Tips On Responding to Public Criticism (Inspired by Steve Jobs)

The Internet is an interesting place. When people interact through computer screens, it increases anonymity and decreases inhibitions while dehumanizing the person on the other end. This is why online interactions tend to be so polite and respectful.

Um, right.

The truth is, if you spend enough time on the Internet, you’ll eventually take your turn as a punching bag.  As a blogger and future author, I'm very interested in how people react to public criticism. A while back, I ran across this video of Steve Jobs during a question-and-answer session. A man asks an insulting question, and Jobs’ response was quite impressive. It's worth taking a look.

Let's break down this response see if we can come up with some generalizable tips for dealing with public criticism.

1. You don't have to respond right away. When someone criticizes you and everybody’s watching, there's some pressure to say something right back. But resist that temptation. Take some time and think things over. But should you respond at all? I can't answer that for you, but a few questions to consider.

  •  Is the criticism worth dignifying with a response? My levelheaded husband talks me out of a flame wars by asking that very question. If someone is raising reasonable objections, it might be worth responding. But if someone is just being snarky or immature (On the internet? No way!), it may not be worth sinking down to their level.
  • Are you being criticized in a hostile environment? Generally, the more hostile the environment, the more carefully you have to consider your response. If you're a part of the traditional publishing establishment, being lambasted on an virulently indie blog, or if you’re indie author trying to defend self publishing on a pro traditional writer’s forum, it may not matter how well reasoned your responses are. If the audience is already predisposed to hating you, they may not listen, and you'll just end up getting even more frustrated.
  • Think twice about responding to reviews I recently saw this blog post asking whether authors should respond to reviews. Several commentors mentioned that it was awkward when authors responded to bad reviews, even if it was in a nice way. Sometimes readers need a safe place to discuss books without feeling like the author is looking over their shoulder.
2. If there is truth to the criticism, acknowledge it. Hard to imagine, but sometimes your critics might be right. If that's true, then you’re better of acknowledging it than digging your heels in and denying everything. I'm often surprised that how effective an acknowledgment or apology can be for diffusing a tense situation. Several times, I’ve seen an angry commenter march onto a blog demanding blood for a perceived insult. But the blogger apologized, and it all smoothed over. In more than one case, the angry commenter ended up apologizing for his own initial rudeness as well.

3. Maintain your composure and sense of humor. People tune out when they see angry ranting. You  come across as much more reasonable and mature if you stay calm.

4. Elevate the discussion. As they say, "Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people."  In the video, Steve Jobs took a thinly veiled insult and redirected the discussion to something more productive. Rather than discuss whether or not he was an idiot, he focused on the importance of looking at the big picture.

Have you ever been criticized in a public forum? How did you respond?

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  1. Excellent tips. Bloggers are so prone to criticism but it's up to us to take it the right way and turn something negative into the positive.

  2. I've overreacted to criticism, and I've been sorry and even removed posts. I'm happiest with myself when I respond reasonably and politely, acknowledging the other opinion to the extent I can.

  3. Very interesting. The temptation - for me, anyway - is to respond immediately and in the same tone. This is particulary tempting when I am talking about my subject about which I think I know everything. I have tempered that lately, and I am able to say that perhaps the question was not only good, but perhaps there is something in the criticism. After all, nobody knows everything, even about his own subject.

  4. Sound advice!

    My only quibble is the punching bag metaphor. I agree that sooner or later people will start trying to punch you -- but whether the punches land is largely within your control. Punching bags, poor things, have no choice.


  5. Yes, I've been criticized in a public forum. Belatedly, I realized the other person's intent was to boast about his ability to sell 2,000 eBooks a day rather than be sincere in discussing an issue.

    But saying that, I have found that a technique Steve Jobs used in this video segment, if used honestly, often helps disarm antagonism. And that's to acknowledge something the critic does right or well. Everyone wants to feel valued -- maybe more so those people who pick public forums to criticize others.

  6. Thanks! This is a timely post for me, Livia, because I've just gone through my first experience of very public criticism: dozens of raging bloggers, 6 pages of venom on Absolute Write, and even more in the Kindle forums, they tell me.

    It has been an eye-opener. I tried to respond with humor to some of the more rational critics--because I actually agreed with most of them--and I left the diatribes up on my blog where I apologized for hurt feelings.

    I continue to try to explain that my post wasn't aimed at anybody who's ever written a review before and I didn't intend to tell anybody how to do their job (or dictate that all reviewers must wear evening gowns--one very odd misinterpretation of a book/clothing shopping analogy.)

    But after a while things got scary. I even got a death threat email--one of those "we know where you live" things.

    Then I got a lovely message from *Pay it Forward* author Catherine Ryan Hyde, who said, "Congratulations: you're building platform."

    That helped me reframe the whole incident. Yeah, the Amazon Review Taliban is threatening to end my career (and my life) for describing Amazon algorithms as they *are* instead of as they *should be*, but my profile got raised a whole lot higher. That makes me a very tempting target, but in the long run, it's all good. As they say in Hollywood, it doesn't matter what they say as long as they spell your name right.

    Would I have done it if I knew I was about to step into a big, heaping pile of "how to review" dogma? No--probably not.

    But I did it, and in the end, my naive post may have been a very good thing.

  7. BooksandPals -- glad you enjoyed it!

    Girlie Blogger - that's a good way to put it. We can't control the negative, but we can control what we do with it.

    Jan - I wonder if any of us *haven't* overreacted. It is nice when we can take stuff down though, although if it's on someone else's blog, then it gets more complicated.

    Ronald -- I have an issue with tone also. I immediately bristle when someone is rude, even if what they're saying is right or useful.

    Barry -- Great point that we can control how we receive the criticism. Hard to remember sometimes when you're in the ring, but perhaps that makes it even more important to emphasize. (That said, I suspect your quibble with the metaphor says a lot about our relative boxing abilities. I'm pretty sure if someone tries to punch me, I will have relatively little control over where it lands :-P Though I did decapitate a reflex bag a few months ago!)

    Colleen -- You raise a good point that people aren't always arguing for the same reasons. Some are boasting, some are trying to feel better about themselves, others are honestly trying to make a point. And understanding that is so important to deciding your reaction.

    Anne -- Holy crap! Death threats over a blog post on book reviews? People really need to chill. I read that article, and it looked fine to me. I've only had one major experience with the intarnet coming at me with pitchforks, but I never got death threats. It really does bring traffic though! I hope a lot of new readers were able to discover your blog that way.

  8. "Intarnet" LOL. Congrats on your victory over the reflex bag.

  9. Excellent post, Livia, and very thought provoking. When people criticize, it can be very hurtful. My first inclination is to ignore them and go sit by myself and have a pity party. But over the years I've learned how to respond graciously.
    I once had a book critique that tore my work to shreds. She even told me she thought my book wasn't even salvageable. When I met her, I talked to her about it, and thanked her for her honest opinion. Because that's all it was. An opinion. Thankfully, many other people loved the book, so it outweighed her acidic remarks. However, those remarks still sting me when I think of them. I guess I should just get over it.

  10. I swim with sharks (under a pseudonym!). So I'm constantly having poo hurled at me. I'm not a saint, I can be goaded into a snarky response, but generally I just dodge, let the poo whiz on by and return to the topic of conversation.

    The thing is, I care a lot about certain issues and if someone is right they are right even if they inhabit the shallowest end of the gene pool. If they are wrong and inhabit those same waters, pointing it out won't advance my argument.

  11. A lot of times, with internet criticism, it's not even abou you. Sure it's thrown at you or something you've done, but it's misdirected rage you only happen to be receiving. Unless you happen to be Karl Rove.

  12. Great post. In fact, I think I'll bookmark it ready for when I next need it. The urge to respond to things immediately can be overwhelming, but it's so important not to hit 'send' or 'post' straight away. I always have a different take on things in the morning! Hitting 'save draft' and mulling it over it a much better idea. Thanks for the reminder :)

  13. Anne -- thanks :-) I felt very dangerous.

    Suzanne – harsh critiques are hard. I don't mind critiques if they make sense to me, but the ones that are really out of left field, where the critiquer clearly did not get the point of the story or misunderstood something, those get under my skin.

    Susan – Swimming with sharks hmmm? That sounds exciting.

    Jesse -- That's so true. A lot of times people just want a sounding board, and you present a convenient opportunity.

    Zena -- Yes, hitting save draft. Or sending it to a trusted reader to screen for you :-)

  14. Great Post Livia - great comments too!

  15. I'm not a saint, I can be goaded into a snarky response, but generally I just dodge, let the poo whiz on by and return to the topic of conversation.

    British Food

  16. Thanks for sharing that video of Steve Jobs. He was famous for inspiring people to perform, create and simply ideate at levels that they thought were impossible. I must admit to falling into mudslinging matches with others on the internet, usually over a comment I've made to a video on YouTube. I really appreciate this moment to think over my past behavior and how I've responded to negativity or simple criticism. I look forward to exploring your blog and getting to know it better. I was once a biologist, then a librarian, now I'm disabled, but try my hand at photography and writing. Thanks, again. And I apologize for the long comment. (I'm too wordy!) :)

  17. Great post!

    I love that video, especially that ridiculously tense moment after Jobs says "You can please some of the people some of the time..." and just lets it hang while he gathers his thoughts. It takes a lot of confidence to take your time in a situation like that. I'd probably respond 'Oh yeah you wanna know what I've been doing for seven years? YOUR MOM." or something equally silly and immature!

    I like all these tips, especially the last one. There's nothing that frustrates haters more than when their target takes the high road ;)

  18. The common problem in world of writer's.
    There are always endless numbers of people who want to criticize you, but even more who just want to provoke you for some weird acts.
    So not all the book reviews of you masterpiece deserve to be discussed. Think about it.