How Well Do You Handle Criticism?

As ministry leaders, at some point all of us will be criticized: either for our work or for who we are as a person; either publicly, privately, or when we are not present. No matter the reason or the source or the situation, criticism cuts deep because each of us has a fundamental desire to be loved, accepted, and respected just as we are.

Given that criticism is inevitable, it is important to learn how to handle it. “The key player is not the giver, but the receiver,” note Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in their book, Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. Through their research, Stone and Heen realized that most interpersonal skills training around the world focused on how to give feedback (including criticism) rather than on how to receive it. However, we can only control our own actions and reactions. Therefore, instead of expecting others to change how they deliver criticism, it benefits us to learn how to better receive it.

In most instances, the best initial response is to take a deep breath and a step back. Let your first emotions subside, then prayerfully consider these three factors:

1.   The source.

Who uttered the criticism, and what is their relationship to you? Was it a stranger? A distant acquaintance? A member of your congregation? A supervisor? A colleague? A close friend? What might be their motivation? Was it intended to be helpful, or to tear down? As best you can, try to understand their feelings and perspective. (The best way to do this is to actually ask, if possible, rather than ascribe motive.)

2.   The truth.

What was said? No, really: what was actually communicated? Note that this is different from what you heard or felt—although you need to be honest about those as well. Stone and Heen note that criticism can set off emotional responses based on one of three triggers: Truth Triggers (the content of the criticism), Relationship Triggers (the relationship between giver and receiver), and Identity Triggers (how it makes us feel about ourselves). Take some time to identify what trigger(s) might be at play in your situation, and recognize the human tendency to downplay our weaknesses and overemphasize our strengths.

Next, do your best—perhaps with the help of an objective third party—to identify reality in relationship to these triggers. Is there any truth to the criticism? What is the reality of your relationship with the criticizer? And most importantly, what is the reality of your identity as a child of God and your calling as a follower of Christ?

3.   Your response.

Once you have reflected on the source and the truth about a particular criticism, you can determine the appropriate response. Perhaps the words stung but they were uttered by a faithful friend (Proverbs 27:6); if so, the proper response might be to thank that person. Maybe the criticism was blatantly untrue, and you need to decide whether to ignore it or confront it. Perhaps you realize there are larger dynamics at play, such as organizational power structures or perceived personal threats to status, control, or comfort. In those types of situations, you must consider when, where, and how to wisely and lovingly communicate truth. Or perhaps you recognize that your initial reaction was rooted in your own fears and insecurities, and that you need to work on your own emotional and spiritual health. 

By focusing on our own reactions and learning how to better handle criticism, we can take much of the negative power—if not the initial sting—out of criticism. 

When is the last time you were criticized?
How did you handle it? What did you learn from that experience?

Angie Ward