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How to Respond to Critics

Martin Luther

As part of your independent-minded journey, many people will oppose you along the way. Some will oppose you by saying that you “can’t” do the things you’ve planned. Others will try to impose their own arbitrary rules on you. Others will be jealous of your success and try to bring you down to the level of average.

Having a strategy to deal with all of these critics is critical.

Without a strategy, you’ll have a lot more stress and doubt. The critics may even succeed in bringing you down. With the right strategy, you’ll rest easy knowing that you won’t be taken out so easily. Possible options for your own strategy include ignoring, confronting, presenting yourself as above the level of discussion, diffusing the argument… or something else, but whatever you choose, you do need a strategy.

The strategy is best separated between the outward response (how you respond to your critics) and the inward response (what you decide to actually do, and how you deal with being criticized).

The Outward Response

Most of the times you respond to critics, you should be reasonably polite. Force yourself to smile, and thank the person for sharing their opinion with you. It’s not always their fault—just remember that most people are threatened by revolutionary ideas. Once in a while they may even be right, so be sure you consider whether that is a possibility before writing it off.

Other times, you should fight back. Your response shouldn’t usually be that strong, because negative thinkers can only rarely be persuaded to change their minds. Rather, your goal is just to stand your ground, making it clear that you believe in your goals and worldview, and won’t be taken down so easily. Tell them why they’re wrong, but do it in a subtle way.

You can also choose more direct confrontation, but realize that you may be crucified for this strategy. Remember Martin Luther, the original one, when he was on trial for his life in the year 1520. Luther was asked if he would recant his unconventional writing. He took the question seriously and asked for a day to think about it. The next day he returned to the stand. His famous response, before being sentenced to death, made it clear that he wouldn’t back down:

I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.”

The Inward Response

Regardless of whether you shake the dust off your feet or strike back, your inward response to negativity should be the same. You IGNORE the critics, and do EXACTLY what you had planned. That’s it.

Okay, there are a couple of other things. First, you have to deal with the inner stress of being alone. You’re not actually alone most of the time—lots of other people are dealing with the same kinds of challenges—but it certainly feels that way when you’re under attack.

Secondly, you need a way to monitor your progress. When you’re working towards something important and facing opposition along the way, you need to know you’re on the way track. You do that with setting sub-goals—smaller accomplishments that lead to your big goal—and having regular times of reviewing how things are going.

You can do this with a spreadsheet (I track my annual goals that way and use a quarterly review system), a journal, another master document, or whatever project management system works best for you. The point is you need to check in fairly often to maintain your own motivation when the going gets tough.

Excuses, excuses…

The funny thing about critics is that they aren’t usually persuaded by experience. You’d think that as time goes by and you prove yourself to be right, they would acknowledge this. But it rarely happens that way. More often than not, the critics will find new things to criticize. All of a sudden, they’ll say your accomplishments don’t mean anything—even though earlier they implied otherwise by saying it couldn’t be done. They’ll say you didn’t follow the rules, so therefore your accomplishments are invalid.

In short, you’ll usually hear a lot of excuses even when you succeed. It’s the classic sign of a critic, and rare is the person who calls you up and says, “You know, I was wrong about that. Good job.” Instead, you’ll usually have more of the same complaints, except then you’ll know that recognition from the critics is not a reward worth seeking. Just let it go, and live the life you want.

If you want to change the world, excuses have no place in your life. Leave them to the critics, because they will need them when you’re finished. Now get to work! The world is waiting.

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22 Comments

  • Kathryn says:

    When my hubby and I chose to homeschool, we met with alot of these people. The most amazing thing is that NONE of them had any knowledge of what homeschooling was. Eight years later, we still run into opposition, but have learned that a smile and a nod is usually the easiest way to deal with most of them.

  • Frank Calco says:

    A few friends were telling me that I should have a display of my works at the main center of the city. A friend of a friend was a former ‘honcho’ with a lot of say-so in community promotion. Meeting the ‘honcho’–I was soon launched into the main area–and my work was ready for public notice.

    I was introduced to the first official, and surprised to learn that my work was what they were looking for to help their image at community events.

    Now the ‘honcho’ was writing up news reports to send to adjoining communities telling about himself as the clever promoter and just barely mentioning the event. Here we had a ‘run-in’.

    I submitted a re-write that it was about the work on display and not the handlers. Now the display was on hold.

    The Official– busy with community work was always pleased to talk with me,–and after a conversation of 15 minutes or so, I realized I could have–myself– approached the Official to have my work introduced. And now–the ‘honcho’ has me just hanging in waiting.

    I am the type that is ready to pounce on the whole thing–screw the showing—so I can easy go with the Art of Non-conformity. It would be much more fun.

  • Chris says:

    Hey everyone — thanks for the feedback and trackbacks. Now that more people are viewing this post (from Problogger et al), please feel free to share your own thoughts here.

  • I’ve learned something interesting tonight. I never thought about having a strategy for dealing with critics. I want constructive criticisms, but I may be intimidated or defensive with the negative ones. I’ll think about a strategy tonight before posting new content.

  • Louise says:

    Hello to all,

    I’d love to share an idea which really works for me from using the process of NonViolent Communication :

    a criticism is a tragic expression of an unmet need

    So if someone says something “critical” (or it could be “complains”, “judges” or “blames”), it’s nothing to do with me and more often than not, the person who’s taking needs to be heard empathically.

    People who talk like this, like most of us, have learnt a language without learning how to communicate clearly and authentically.
    That’s probably because we tend to learn how to communicate from our parents, who learnt from their parents (our grand-parents) who learnt from their parents, etc., so we communicate in a way that was great many generations ago but which isn’t necessarily the best way to dialogue today.

    To give a concrete example, if someone says to me:

    “you are so lazy, I’m the only one to do anything around here”

    I’d guess they are feeling frustrated because they would love some support. That support doesn’t have to be me because there are lots of ways to meet a need for support. I might say that out loud; I might not. But just connecting to their feeling and needs allows me to see them as human and not someone who is being “critical’ or “agressive”.

    I now enjoy hearing what were ‘hard-to-hear’ messages in such a different way so I don’t need to “defend” myself. This leaves me with so much more energy. It also sometimes allows me to contribute to someone’s well-being by listening to what’s going on for them.

    I’d love some feedback on whether you find some/all of what I’ve written useful.

    Warm wishes to all,

    Louise

  • ————————

    ———-At the time of my contribution to this format I refered to the ‘honcho’
    as– ‘himself’—but in truth–this person is a self-promoting ‘herself’;–and at fault myself–having known and was told much about her domineering control in community events—–I still went along with all her faulse promotion abilities for all the proper presentation esentials. Needles to say—at my frustration —my dismal presentation was very suprising to my family that attended —and the other contributers. Thus — wishing to please —I ignored my own principals of trust—and more-so, real knowage about life and people.

    —–LOUISE——You may edit this however suits your acceptance—-
    —Thank You…….

    —Francesco Calco (frankCC)
    —–

  • “…recognition from the critics is not a reward worth seeking.”

    This one goes in my journal, and on the wall, and on the dashboard of my car!

  • Louise says:

    Hi Francesco,

    When you remember this event with a “her-honcho” (!), sounds like you’re irritated because you’d like to consider what other people tell you before jumping in and committing yourself to a community event? sounds like you really value team-work and openness?

    And are you frustrated because you’d love to present what you present with the passion you really feel? is that close?

    Warm wishes from France,
    Louise


  • ———-Ah–Louise–you have read my silly play at distress–but you have noted my passion. I thank you….However,-.I must tell——with some pompus people —
    I really like to entice confortation. To your insite—I will write a short story about this particular event and post it later.—-
    ———Ciao—–Francesco—
    – ————-My thanks to Chris Guillebeau for this Forum……

  • Erane McManus says:

    Love “recognition from the critics is not a reward worth seeking. Just let it go, and live the life you want.” Thank you!

    Another quote re criticism that is one of my mantras comes from Hilary Clinton: “I take all criticism seriously, but I don’t take it personally.” (that might not be a direct quote, but it’s a reasonable paraphrase). I think that speaks to the fact we might need to hear what people are saying (or not saying, as Louise points out), but we don’t need to accept criticism as a judgement on ourselves.

    Terrific website – just found it – I’ve added it to my toolkit in my quest to be dauntless!
    E

  • Lady Kibeth Nehema says:

    It’s interesting because I was reading about social norms and deviance in my sociology book this morning. And there was a sociologist that said that in America and other industrialized countries it is considered a social norm to achieve the goal of getting a good house, and a good car, among other things, while working hard to attain these goals, and that society finds any one who dose not try to attain these goal or in the way socially acceptable is deviant or wrong.

    And I thought about this. My grandmother doesn’t understand why I don’t want to just get through school and find a decent job and put a down payment on a house. Who said I want a house! I never said anything about a house or staying here, or getting a decent job. I try to stay away from the subject of my life goals with my grandmother, she thinks there irrational and irresponsible and only gives her cause to constantly treat me like a child. When we do talk about these subjects she said “Why do you want to make me worry, are you trying to put me in the hospital.” I was sad at first but I have now come to the conclusion, if she dose that to herself that’s her problem not mine… I’ve seen through our many discussions and outburst of arguments that, shes just selfish. She truly doesn’t care if I’m happy, just as long as I live the life she deems correct. When people think like this you just have to think… if I walked a mile i their shoes would I be happy, would I regret not following my dreams… your heart will give you the true answers.

    And I did walk a mile in those shoes, I signed up at a community college instead of going to art school, and worked in the small office of a distribution factory… my heart screamed loudly… and at that moment stooping over the “F-G” filing cabinet I knew I was going down a road that… in truth terrified me.

  • Love this post. When critics recently assailed me after Seth Godin generously took on my cause and asked people to vote for me in the Johnny Bunko challenge, I was stunned to find that I seemed to have more critics than supporters. I had nothing to do with his posting, yet was criticized and attacked as though I were. I see now that most criticism arises from jealousy and inadequacy on the attacker’s part. It’s not about me. It’s what my success triggers in their mind.

    My strategy is to understand that critics are, for the most part, unhappy, jealous people with poor or low-self esteem and no life. They’re simply trying to steal my happiness – so they’re also thieves in a way. I deal with them pretty much on a one-on-one basis. I don’t negotiate with bullies or terrorists and I don’t back down. I do ultimately take pity on them. I am learning to simply say a prayer for them that the emptiness, anger and hatred in their lives is replaced with love and peace. It frees me from the stress of taking their comments personally and allows me to practice gratitude (that I am not them), patience and persistence. Yes – it hurts, but understanding that they are judging me based on their own projections or understanding and not on mine – makes it much easier to shrug off.

    I see my friend’s success as a joyful thing and don’t get jealous – just motivated. So, I don’t understand the critic thing really. But, good post!

  • Jared says:

    I’m glad you wrote this Chris. I love that quote from Martin Luther.

    Another one that might help someone here is, “A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.” As things have steadily increased in my business, it seems as if these types of people come out of the woodwork. Then I understood one time when someone said, “Hey I don’t like Oprah.” Then I thought, “Man, who doesn’t like Oprah.”

    So there you go… when I was a singer/songwriter people thought I was really into Bob Dylan. I don’t like him at all, but hey… he is still Bob Dylan (which I completely respect). Furthermore, think about the people who just waste their time writing to someone they don’t like. I never once did that in my entire life.

    Sure we can all have opinions, but these people that waste their time trying to tell you how much they dislike you or something you did… I just says more about them, then what actually say.
    *Jared

  • Louise says:

    Becky, I so agree that it’s not about you. It’s what the person sees or hears that triggers something in their mind. It might be “success” and it could just as easily be “failure”. I prefer sticking to clear observations rather than my judgment of an event.

    The only thing I’ve found so far that works for me is to deeply hear what the person is expressing until they feel some relief at being heard, then ask if they’re willing to listen to me.

    For example, if someone who says “I don’t like Oprah” I might try guessing that they’re expressing their worry because they want to see people free from being overly influenced by someone with a powerful media presence.

    Once someone is fully heard, the dialogue opens and ideas can be exchanged and that’s what makes me come alive!

  • ArrVee says:

    One needs a healthy amount of self-esteem to be able to deal with criticism. This will naturally shape the outward and inward responses.

    Good self-esteem not only means trusting yourself, but also being able to deal with the fact that you are not perfect and make mistakes too, and very important, being able to forgive yourself, so you can move on.

    Like Rudyard Kipling said in his classic poem “IF”:

    “… If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too; …”

  • pierreb says:

    Excellent post, as usual. My biggest critic is my eldest brother and he drives me crazy. I am the youngest and we are complete opposites. A week does not go by without a call or email from him with info on some crappy job I should apply for, or some unsolicited advice about my life. He gets under my skin and I can actually derail at times if I listen to his negative comments. I am prefectly happy doing my own thing and I never ask for help from him or anyone else, but he still can get to me. I will prepare my response for the next doom talk from him.

    Great work. Thanks for the inspiration…you are having a huge effect on my life.
    cheers!!

  • usman says:

    Cool post. Even though it’s two years old, I’m going through your entries now 🙂

    Anyways, I use similar strategies to deal with the critics. I’ve gotten really good at ignoring them and not letting them bring me down. The way I see it, critics talk because of their own inadequacy. For me, personally I had to get away from old relationships that had me locked down. People tell you, you can’t do something, just because they can’t do it themselves. Or simply, they just don’t see the world through your shoes, so they try to fit you in their reality.

    We all have a tendency to be critical, but some just love feeding off others to make themselves feel superior and reaffirm their own beliefs. The practice of empathy really helps dealing with the critics. From time to time, it’s okay to have them around because it can be used a tool to re-evaluate your goals.

  • Tina Ranieri says:

    Not conforming is my middle name, it seems Im always on the outside of the box. For whatever reason I am not doing what the masses do or even my family or relatives and every one has an opinion and they insist that you must hear it. I am a bringer of change.

    “If they persecute me they will persecute you.”

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