Handling Criticism

A while back, i wrote a short opinion piece for .net magazine. Issue 205, to be precise. It focuses on how to handle and respond to criticism. Since it’s not currently available online, I thought it would be nice to share it here.

Elbert Hubbard said, “To avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.” That’s not encouraging for anyone who hopes to create anything meaningful. Unfortunately, not everyone in the world understands the difference between constructive criticism and pure negativity. So what’s the best way to deal with words designed to wound?

Firstly, keep it in context. Getting criticism is rarely pleasant, yet the fact that you’re receiving it at all is a sign people care. The alternative to bad criticism isn’t good criticism – it’s no criticism. So it’s important to take all criticism as a sign of interest on some level.

If your work doesn’t provoke emotion, good or bad, you won’t hear anything at all. People will just move on to the next thing. Choosing between having people criticise your work and having people ignore it is a no-brainer. The former gives you something to learn from while the latter leaves you isolated in a vacuum.

Quality vs quantity

Secondly, never confuse volume with quality. Louder or more frequent criticism doesn’t imply better or more valuable criticism.

For better or worse, the internet, Twitter and blogs have given everyone a voice. This means that it’s easier both for people to share their opinions and critiques, and for you to encounter them.

But don’t let the amount or volume of criticism seduce you into thinking your work is worthless. If anything, more criticism should signal that you’re on to something interesting.

Thirdly, recognise the difference between fact and opinion. Many people don’t make the distinction when critiquing a product. Many will denounce something simply because it’s not right for them. However, instead of saying, “This product doesn’t meet my needs,” they might say something like “This product is a steaming pile of crap”.

Critiques founded on opinion mean nothing other than the simple fact that you aren’t satisfying that individual’s demographic. If you’re intentionally not catering to them, then the criticism can actually be a sign of success. Listen to it, but don’t let it distract you from your core focus.

Fourthly, remember that the critic rarely has the full story. This gives them the advantage of not being tied down by old ideas and assumptions, but it means their ideas are only valuable to a certain degree. Just because they don’t have the full picture doesn’t make them wrong, but it does handicap their ability to provide relevant feedback.

Valuable feedback

It’s important to recognise that at the heart of any criticism there’s always some valuable point of feedback. Just because someone does a poor job at delivering their feedback doesn’t imply that the heart of their idea is incorrect. If you can get past the delivery and focus on the underlying issue, there’s a chance you can salvage even the most negative feedback.

Always reach out to critics. Challenge their critique. Ask them to clarify. Start a dialogue. By reaching out you make the conversation human, and the previously vague criticism turns into a valuable dialogue. If they don’t respond when you reach out, that should simply tell you that they place less value on their own remarks than you do.

Complaints are more common than praise. People are much more likely to voice negative opinions than positive ones. When people are satisfied they have a much lower desire to bring about change. However when they aren’t satisfied, they won’t let you forget it.

If you want to create anything of value, you’re going to receive criticism. If you don’t hear any criticism, it’s not because everyone loves what you have created, it’s because no one cares or no one knows. It’s unlikely that either of those options are what you’re looking for. By recognising and accepting that criticism is a valuable and inextricable piece of the creative process, you can control your response and how it affects you. Once you can do that, the rest is a cakewalk.