, the leading online platform for creatives to showcase and discover creative work. Scott has been called one of the "100 Most Creative People in Business" by Fast Company, and is the author of the bestselling book, Making ideas Happen.
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