How To Respond to Criticism

By Neuroskeptic | January 21, 2013 8:55 pm

People argue. On the internet, especially. Here’s some tips on how best to respond to criticism of your ideas or writing – in my experience (the fact that I’ve often failed to follow these rules myself is part of that experience.)

Be Nice

Aggressive and insulting responses are a sign of weakness, and readers know it. If you’re confident in your position, you can afford to be nice, and it makes your whole case look more convincing. Quite apart from the fact that it’s just, well, nice.

Don’t call out people for not being nice, though. The Three V’s – “vitriolic”, “virulent” and “violent” – seem to be especially common complaints. The trouble is that just as remarking on someone’s faux pas is, itself, a faux pas, proclaiming that your opponent is using nasty language lowers the tone of your response.

It’s natural to feel hurt by insults, but keep your feelings to yourself. Even if the criticism really is appallingly vicious, let it speak for itself: just slip a quote of the worst bits into your response, by way of making a separate point, and don’t lower yourself by commenting on it.

Complimenting critics shows strength. It shows that you’re confident that, despite the praise you’re heaping on them, you’re still right. So be generous. It only works if it seems sincere, though, so no outright brown-nosing.

Be Fresh

Don’t just defend the ground you’ve already occupied – take the offensive (without being offensive). Bring new arguments to the table. New facts are always good – if a critic tries to debunk an example you used to prove a point, don’t bother to quibble with them: produce three more.

Make your response readable. A reply is a piece of writing like any other, and it should be as concise and as clear as possible. Exhaustive replies are counterproductive; they’re unlikely to be read. Just identify the key criticisms, and respond to those.

Stick to the point. Readers want you to engage with the issues. You may feel that you know all about your detractors’ beliefs, character, motives and so forth, and that these are interesting. They rarely are.

Be Right

Often forgotten, this one.

If you’re not sure whether you’re right, find out. Take your time. If you have to say something right now, say you’re working on it. Better a late reply than a bad reply.

If you’re wrong, admit it. People will forgive an honest mistake, if you hold up your hands and ask them to. A reputation for admitting your mistakes and correcting your views is actually a point in your favor

If you’ve done something wrong, apologize. And nothing more. Don’t try and justify yourself; it never works. Don’t try and get people to pity you; it’ll ensure no-one does. Just say sorry, and then keep quiet until the whole thing cools down.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: blogging, controversiology, you
  • Joe McCarthy

    Interesting and informative.

    I saw your tweet to this post right after reading two Amazon reviews of Daniel Bor's book, The Ravenous Brain, in which the author responds effectively [in my judgment] to two negative reviews (one entitled “Much Muddle, Little Science”, the other entitled “Stay away from this poorly reasoned book”).

    The comments in both reviews reveal that many other readers appreciate the author's effective response to criticism.

  • Anonymous

    This is exactly what I try to do when answering to reviewers when I think that some part of the reviews is wrong :-)

  • practiCalfMRI

    I would add, “only respond (nicely) to justified criticisms.” Some people make irrelevant points or are otherwise spoiling for a fight. Try to address those points that are constructive, whether or not you are (or were) incorrect. The rest is noise that is best left to hiss unattended in the background.

  • JT

    Got my thinking about something Anatol Rapoport wrote about in Fights, Games, and Debates about three rules to a fruitful debate (paraphrasing here from memory):

    1. Present your opponent's position so well that he/she would agree you presented it perfectly.

    2. There's a grain of truth in every position; before you present your position, you say what in the other person's is right/you agree with.

    3. Mention anything you have learned from your opponent.

    Then you can present your argument. More conducive to longer forms than something like Twitter, I think.

  • Black Book doc


    I can wait for a post of yours on the art of deleting comments since you forget to list it here!

  • Neuroskeptic

    I've already explained why I delete comments and it's because they're either off-topic or repeat what's been said already.

  • Black Book doc

    Also some of the best answers to criticism are preventive:

    Here a masterpiece, to my mind, (and a very nice subject of post for you neuroskeptic):

    “No-one wants to be the next Wakefield,” said Mignot

  • Anonymous

    Stop writing crap mate.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry. I didn't mean it. Not that I am trying to justify….

  • Shai-Hulud
  • Jeremiah

    I wish you'd expand on your last point – be right.

    What is the culturally accepted way to be right?

  • Jen Daisybee

    We all need to be reminded that it matters whether or not we're 'right'. Great post!



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About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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