The Blessing & Curse of Criticism: Part 2

Dr. Eric Herrstrom concludes his two part series on how we can handle criticism.

In Part One of the article we looked at all the ways criticism comes to us and how the timing is rarely good for us to deal with…we said:

  • Criticism never comes at a good time. 
  • Criticism often comes when it is least deserved. 
  • Criticism often comes from those least qualified to give it. 
  • Criticism can turn into a personal attack.

So, how do we handle criticism based on David’s example from 2 Samuel 16.5-23?

First, let’s respond, rather than react. Let me say this: We are usually way too quick in concluding what criticism is valuable and what criticism is not. David’s top warrior, Abishai, makes a reaction (v. 9). He’s ready to take Shimei’s head off, literally! David makes a response (v. 10-12). Watch for the cynic in you. There’s a part of us that’s always tempted to reply to the cynics with an even deeper cynicism. If you always listen to negative voices, you’ll accomplish nothing. However (and this is a big ‘however’), the more you hear negative voices around you, and the longer you lead, the easier it is to become cynical yourself. If you’re not careful, responding to the cynics around you can deepen the cynic within you. The point is this: Be discerning about who you’re hearing from…discerning enough to know when to listen and respond, and when to listen and just move on. And while you’re doing that, fight the cynic inside you. Every. Single. Day. Critics react. Return to hope again and again. Keep trusting, Keep believing. Keep making progress.

Second, keep criticism in proper perspective. I don’t know about you, but for me, one criticism seems like an army’s criticism. We can blow it out of proportion quickly. I get insecure and worried real easy. Most of the time, if you’ll respond to criticism quickly and appropriately, you can mitigate those feelings. Note that Abishai was focusing on Shimei, the critic (v. 9). David was focusing on the Lord (v. 11). David looked at the whole situation, not just the critic. We have a hard time keeping criticism in proper perspective when we’re only focused on our own feelings/ego. (Side-note: If you can’t put criticism in its proper perspective, it will sabotage joy in whatever you’re doing.) So when you’re sorting through the various voices that have come your way, consider the source. It’s not that all negative opinions are bad opinions. Sometimes what you’re saying or doing needs correction in whole or in part. The best critiques come from people who are wanting the same thing as you and the church. That kind of critique can be very valuable, because it comes from someone who’s in the game and seeking to better you/church. It may just be a different road. They’re the kind of people you can build the future of your church or organization on. So lean-in and listen. Cynics never change the world. They just tell you why the world won’t change.

Third, look for God’s purpose in every criticism. God is always more interested in your response to the situation than the situation itself. Two things to consider. One, David recognized the possibility God was behind the criticism (v. 10-11). And, David expected a blessing if he was being criticized unjustly (v. 12).  

So, look for any truth you can find. All that said, your critics are probably never entirely wrong. When you hear criticism, ask what part of it might be valid. Maybe the idea isn’t great after all. Or perhaps it’s a great idea, but you could have angled it differently, or delivered it in a more helpful or respectful way. We can learn from anyone, and we should have the humility to do so. Even your critics. Don’t fall into the egotistical trap of dismissing valid critical feedback as empty cynicism. Pray about it. Talk about it with a trusted friend. Learn and grow. Self-awareness is the key to emotional intelligence, and our critics help us become more self-aware. Even if there’s zero truth in what the critic is saying, at least you searched. And by asking, you lost nothing. Again, there’s usually truth in what a critic is saying. But often it takes time to see it. So, give yourself time.

Then, own what’s yours to own. Own whatever part of the issue you can. Even if they’re only 1% right. And resist the temptation to look to your fans to make you feel better. If someone was offended by what you said, try to understand why. Own that piece, even if their reaction to what you did was a terrible overreaction. Great leaders assume responsibility. Weak leaders blame. Next, reply to your critic relationally. Just because they shot off an email in the dark of night doesn’t mean you should. Reply in a way that’s more relationally connected than how they initiated things with you. Nine times out of ten, you’ll take the air out of the conflict balloon. And if you own what’s yours, you’ll be surprised at how it resolves the situation.

So, let’s avoid he ‘Blame and Shame Game’! There are no neutral or empty words. Words will either build us up or tear us down. Let’s stop thinking our way is the only way. You’ve probably already realized there are more than two solutions to almost every problem you face. Release the idea that your solution is the perfect one. Fight for “we” instead of “me”.  Fight for unity rather than fierce independence.

Criticism will either sharpen you or break you.