How to Answer Your Critics

As a writer, I have learned to deal with criticism the hard way -- by publicly receiving it, raw and unfiltered from the safety of Internet anonymity. I have also observed, with alarming regularity, how the comments sections of online articles become war zones. No one knows each other personally, and the facelessness gives people courage to speak their mind freely without worrying about the consequences. And no matter how trivial the topic, someone inevitably takes offense and goes on the offensive.

You know the old adage, "You can't change others -- only yourself"? In that same vein, I think we can't control other people's opinions or judgment, but we can certainly control our reaction to their words. The easiest way to avoid getting dragged into a flame war is to ignore inflammatory comments. Yet as long as they are not intractable trolls or haters, there is sometimes something to be gained if you stay calm, keep an open mind and tactfully engage with critics.

Therefore, without further ado, I have compiled a survival guide for giving and receiving criticism online, which, quite frankly, might even be applicable in many situations offline as well:

1. Be prepared.
Expect someone somewhere to disagree with you, no matter what. Your opinions, decisions and actions will always be judged, and expecting it, rather than being surprised by it, is a first step towards handling it well.

2. Breathe.
Being reactive in any situation is usually not the best approach. Always pause for a moment, an hour or a day before you respond. Emotions can get the best of you and waiting until you have fully digested the words will usually result in a more thoughtful response.

3. Kill 'em with kindness.
When delivering any communication, you will ensure a better reception by writing or speaking kindly, thoughtfully and without bitterness or sarcasm.

4. Acknowledgement.
The reason we all seem to be screaming at each other is because no one is listening. With all of the noise, some people behave like the only way to be heard is to be belligerent. But is that really how we want to get our message across? Sometimes all it takes to get people to calm down is to acknowledge that you heard them. It doesn't mean that you agree with them, but it might just dim the decibel level.

5. Be empathetic.
Do you know where someone's mean words are coming from? Maybe that person just had a bad day or maybe their whole life is miserable. We can't truly understand the subtext without knowing the context. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt and sincerely wish them well if you sense their comments come from a place of hurt or unhappiness.

6. Don't stoop to taking potshots to defend yourself.
For instance, don't poke fun at grammar or spelling. You don't know if English is someone's first language, if they're typing on a touch screen or if they could afford a college education. Substance and intent ought to trump the superficial stuff.

7. Be respectful.
Being entertained by someone's beliefs is mocking them. Demonizing someone for their principles is being prejudiced. Find a way to express your perspective while respecting other points of view.

8. Pay it forward.
We all love to be validated. We love likes and shares and comments from encouraging strangers who cheer us on. So be generous with your praise -- it helps offset all the negativity out there and ensures the good karma will flow back to you one day.

9. Admire rather than admonish people for speaking up.
We should welcome criticism even when it is not delivered kindly. Most people don't know how to express criticism tactfully, but at least they are being authentic by sharing their feelings. They should be commended for being courageous and passionate enough to speak up.

10. Grow a thicker skin.
Sometimes the truth hurts. If you want people to be honest with you, then you can't be hypersensitive and shoot the messenger.

11. Silence.
You always have the right to remain silent. Sometimes, you have to recognize that you will not change someone's mind and it may be best not to engage.

12. Censorship is worse than mean people.
Remember that the freedom you exercise to express yourself is shared by the people who criticize you. Trying to shut them up is hypocritical and can backfire in the long run.

13. Don't take it personally.
It's really not about you. There will always be outliers who are rude, offensive and downright nasty. They act this way towards anyone who triggers their spitefulness, so don't feel you're being singled out for punishment. Let these people's negativity run downhill, into the gutter. Besides, they don't know the real you; does it actually matter what they think? It should only matter what you and the people you care about think of you, and only constructive, respectful comments about your ideas deserve your time and consideration.