Dealing with negative comments online

January 11, 2010 Off By Chris Hinton

Post image and thumbnail by Marco Veringa
My day-to-day job as a pastor is one of those that would be classified as “leadership”. One of the problems with leadership of any sort is that it automatically puts the leader in a position where it’s very easy to criticise them. The fault for any issues that arise is laid at the leader’s feet, whether those issues are operational, interpersonal, or sometimes completely unrelated to the leader’s area of influence. Managers, politicians, and any number of other professions all experience the same sort of thing and must learn quickly to deal with criticism and negative comments.
Blogging is surprisingly similar. You, as the blogger, are effectively “in charge” of your blog and its related activities. If there’s something about it that people don’t like, they’ll feel perfectly free to tell you about it because, after all, it’s ultimately your responsibility. As a blogger, you too must learn to deal with criticism and negative comments. It’s not nice, nor easy, but necessary.
I can’t claim to have a bullet-proof system that will shield you from any and all negativity that might come your way, but I can tell you how I try to deal with it. If you have anything to add please share it in the comments. Just, you know, try and keep it positive in tone!
Let’s split this into two, because it’s quite a hefty subject. I’ve already posted about how I try and deal with negative comments received in person over at Mike’s Life, and I’d recommend that you read that first as the techniques mentioned there are also helpful online. Once you’ve read up on that, come back and we’ll look at a few pointers for dealing with negative comments online.
– Be aware that you’re lacking something
Various sources will cite different ratios, but it’s generally accepted that the majority of communication in a conversation is non-verbal. The notes I’m using now, from a training course I did a few years back, say around 80% of communication is non-verbal, while Albert Mehrabian‘s study on the subject came up with an even higher figure of 93%.
Whichever it is, you need to be aware that when you communicate via any written medium you’re missing a bucketload of contextual information… which makes it harder to determine where the other party is coming from. Were they smiling or angry when they wrote? Were they joking or deadly serious? Do they have the aggressive tone you’re imagining or could you be adding that yourself?
It might be absolutely plain what their tone is (if they’re openly insulting you, for instance) but be aware that in many cases you could be reading more into their words than is actually there.
Similarly, be aware that your reply will also be open to different interpretations by people putting different tones on it. Try to be as obvious and clear as possible with your wording so as to avoid an unnecessary flame war.
– Beware of de-humanising your critic, and be aware that they may have de-humanised you
It’s so easy to have a go at someone online because you don’t see them. They’re not right there in front of you so you don’t have to see their reactions, and don’t have to worry about getting a bust nose! But there’s also the risk of dehumanising your critic and going too far. It’s important to remember that the person you’re dealing with is a person… potentially a very annoying one, but still a person. If you wouldn’t say something face to face, you should think twice about saying it online.
At the same time though, be prepared for the fact that they may have dehumanised you in their own mind. There may be some comments incoming that nobody in their right mind would make to a person’s face and, to be honest, my only strategy for dealing with that is to walk away. I’ve replied to many messages with the heat of anger, but the messages I’ve replied to most effectively have been the ones that I’ve left for a day and then come back to.
– Have a commenting policy
As I write this I’ve just realised that I don’t have a commenting policy! I’ll fix that sharpish, though, because a commenting policy is important in setting expectations. Will you accept swearing in your comments? Best to tell people if the answer is no. Will you accept personal attacks? Again, it’s good to let people know the lay of the land before they comment on your blog. If nothing else, having a written policy gives you vital backup if you ever decide you need to remove or edit a comment or, the ultimate sanction, block a user altogether.
Edit: I now have a commenting policy here.
– Remember, you don’t have to take abuse
A friend used to receive regular attacks in his comments, but chose to leave them online for the sake of “an accurate record”. He also continually allowed the same readers to leave abusive comments because he didn’t want to censor them. That was entirely his choice, but I look at it differently: you don’t have to take abuse.
I wouldn’t stand for a person walking into my house and attacking me verbally; they would be shown the door pretty quickly. It’s the same online – my blog is my online home and, while people are free to disagree with me, I wouldn’t stand for written abuse any more than I would stand for verbal. If there’s a valid criticism to be made that’s fair enough, but let’s not turn it into mud-slinging.
In the past I’ve refused even to allow abusive comments to go live (for some reason they always get caught by the spam filter), and any that have gone live had been taken down and a note put in their place explaining why the comment was removed. It’s your choice what to do, but remember that there’s no law saying you have to allow your critics free reign in your comments.
Negative comments received online almost seem worse to me than ones in person, I think because they’re written down and I can keep reading them over and over. The principles of dealing with negativity in person still apply here, though, and coupled with the points above have really helped me become better at dealing with online negativity. I hope and trust that they’ll help you too, should the need arise.
It would be great to know if you have anything you’d like to add to this. How do you deal with criticism when it arises? Have you had any situations come up that you’d like to share? As ever, feel free to do so in the comments.