An inevitable part of life is dealing with criticism. Everyone has critics. It is absolutely impossible to make 100% of the people in your life happy any of the time. Our lives are incredibly interconnected. What blesses one may somehow offend another. But part of engaging life with vigor is to rub people the wrong way occasionally, whether you mean to or not. When someone criticizes you, there are a lot of ways you could respond. Here are a few types of responses that I’ve found to be wise much of the time.
1. Give people space to process their feelings and thoughts
On many occasions, what has initially sounded to me like criticism is really just a person experiencing something new who needs to process it verbally. I typically think a lot before I speak, because I process things internally. But many people have to talk through things in order to think about them. When they approach you with a concern, go ahead and say, “Tell me more.” There may not even be a problem requiring action, only an adjustment needed to something new.
If the issue at hand required you weeks, months, or even years to adjust to, it is reasonable to expect that other people will need some time, too. Be gracious with them and try to believe that they mean well. Let them talk it out with you.
2. Choose to grow through the criticism
When we’ve been criticized, it is so easy to apply a label to our critic, put them in a box, and pretend like we don’t care what they think. (That we’re reacting at all says we’re probably hurting more than we’d want to admit.) But here’s the thing about criticism: There may be some truth in what your critic is telling you.
Usually, when I’ve been freshly reprimanded, the person who’s been harsh is not someone I’m anxious to talk to more in the near future, especially if I don’t believe them to be particularly wise. But I’ve made it a point that when I receive a critique, I have a couple of trusted friends at my church who know me well to whom I bring the criticism. I say, “Even though I didn’t like hearing this, I want your honest opinion on whether there is some part of this that may be true. Do I have a blindspot I need to be more careful about?” Proverbs teaches that when we are open to learning from correction, this posture helps us grow to be wise.
3. Make a pastoral move
When you are a leader, it is so crucial that especially when you know that your decisions and actions are off-putting to some of the people you lead, you stay connected to them. If you and I have always grabbed lunch on Tuesdays, but on Sunday we had a disagreement, we should still plan on grabbing lunch next Tuesday. Unless there is significant wrongdoing or big reasons why the relationship ought to be severed, our default plan should be to stay close and connected.
The truth is, a lot of people who are prone to lash out are actually unhappy in some way with their lives. In fact, I can say at this point in my ministry that 100% of the time when I’ve been chewed out by someone, the thing I was getting chewed out about was never the real problem. It was only ever a symptom of a deeper issue; usually, something within them causing stress and anxiety about their life.
My friend Jarrod Robinson shared a bit of wisdom with me that he received from his father. As I remember it, a person was especially upset with him over some issue and was going after him harshly. His father’s advice was, “Call and invite the man to join you for lunch so he can talk to you about the problem he’s having with you. Tell him to please put his concerns in writing so that you can have more time to read them and study the issue more yourself. Then, when he meets you, take the information that he gives you, thank him for it, and then try to talk to him about how things are going in his life and what you can be praying about.”
An angry person is usually a hurting person. Make a pastoral move and you might be able to work on the real problem, rather than the symptom. In the story Jarrod told me, the man did bring along some things in print, and when Jarrod made the move pastorally to learn how things were in the man’s life and family, it opened a healthy door for conversation and healing. They never even talked about the “issue.” In one simple conversation, your critic could become your ally. God’s children should be conspicuously known as peacemakers. People will cut you a lot of slack if they know and believe that you care about them.
4. Stay committed to what is right
If you’re doing the right thing, eventually your character will win out. And if it doesn’t win out in the court of public opinion, at least you’ll be able to live with your conscience.
Especially if you are part of a group of leaders who’ve made a decision, based on serious study, thought, prayer, and interactions with the people you lead, it is important that you stay committed to what you believe is right.
When a group of people is experiencing anxiety over change, they will look to their leaders to interpret what is happening. People assume that their leaders know more than they do about what is going on. If you as a leader are wishy-washy and keep flip-flopping or sending mixed signals, they will think, “That person knows a lot more than I do about what’s going on behind the scenes. If he/she is panicking then it’s probably even worse than I knew about!” On the other hand, if the leaders stay calm, connected, and committed, they will think, “That person knows a lot more than I do about what’s going on behind the scenes. They seem to think it’s all going to be ok. Things are probably fine.”
Your presence as a leader will either provide a solid foundation on which your people can find their footing, or it will further destabilize the situation. Are you committed and stable, or are you reactive and cowering? Whatever you are, your people will be able to tell. People who believe they can bully you into conformity with their desires will absolutely try to do this. If the criticism arose from you acting on principle–and be honest with yourself about this, then be wary of compromising your principles, no matter how people feel about you.
5. Find value in knowing you are making a difference
Many musicians have commented on how they know they’ve finally “made it” when their music has been parodied by Weird Al Yankovic. Parody, lampooning, and even criticism are ways of saying that someone matters.
If someone is criticizing you, it means:
- They know who you are
- They have some awareness of your values and priorities
- They can tell that you are accomplishing things
- They think you are capable of making a larger impact, perhaps even in ways they are not
Obviously, you can also receive criticism for doing nothing or accomplishing too little (in which case, see point #2). But if you are being criticized for what you’ve done, try to take some peace in knowing that in the world where this person lives, you matter. If you didn’t, they wouldn’t be talking about you.
What would you add?
I wish I could say it were true that I always respond with grace, maturity, and composure when I’m criticized. Just like you, I have good days and bad days.
What would you add to this list?
What has helped you to handle criticism productively?