Tips  on spiritual growth, emotional health, and relational healing.


Your Criticism Checklist: 10 Steps to Responding Wisely

Jul 14, 2015

black and white photo of hands typing on laptop

“There is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing” —Aristotle

If you lead other people, take any sort of position with conviction, or attempt anything courageous in this world, you will get criticized!

This certainty is right up there with death and taxes. Everyone has an opinion and thanks to social media, they have a platform to share it. When you decide to do something that matters, you’re doing the kind of work that’s worth forming an opinion on and discussing.

As a leader in the church, I deal with criticism regularly. From the unavoidable stuff (music style and volume) to the frustrating comments (“I’m just not getting fed”) to even the truthful critiques (“You ignore people because you’re too busy and distracted”), I’ve found it to be very difficult to discern what to do with all of this criticism.

Confession Time!

Can I make a confession? While I feel like I’m just getting started my leadership journey after nearly 20 years in campus and church settings), I’ve struggled to handle criticism well. My mistakes range from ignoring truth I didn’t want to hear to tuning people out because of their age. One of my worst moments involved getting criticized over text message and letting the conversation extend over an hour when it should’ve become a face-to-face meeting within minutes.

As I’ve struggled to learn how to receive criticism well, I’ve sought wisdom from others who are older and wiser, along with mining my failures for lessons.

Your Criticism Checklist

I’ve built this checklist of 10 steps, which has helped me avoid more mistakes, while leveraging criticism to accomplish personal growth and build momentum. I hope it is helpful for you too!

1. Pray over it.

It may seem like an odd act – praying over a harsh, critical email?! However, we need to hear from God about what to do with the honesty of other people. Ask God to reveal how you should respond. I love what Kevin Queen teaches about prayer. “Prayer isn’t the only thing we do, but it is the first thing we do.”

2. Pause and remember the 24-hour rule.

A former co-worker of mine taught me the 24 hour rule. Basically, when you get a “nasty-gram”, wait 24 hours before responding. Eccelsiastes 7:9 reminds us that “anger resides in the lap of fools.” Our initial reactions are often unhelpful. If possible, sleep on your response. Wake up, review your response and then decide “is this really worth it?”

3. Check your heart.

The state of our hearts will determine our receptivity to criticism. Asking questions like, “Am I open? Why am I defensive? Do I want to grow?”, can help clarify if we’re even willing to accept a difficult assessment.

4. Evaluate the source.

When it comes to the critic, what’s their relationship with you? Are they an acquaintance, friend, or some random person? When we can identify their level of commitment and access to us, we can often determine the intent and accuracy of the feedback. This doesn’t mean we should only listen to our friends, but the internet often enables people to say hurtful things without much nor knowledge nor fear of any relational consequences.

5. Consider the context of criticism.

I once received an email from a man who walked out of the service in which I was preaching. His nasty email the next day initially sent me spinning. Gratefully, I didn’t respond immediately and discovered where he was coming from. (See the 24-hour rule in #2) Once we sat down over coffee a few days later, his comments made more sense. While the content of his comments was frustrating, the context around it helped me understand that the email was more about a desire to connect than a disdain for our ministry philosophy.

6. Get input from one or two people you trust.

Pick a couple of wise, even-keeled friends and invite their input. At one point, I showed a critical email to a co-worker. I was so grateful I did because she had recently conversed with this person about a related subject. We were able to determine some reasons for the criticism and prep my response together. One caution to consider – don’t shop the criticism around. If you bring in too many people, you’ll just start looking for people to affirm your preferred reaction.

7. Lean in to your critics. 

This is #7 in order of action, but this is near the top in terms of priority and philosophy. My friend and former pastor Jason Whalen, regularly challenged me with this principle. Multiple experiences taught him that critics are often our best teachers. If we cultivate an openness in our heart, our critics’ feedback can often be more instructive than our fans.

8. Thank the person for being honest.

When someone risks rejection or worse to be honest with us, we owe it to them to express genuine gratitude. A simple “thank you” affirms someone who is truly trying to help and shocks someone who is looking for a fight.

9. Do important conversations offline.

There’s something about the gap created by a touch screen and pixels which makes us bolder and less inhibited. As a pastor, I’ve seen far too many electronic conversations end poorly. Nuance, context, and non-verbal cues are nearly impossible over email, texting, and social media. If the conversation could go poorly and the fallout could be detrimental, move it offline as soon as possible.

10. Ignore the trolls.

Trolls are people who intentionally stir up drama online by starting arguments or deliberately provoking others. Their goal is to get a reaction or prove a point, not advance a cause or make a difference. Our approach to trolls must be simple and clear – ignore and do not engage. In the words of author and researcher, Ed Stetzer, engaging trolls is “like wrestling a pig – you both get dirty and the pig likes it.”

Getting criticized is never fun! We all want to be liked and appreciated. We want our work and perspective to be affirmed and celebrated.

However, the discomfort of criticism often distracts us from its great value. Criticism can help us identify weaknesses and take giant leaps forward. Take my word for it – don’t miss out of the gift hidden within criticism.


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