When the Critic Comes
Criticism is inevitable. Critics are the price of influence, the cost of leadership, the result of doing anything significant for the kingdom of God. As a result, every pastor, every Christian, should be aware that the calling to follow Christ comes with the occupational hazard of the critic.
I have had my share of criticism. I’ve been informed that I must be more appreciative of volunteers and express that thankfulness verbally and publicly. One of the elders at the church pulled me aside to tell me that I should put my phone away in meetings and do a better job at engaging with people one on one. I’ve been rebuked because my choice of analogies, or stories, used to illustrate important biblical truths have, on the rare occasion, offended one or two people in the church. On and on I could go. Criticism is a part of life. Some criticisms are fair and helpful and other criticisms are unfair and destructive. So, how should we receive, evaluate and respond to criticism?
Good Listening Goes a Long Way
In the book, The Peace Maker, Ken Sande gives some helpful principles for good listening that are crucial in the midst of conflict and criticism.
- First, Sande points out that the human mind can think four times faster than a person can speak. As a result, when listening to someone your mind may start searching for something else to do, or, in the case of receiving criticism, likely formulating your brilliant response, or stinging come-back. Sande encourages us to intentionally engage with the person and focus our mind through our body language, our willingness to make-eye contact, and the occasional response like ‘hmm’ or ‘uh-huh.’ This may sound obvious, but it isn’t easy to practice. Yet this type of open posture and these good listening skills can be extremely disarming to the critic and may even soften their own posture towards you as the conversation continues.
- Second, he points out the benefit of asking clarifying questions like, ‘are you saying…’?’ or ‘I’m confused about…’ Once again this is radically disarming for the critic and it shows that you are attempting to understand the issue being presented and are interested in getting to the core of the problem, real or imagined.
- Most significant for me, perhaps, is the issue of agreeing. Sande writes, “Agreeing with others, especially when they are pointing out your faults, is not easy, but it can play a crucial role in peacemaking. When you are talking with another person, first listen for the truth, resisting the temptation to defend yourself, blame others, or focus on points of disagreement. Ask yourself ‘is there any truth in what he or she is saying?’ If your answer is ‘yes,’ acknowledge what is true and identify your common ground before moving to your differences. Doing so is a sign of wisdom and maturity.”
This is great advice for when we are hearing criticism. But how do we evaluate criticism? I will discuss this matter in my next blog post.
 This constructive piece of criticism is why I now have a sticky note reminder on my office wall that says, ‘Be nicer, be thankful.’ It is actually right next to a Martin Luther quote, which says, “I did not start the reformation. All I did was preach the word of God and drink beer. The word of God did the reforming.” I love that quote. And, oh yah, people have criticized me for that too. Beer bigots.  Ken Sande, The Peace Maker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1991), 169