Criticism hurts, especially the non-constructive kind. We tend to stay away from such critics. But is that the wisest choice? Should we draw close to them instead of pulling away from them?
Murray Bowen, the father of family systems, coined the phrase “non-anxious presence.” He used this term to describe a personal quality that when a leader exhibits it, can keep a family or a group’s overall emotional reactivity and anxiety down. He and others suggest that leaders should not cut off from critics, but should actually stay connected to them in a calm way.
What does a non-anxious leader look like?
- can truly listen to another, even if he or she is bearing bad news or criticism
- can hold his emotions in check when in the hot seat
- seldom gets defensive
- can acknowledge the emotions of his critic
- will calmly and courageously respond instead of reacting
Ernest Shackleton, one of the greatest explorers ever, modeled this non-anxious presence with his Antarctica expedition crew as they were marooned for over a year in 1915-1916 after their ship was crushed by the ice. His calm presence and his drawing to difficult crew members allowed him to lead them all to safety. Not one man perished. Here’s what he did.
- His photographer, Frank Hurley would feel slighted if the crew didn’t pay attention to him and would become difficult to work with. Instead of isolating him, Shackleton gave him a place in his tent and often conferred with him.
- His physicist, Reginald Jamer, was an introverted academic. Shackleton feared that his personality might invite ridicule that in turn could escalate into a serious issue. He made him a bunkmate as well.
- When Shackleton selected a crew to take a lifeboat to sail from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island to assemble a rescue party for the entire crew, he selected the carpenter, McNeish. He chose him not only for his skills but also because he was concerned that McNeish could create discontent with the men who were left.
- Finally, Shackleton specifically picked two other crewmen because he felt they might cause trouble in his absence. In total, more than half of the group he chose were potential troublemakers.
So, how can we present a non-anxious presence to those with our critics or to those with whom our personalities rub? I suggest these five ideas.
- When criticized, truly try to understand the critic’s perspective. Ask questions. Really listen.
- When someone criticizes, thank them for sharing it.
- Keep a good sense of humor. Don’t allow the criticism to suck the life from you.
- Spend some social time with the critic so he can get to know you. Share some of your personal life story.
- Do something thoughtful for your critic, something that he would not expect from you.
As counter-intuitiv as this may seen, staying calmly connected to your critics can actually help you grow as a leader and move your church or organization forward.
At what point should you draw the line with criticism? That is, when should you cut if off before it truly damage you?