September 7, 2009...4:12 pm

Don’t Take This the Wrong Way

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Identifying and Responding to Criticism Even When it’s Dressed to Look Like Feedback

Criticism and feedback are not synonyms. They each have very different meanings and implications and require a different approach if you’re responding in a professional capacity within the social web.

Yes, feedback can be critical and it’s possible someone will deliver criticism when you ask for feedback. This is where it gets tricky, but what matters here is that your response is appropriate.

Bear with me – I’ll get to the tactical part very soon, but in this instance, I think it’s important to note the differences in the definitions of each of these words:

crit⋅i⋅cism –noun

1. the act of passing judgment as to the merits of anything.
2. the act of passing severe judgment; censure; faultfinding.
3. the act or art of analyzing and evaluating or judging the quality of a literary or artistic work, musical performance, art exhibit, dramatic production, etc.
4. a critical comment, article, or essay; critique.
5. any of various methods of studying texts or documents for the purpose of dating or reconstructing them, evaluating their authenticity, analyzing their content or style, etc.: historical criticism; literary criticism.
6. investigation of the text, origin, etc., of literary documents, esp. Biblical ones: textual criticism.

feed⋅back –noun

1. Electronics.

a. the process of returning part of the output of a circuit, system, or device to the input, either to oppose the input (negative feedback) or to aid the input (positive feedback).
b. acoustic feedback.
2. the furnishing of data concerning the operation or output of a machine to an automatic control device or to the machine itself, so that subsequent or ongoing operations of the machine can be altered or corrected.
3. a reaction or response to a particular process or activity: He got very little feedback from his speech.
4. evaluative information derived from such a reaction or response: to study the feedback from an audience survey.
5. Psychology. knowledge of the results of any behavior, considered as influencing or modifying further performance. Compare biofeedback.
6. Biology. a self-regulatory biological system, as in the synthesis of some hormones, in which the output or response affects the input, either positively or negatively.

See how the definition of criticism implies judgment and intellectual assessment while feedback has more to do with resonance and reaction (both literal and figurative) than with judgment?

Feedback gives information that allows us to assess the quality of our own product.

Criticism judges the quality of the product.

See the difference?

Why This is Important

If you’re looking to represent a brand or company online and engage in comment marketing or any one-on-one outreach, it’s extremely important to understand which one you’re dealing with in order to respond in a way that builds and sustains relationships.

Feedback helps customers and stakeholders feel they have a voice that can affect the quality of future experiences. Feedback can also help inform companies as to how best to grow into better, more profitable companies.

Criticism can also be helpful when you’re dealing with assessing the value of some type of product or service, but when criticism is levied against individuals in organizations, or a general manner of doing business, it’s important that it be addressed differently.

Personal criticism, or criticism that attacks a company’s way of conducting business indicates a deeper issue than the particular instance or grievance noted in the language.

If companies take criticism at face value and respond to the specific argument rather than the underlying issue, they miss the chance for real communication and relationship building at best, and devolve into angry discourse at worst.

Steps For Identifying and Responding to Criticism Online

1. Listen CAREFULLY – look for words that indicate judgment of merit – positive or negative (criticism can be positive, or neutral, too)

2. Sort Statements – Criticism is often buried in feedback and vice versa. Feedback can be taken at face value, but criticism should be addressed on par with what is actually being communicated below the surface.

3. Extract Meaning – What is really being stated here? Make sure you’re clear on what about your business is being criticized. Don’t be afraid to ask questions that seek clarification – this is perhaps a new development with social media – take advantage of this. Try your best to retrace the steps to discover this person’s pathway to judgment. Connect the dots between his/her experience and the resulting judgment.

4. Respond with Empathy – Even if the person doing the criticizing has a legitimate point, arguing specifics will only cause trouble and strengthen the firmness of the criticizer’s position. Empathize with their judgment: put yourself in their shoes and they’ll likely return the favor.

REMEMBER: Criticism always says more about the criticizer than it ever does about the criticizee. This is the nature of judgment. Our own experience provides a lens through which we view the world and everything in it.

5. Dodge Dogma – When you find the origin is a dogma that conflicts with the mission of your business, it may make sense to agree to disagree. Vegetarians will likely criticize manufacturers of meat products, those who feel strongly about environmental preservation will likely remain critical of the mining industry and so on. When dogmatic differences arise, own them. In most cases it will behoove you to be respectful of their beliefs, but don’t feel the need to placate them. Your critics with opposing dogmas will remain your critics and sharpen your appeal to others more aligned with your mission.

Don’t Just Say What You Mean, Explain

I had a realization recently about how the Internet encourages us to find information and derive meaning as an independent activity. The good part news is that this breeds a lot of diversity of thought. The bad news is we’re relying less on real definitions and instead relying on context and a general intuitive sense of what a word actually means.

If we’re confusing basic concepts in communication, what else are we confusing? Think about this the next time you talk with people about social media.

If familiar concepts like feedback and criticism can become confused, just think how different your definitions of terms related to social media or the social web in general can seem to your clients and colleagues… chances are, your definition of a blog isn’t theirs.

Your Feedback and/or Criticism Welcome Here!

Does knowing the definition of each of these words help you understand how to interpret and respond to critics, or am I simply splitting hairs?

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  • Really liked your determining of criticism vs. feedback.

    I went through a situation that had this very topic at the back of my mind. An email was sent in response to a blog post of mine and though it wasn’t really condescending or passing judgment, it had an undertone that made me question whether it was actually feedback or hidden criticism (or just loss of context onilne). Though I was skeptical of the person’s demeanor, I figured if all else fails – still reply back positively and with empathy.

    • Sonny,
      I’m glad this resonated with you. I’m not sure whether the particular person was being critical or giving feedback. Although, I say when in doubt, ask for clarification. Sometimes if we give the old, “thank you for your feedback” line, it feels… well, like a line.

      Like I said, it’s difficult to assess (or criticize ;-) without context. Judgment isn’t always a bad thing. Heck, saying your work is outstanding, or I think your great is essentially a judgment, right?

  • Often times, the most useful feedback is criticism. Whether it’s the result of a lack of originality or a fear of being an “outsider”, a lot of comments on blogs consist of feedback that’s generally useless. That’s not to say you should always try and find something to disagree with, but feedback that goes against the norm can be more useful than “I agree” or “brilliant post”.

    However, like you mentioned, ignoring criticism or assuming feedback is criticism, can be a missed opportunity.

    • Kasey,

      I hope you mean to say the most useful information (not criticism) is feedback, because I wrote this hoping to establish that feedback is NOT criticism and criticism is not feedback. This is not a matter of opinion – the words mean different things.

      Feedback can be negative or positive and so can criticism. The point I’m trying to establish is that they are best treated differently when approaching a response.

      I’m not trying to be didactic, but if I use the examples you provided; “I agree” is feedback. “Brilliant post” is criticism because the person is judging the post as brilliant. The post may or may not be brilliant. The fact that person says it is does not make it so, but it says a lot about what that person *thinks* is brilliant. Make sense?

  • Helpful post Shannon. Companies need to understand that in order for their brand(s) to engage with all stakeholders (internal or external) they (the company) need to be able to not only to decipher feedback from criticism…but handle both.


  • Shannon…this is phenomenal. What a great read and wonderful takeaways for the reader….Your 5 steps are an absolute must to read, absorb and put in play…I put it down here to try to commit it to memory. Funny how writing/typing does that, huh?


    1. Listen
    2. Sort
    3. Extract
    4. Respond (w/empathy…need…to…work…on…this)
    5. Dodge Dogma (Need you on the health care reform front for sure…oh wait…I just walked into a stiff jab there..sorry).
    Great job!
    Mark, aka @evatwork

    • Mark,
      I’m the same way – I never keep notes, but I like to jot things down just so I remember.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  • Great piece. In this day and age, where the social web allows long reaching conversations about your company and brand to permeate vast communities, its important to understand how to interpret and respond. Whether it be critical input (criticism) or simple and straightforward reactions (feedback), companies need to appreciate and harness the information regarding their brands. Not knowing, not reacting or choosing to ignore the social web all together can be disastrous. How amazing it is to be able to listen and engage with people who influence your brand! Doing it the right way is critical and can lift your brand/company to new levels of greatness. Bravo and thanks for the work…

    • Regina,

      You’re right, it is amazing that companies have the ability to talk one-on-one with people in formats like this – it’s a privilege.

      Thanks for adding your point of view.

  • Excellent ! One of the things I like about the web is that it gives people the chance to dialogue; but too often it’s used for snarky attacks. There are some great tips here for engaging with your community here.

    Personally, I try and remember that not everyone is as capable of expressing themselves in written form. Sometimes we see an attack or snarky comment just because someone was abrupt or impolite. It helps to give people the benefit of the doubt before taking it the wrong way.

    Great stuff!

    • Jon,

      Some do like to take advantage of the anonymity that the web can provide and attack others. That’s always a shame. Behind every avatar and hyperlink there is a person. Empathy is more important than ever.

      Thanks for adding your voice.

  • Jessica Randazza

    Thank you for sharing, Shannon. Admittedly I always saw feedback and criticism as synonymous, but this certainly opens my eyes on how to appropriately respond in the future.

    Feedback helps customers and stakeholders feel they have a voice that can affect the quality of future experiences. Feedback can also help inform companies as to how best to grow into better, more profitable companies. — What’s interesting is I think that sometimes when businesses receive positive feedback they don’t always take it as a way to improve. Sometimes just a relief that it’s not a criticism and we [businesses] don’t take the good feedback further.

    Again, thank you. Great post.

    • Jessica,

      Thank you for stopping by and weighing in!

      You’re right – a lot of times companies that receive positive feedback take that as a sign to keep coasting. But, things can always be improved. It may not come down to PR per se, but one good example is companies assessing the popular places or content on their websites and changing the user experience on the site to make the popular stuff easier to access. That’s just one example, but making it easier for people to access the stuff they like is a great way to leverage positive feedback.

      Although, there is something to be noted from keep up the good work (which is a criticism btw because it judges the work as “good”). But if I’ve learned anything it’s that once you up your game, people tend to have higher expectations.

  • Re: criticism, a friend/mentor sometimes reminds me to “listen with the third ear,” to hear the “meta-message.” As you’ve noted, there’s often more beneath the surface; I’m thinking its sometimes as voluminous and dangerous as the major part of the iceberg–huh, come to think of it, and sometimes just as cold! The tough thing for me is not to answer right away, but to slow down, reflect, listen some more… Thanks for adding to my learning on this tough one. Blessings!

    • Gary,

      You’re very welcome! I love the phrase “meta-message”. Thanks for bringing that into my awareness. Slowing down is good, too – especially when emotions are high. You’re right – this is a tough one and it’s not always easy to stop and think of what it is you’re actually dealing with before responding.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion. :-)

  • Virginia J. Duffy PhD PNP

    As someone who has always been interested in and studied communication, it STILL never fails to amaze me just how difficult it is. Thus one of my favorite quotes (attributed to a number of different people)

    I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant

    • Virginia (is it okay if I call you that, Dr. Duffy?)

      Communication IS difficult! It’s definitely more art than science, but I do my best to see certain patterns and address them in a way that others can understand them — this in turn helps my understanding, too.

      I like your quote. It’s a good one (yes, that’s a criticism) :-)

  • Melissa DelGaudio

    Shannon … I think that this’ll be an extremely helpful post for many people. Many of us confuse feedback & criticism, and when it’s the latter, are not sure how to handle it. Too often, people take criticism as a personal attack and respond with vitriol and the adult equivalent of “Yeah? Well, I know you are, but what am I?!? Infinity!” I think, when receiving criticism, if we are able to take a step back & examine the POV of the critic, we might be able to glean a new perspective on our subject matter.

    Respond to criticism with FEEDBACK, instead of criticism of the criticism. Thank people for their input. If everyone were to respond with comments like, “GREAT post! I totally agree!!”, where would we be?

    Oh, and … uhhh … great post. I totally agree. ;)

    • Melissa,

      I know you are but what am I?

      Just kidding. I think you raise a good point in that responding to criticism with criticism is never a good approach. Responding to criticism with empathy and feedback is definitely the way to go if you’re interested in having a productive conversation.

      Thanks for adding your voice (and your humor)!

  • I don’t know if this is feedback or criticism, but I love that you chose a dog photo to illustrate this post!

    • Rufus,

      That’s feedback. If you would have said that my post was fantastic because I chose a dog photo, *that* would be criticism. ;-)

  • I encourage both on my blog. If you feel that you can add ANYTHING to the thoughts or writing that I put out there? Good or bad, I welcome it with open arms.

    Thanks for the breakdown of the two though, I’ve consistently mixed them up when writing or talking.

    • Stuart,

      You’re very welcome! And, you’re right to do so. Both things are great for discussion… besides, if you didn’t like criticism, you would have problems every time someone said “great post” since after all, that is criticism. ;-)

      Thanks for the comment.

  • Hi Shannon – The 5-step response heuristic is a wonderful takeaway for anyone, and especially those who engage in non-verbal communication with others. The book, The Question Behind the Question, by John G. Miller approaches this issue from a similar perspective, ultimately challenging us to become more accountable to how we respond to those around us. We can all stand to take a deep breath sometimes, can’t we?

    • ochojoe,

      Can I just tell you I love that you used the word “heuristic” in a comment on my blog?!

      Deep breaths do help – also, I like to tell myself that in 10 years none of this will matter. I’ll have to check out that book – we communicate volumes in between our words. The ability to turn criticism around to discover what someone else is feeling is a valuable skill to have.

      Thanks so much!

  • I think you’ve done an excellent job explaining the difference between the two. Often times we find ourselves being critical only to elevate our own self worth.

    The question I like to ask myself is, did I help provide feedback that can be used for improvement.

    I like to provide alternatives if I make a comment so that their is potential value in my feedback. Without providing alternatives, my feedback could potentially be construed as criticism.

    • Dave,

      Being critical isn’t a bad thing, but being negative in our criticism just for the sake of self edification isn’t the best use of our time or energy.

      Again, what I want to be clear about here is that feedback AND criticism can each be positive of negative. Criticism simply means judgment (positive or negative) and feedback means a reaction or response (positive or negative). It’s helpful if you can be prescriptive, but sometimes you will like something simply because you have a particular preference that defies logic or reason.

      We like to build critiques that support our reactions, but that doesn’t make them valid – it simply illustrates something about our own character and what we think will justify our feelings. Make sense?

  • Criticism is easily misunderstood, I find, and I think it gets a bad rap. To me, it’s not criticism per se that’s the problem, it’s the way the critique is delivered.

    We all know it’s not necessarily what you say, but how you say it or how you deliver it. The difference between the two is bigger than Schwarzenegger’s biceps.

    We learn from criticism, from critical thinking, from critical reviews. We should welcome it, we should thirst for it. We should see it more positively.

    Of course, we hope the critique is constructive in its substance. And, to me, if it’s poorly delivered, then we should still try to find the value, if any.

    Couldn’t agree more on the value of listening to understand as the first step in managing criticism.

    Many years ago now, I read a book entitled Managing from the Heart, which shares five principles of caring leadership:
    1. Hear and understand me.
    2. Even if you disagree, please don’t make me wrong.
    3. Acknowledge the greatness within me.
    4. Remember to look for my loving intentions.
    5. Tell the truth with compassion.

    I’d say some of those principles should be kept in mind the next time you’re ready to dish out a critique.

    • David,

      I agree – criticism does get a bad rap because of the negative connotation that has evolved around the word. Criticism involves judgment – judgment isn’t always negative, but when people judge without having enough information or apply that judgment to people it creates a lot of problems.

      Critical thinking is a great skill, but too much judgment happens without this vital step. Even negative criticism can be delivered effectively and with empathy with the check list you provided here. Thanks for that! :-)

  • Daily Digest for September 8th « Moonlit Minds

    [...] Don’t Take This the Wrong Way « Shannon Paul’s Very Official Blog [...]

  • this is great shannon. thanks for putting it out there.

  • Is Social Media It?! « JessicaRandazza

    [...] one of the most useful functions of social media (at least currently)  is to provide consumer feedback and criticism in real-time. That is undeniably important. But why build an entire public relations campaign [...]

  • Managed Services

    Really this is a great post.All of your discussion about feedback & Criticism are so much interesting.i found so much useful tips from your post ,am sure all these tips are very useful for all the blogger like me.Thank you so much for sharing this post with us.Keep blogging.

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