A Simple Way to Deal with Criticism

In the heat of the moment when someone criticizes us, it’s easy to react and make things worse. Too often when I’ve received a critical comment at church I’ve gotten defensive or said something in return that I wish I could take back. Has that every happened to you? When that happens, what can we do in the moment? Years ago I learned a simple acronym that can help us respond appropriately to criticism. Here it is.

Illustration depicting cut out letters arranged to form the word critic.

Respond to criticism with LEARN.

  • L listen: Simply hear the person out.
  • Eempathize: Acknowledge how they feel.
  • Aapologize: Even if you aren’t responsible for the problem, an apology for their experience may help ameliorate ill feelings.
  • Rrespond: Explain that you will attempt to address the issue if at all possible.
  • Nnotify:  Let those who can potentially fix the problem know about it.

The next time someone in your church brings you a complaint, LEARN from it instead of reacting to it.

What has helped you respond appropriately to criticism?

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Should you get Closer to your Critics?

What’s happening in this picture? I used this in a recent talk and asked the church audience to give me their answers. Their responses included… two people are angry, they are upset, they aren’t talking, they disagree about something. One lady came up to me afterwards and said, “I think it means that she was right and he was wrong.” I chuckled at that one. In a phrase, this is what I see: two people, for whatever reasons, have cut themselves off from each other, both physical and emotionally. Leaders do that sometimes to their critics and naysayers. Here’s why that’s not a good idea and how we can stay closer to our critics.

emotional cut off copy

One of the greatest survival stories ever began in August 1914 when the famous explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, sailed with twenty-seven men on his ship the Endurance. He planned to lead the first expedition across the Antarctic continent. However, his ship got stuck in heavy sea ice which eventually crushed it off the coast of Antarctica. Stuck on four feet of ice over mile-deep water, Shackleton and his crew survived 635 days and nights with poor shelter and limited rations in some of the harshest conditions known. Amazingly, on foot and by small boat he eventually got to safety and then rescued his entire crew. You can read the full story in the great book, Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.

What was the key to this amazing story of survival? It was a quality of Shackleton’s leadership presence. The ship’s surgeon, Alexander Macklin, captured one of the most important characteristics Shackleton embodied that contributed to the men’s survival. He wrote in his diary, “Shackleton at this time showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment; he told us simply and calmly (my emphasis) that we must winter in the Pack, explained its dangers and possibilities; he never lost his optimism.”[1]

Shackleton illustrates a quality I believe leaders need: to maintain a calm presence with their critics, dissidents, and naysayers. In his time of crisis, he calmly connected to his men, especially the dissidents and potential troublemakers. It made the difference between life and death.

It’s a counter intuitive approach. Staying reasonably and calmly connected is the better way to lower the relational tension and personal anxiety we feel toward our critics. It can improve those relationships and it doesn’t mean that we become their best friends or that we let them run over us.

So, who in your ministry is your biggest detractor today?

  • An old-timer who has been in the church 40 years?
  • A board member who seems to always take a contrarian view?
  • A staff person who isn’t performing?
  • A volunteer who doesn’t like you?
  • Or?

Shackleton’s secret was that instead of pushing away his detractors he actually drew closer to those men. He made two of his troublmakers his bunkmates in his tent. And when he left on a lifeboat to assemble a rescue party, he took 3 men whom he felt might cause trouble with the men who were left.

Here’s what I suggest to maintain a calm presence with such people.

  1. Recognize the power of emotional and relational force fields.
    • Just as magnets have force fields around them, leaders carry emotional force fields as well. Our demeanor, words, and vocal tone all carry power. We can draw people to us or push them away (like the same poles on a magnet do). Great leaders monitor and control their emotional force fields because others will sense our tone. It’s a social neuroscience concept theory of mind that states that we can somewhat intuit the emotions, intentions, and thoughts of another. Although it’s not mind reading and we often misread other’s intentions, it is what some call our sixth sense. Great leaders recognize this and create welcoming rather than repelling emotional force fields, especially toward their critics.
  2. Take the initiative.
    • With our critics and naysayers, it’s easier to keep our distance even though we know relationship tension exists. A good leader, however, will take the initiative to reach out to a critic, even though he’d prefer that if, “they have a problem, they should come to me.” A simple conversation like this can potentially ease tension… “Hi, John, just wanted to check in with you. How are things going?”
  3. Practice empathy.
    • Empathy is the ability to step inside another’s shoes and see life from their perspective. Try stepping into your critic’s shoes to see you from their perspective. You might gain new understanding about what lies at the root of their resistance. Daniel Golemen (the emotional intelligence guy) believes there are three kinds of empathy. I describe them in this way: knowing empathy (we cognitively know our critic’s distress), feeling empathy (we feel our critic’s distress), and doing empathy (we are moved to help relieve our critic’s distress). Which kind do you need to express toward your critic?
  4. Become more self-aware.
    • Related to number 1 above, becoming more self aware refers to recognizing the power of emotional contagion, the concept that explains how others catch our emotions. If you act distant or cold toward someone, they tend to mirror your behavior. If you act friendly and open toward others, they tend to respond in like kind. Neuroscientists have discovered a unique set of brain cells called mirror neurons that play a role in emotional contagion. These brain circuits prompt us to subconsciously mimic goal directed behavior we see in others. Ask yourself how you come across to your critics. Would you want them to relate to you as you do to them?

Again, who’s the person in your life or ministry that criticizes or hassles you the most? Which of these four suggestions if applied might make that relationship better?

Even though we may not feel we have the strength or emotional reserve to relate in a positive way toward our critics, the Bible tells us that every follower of Jesus has the Holy Spirit. He promises to give us everything we need to relate in wise and healthy ways toward our critics. The Apostle Paul reminded us of this when he wrote these words.

You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you (Rom. 8.9, NIV)

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[1] Marcuson, Leaders Who Last, kindleKloc. 1117.

5 Ways to Keep Critics at Bay

Criticism in ministry is never fun. And we often try to avoid our critics thinking that by keeping our distance, we can keep their criticism as bay. However, the opposite may be true. I’ve found that staying closer to them may actually lessen their criticism. Consider these five ways to keep your critics closer to you and their criticism away from you.

Critic concept.

 Take the initiative.

Make a list of critics in your ministry that you currently avoid and with whom you need to (re) connect. Pray that they will respond to your initiatives to reach out. Ask the Lord to give you the courage to act. And determine the best way to reach each individual. Should you schedule a breakfast or lunch with him? If you do, be sure to communicate that you don’t have an agenda but that you simply want to connect. Or should you seek her out after a church service to chat? Perhaps you should perform a simple act of kindness.

I once dealt with a leader who would often cast a wary eye toward me. It seemed that I could never meet his expectations. He rarely affirmed me, and although he was not necessarily an open critic, his emotional field around me was seldom an attracting one. I knew his wife enjoyed gardening, and loved unique gardening tools. I saw an interesting hand tool in a flight magazine on a plane trip, so I ordered it for her. A few days after she got it, this leader gave me one of the few compliments I ever got from him; he thanked me for my thoughtfulness toward his wife and seemed truly appreciative. That small act of kindness helped keep me connected to this critic.

As you increase the frequency of contact with your critics, you will build trust. Someone once said, “Trust is a peculiar resource; it is built rather than depleted by use.” One final thought: some critics are so caustic that you need to keep your distance. Remember, you don’t need to maintain contact with every critic. Use your judgment.

Leverage the power of story.

Learn to share your story regularly with others. Let your critics know who you are and what makes you tick. That doesn’t mean you must share every intimate detail. Rather, open your heart to let others in. Be vulnerable to them. At the same time, learn your critic’s stories as well. In a non­intrusive way, express curiosity about his life and his story without overdoing it with questions. God may give you a broader perspective and insight to what fuels his criticism.

Put yourself in your critic’s shoes. Instead of mentally tagging her with a negative description, reframe your self-talk. Ask yourself, “I wonder why Jill acts likes she does. I wonder what she brings from her past that could be fueling her criticism.” Adopt a learning mindset rather than a judging one.

One way to share your story is through passion. I’m an introvert, and although I have good people skills, I’m not a party person. If given a choice, I’d rather read, be in a quiet place, connect one on one and stay out of the limelight. When on stage, though, I communicate passion. But I’ve realized that in day-to-day encounters, my introverted personality can sometimes convey to others that I lack passion, especially to extroverted leaders. When trying to connect with extroverted leaders, sometimes I’ve tried to force passion, which unfortunately can come across as emotional reactivity. I’m now learning to communicate more of my heart and passion through story, while staying true to how God created me. I now share more of my life when I preach and when I lead meetings. So, if you’re an introvert like me, you’ll probably have to work harder to communicate passion than if you’re an extrovert.

Become more self-aware.

When someone criticizes you, learn to become more aware of both your internal and your external responses. Although we should never let others crush us with unhealthy criticism, when we listen with an open heart to constructive feedback, the critic’s anxiety often lessens. The Bible says, “You can trust a friend who corrects you” (Prov 27: 6 CEV).

Our body language, facial expressions and eye contact can make things either worse or better. Neuroscientists have discovered something called mirror neurons. This part of our brain sub­consciously mimics what we see in others. If your critic sees a relaxed, caring persona or a smile, this subconsciously encourages him to mirror you. The writer of Proverbs understood this principle long before neuroscientists did, wisely noting, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov 15: 1)

To strengthen self-awareness, try to listen to others without mentally framing your response. Catch yourself if you begin to form a response in your mind while your critic is still talking. Ask clarifying questions so you can see your critic’s viewpoint. Toward the end of such a conversation, ask the person, “Is there anything else?” Then thank him for giving you feedback, even though you may disagree. If the conversation warrants a later response, tell him you’d like to think about what he said and get back with him later. And don’t forget to do so.

Keep your critics in the loop.

Don’t keep significant critics in the dark. Where appropriate, include them when you make decisions. “Explain your decisions. Don’t just make them.” (Bradbury and Greaves, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, Kindle loc. 1886.)  Explain the why behind your decisions, and acknowledge the impact they may have on others. In doing do, you are subtly engaging critics in the decision process. At the same time, acknowledge your critic’s emotions when you make a decision about which he may have disagreed.

If you make a decision contrary to his wishes and you sense he’s angry with you because he avoids you at church or through some other behavior, a simple call to check in could make huge deposits into that relationship. A conversation might go like this: “Jim, I sense your concern about the decision I made. I respect you and don’t want our relationship to suffer because of it. Would you like to talk about it sometime?” One caveat though. Don’t allow inappropriate behavior. Staying connected does not preclude biblical confrontation if your critic becomes divisive or begins to hinder the ministry. Staying connected involves both calm and courage.

Provide a face-saving “out” if necessary.

If possible, avoid putting your critic into a situation where he loses face in front of others. I once came across so strong to a critic in a meeting that the only way he could save face was to power up and react, which he did. From that point on, our emotionality hijacked our meeting. Scipio, a Roman general, understood this principle. He “advised giving opponents a ‘Golden Bridge,’ an avenue of retreat, arguing that an enemy with no way out will fight with unprecedented ferocity.” (Perkins, Leading on the Edge, p. 111.)

How do you feel about staying connected to your critics? What has helped you manage relationships with critics?

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Used with permission of InterVarsity Press, Stone, Charles (2014-01-01). People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval-Motivated Leadership (Kindle Locations 2062-2098). Kindle Edition.

3 Qualities Necessary to Learn from our Critics

Nobody likes to be criticized, at least not at first. Sometimes criticism is warranted. Sometimes it’s not. And sometimes it hard to differentiate between the two. The writer of Proverbs implies that we should learn from and even seek out the beneficial wounds from a critic. Wounds from a sincere friend are better than many kisses from an enemy. (Pv 27.6) But when we need to heed a message from a critic, how can we position ourselves so that we can benefit from it? Below I suggest three ways we can do so.

Feedback Concept
  1. Stay teachable. We must be willing to let others tell us what we may not want to hear. We must cultivate an open, non-defensive heart. I’m trying to create such a culture among our staff through one of our key staff values… Continual growth and learning: We welcome constructive feedback. For a list of our staff values, read this blog post.
  2. Keep accountable. One way to stay open to the message from a critic is to develop a mentoring relationship with another person and/or use a coach. I meet with my personal coach each month via FaceTime. (I explain why every pastor should get a coach here.) He is free to ask me tough questions about my life and ministry. I’m also directly accountable to the chairman of the board. Without accountable relationships, we can easily miss our blind spots. I need someone in my life, including my wife, that cares enough about me to ask those tough questions and tell me what I may not want to hear.
  3. Develop a bias toward action. Tom Peters who wrote In Search of Excellence popularized this term. It simply means do something. In other words, when a critic tells us what we don’t necessarily want to hear but need to hear, a bias toward action means that we act on it. Learning from our critics means more than assuming a listening posture. It also includes a doing posture as well. 

So the next time you get criticized, ask yourself what you need to learn from it, if it came from a less-than-friendly source get the perspective from someone who cares about you, and then act upon it.

What other quality do you believe leaders need to learn best from their critics?

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Smart Leaders stay close to their Critics

MEN WANTED FOR HAZARDOUS JOURNEY. SMALL WAGES, BITTER COLD, LONG MONTHS OF COMPLETE DARKNESS, CONSTANT DANGER, SAFE RETURN DOUBTFUL. HONOUR AND RECOGNITION IN CASE OF SUCCESS. Little did those accepted for this job out of the thousands who applied realize how true those words would eventually become.

criticism stick figure

Ernest Shackleton, a well-known explorer in the early 1900s, placed this ad in 1915 to recruit a team for his third attempt to cross the continent of Antarctica. In August of that year, he set sail with his recruits in the ship Endurance, named after his family motto: “By endurance, we conquer.” Three months later they arrived at South Georgia Island in the southern Atlantic to begin their thousand-mile trek to the Antarctic Peninsula, a trip expected to take 120 days.

More than a year earlier, Vilhjalmur Stefansson had led a different expedition to explore the Arctic in their ship, the Karluk. Both ships endured similar fates in their respective voyages. Dennis Perkins recorded these words about Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition:

The masts toppled and the sides were stove in, as shards of ice ripped the strong timbers to shreds. Frank Wild made a last tour of the dying vessel and found two crewmembers in the forecastle, fast asleep after their exhausting labor at the bilge pumps. He said, “She’s going, boys, I think it’s time to get off.” ( N. T. Perkins, Leading on the Edge, New York: AMACOM, 2000, p. 6.)

Both expeditions, a year apart, had been gripped in an icy vice that crushed their respective ships, forcing each party onto the ice and into horrific conditions. Yet similar circumstances, only poles apart, yielded dramatically different results. In the months following the Karluk’s destruction, the crew disintegrated into a conflict-­laden, self-centered group, which resulted in the death of eleven of its crew.

In contrast, Shackleton’s crew, although they too confronted harsh circumstances and conflict, emerged on dry land 634 days after the expedition began. Not a single man perished. Although they faced the same hellish conditions as Stefansson’s men did, they experienced a different fate. What made the difference? Shackleton’s calm leadership presence before his critics and naysayers. 

The ship’s surgeon, Alexander Macklin, captured this important leadership characteristic Shackleton embodied that contributed to the men’s survival.

“Shackleton at this time showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment; he told us simply and calmly that we must winter in the Pack, explained its dangers and possibilities; never lost his optimism, and prepared for winter.” (J. Marcuson, Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry, New York: Seabury Books, 2009, Kindle ebook, loc. 1117, emphasis mine)

Shackleton exemplified a key quality needed for every leader: engage your critics. In his time of crisis, he calmly connected to his men, especially the dissidents and troublemakers. It made the difference between life and death.

When our environment breeds anxiety and our critics try to stir up trouble, we can defuse this anxiety by calmly staying connected to them. Neuroscience actually verifies the biblical principle from Proverbs 15.1 that says, “a gentle answer turns away wrath.” It’s called emotional contagion. Others will catch our calmness which actually helps quiet the emotional centers in their brains responsible for anxiety and fear.

Men in Shackleton’s expedition noticed his calm, steady demeanor. When they were stuck on the ship, even one of his most pessimistic crewmen wrote these words in his journal.

“He is always able to keep his troubles under and show a bold front. His unfailing cheeriness means a lot to a band of disappointed explorers like ourselves. . . . He is one of the greatest optimists living.” (ibid, Kindle loc. 1182).

Shackleton keenly understood the importance of setting an example for his men on how to handle conflict and stress in a crisis. As you might imagine, living under such harsh conditions could easily cause arguments and disagreements. Yet those disagreements rarely disrupted unity because he developed an atmosphere that also encouraged dissent to be brought into the open.

Shackleton constantly faced four choices when confronted with dissident people, the same choices spiritual leaders face today:

  1. Pander and give in to critics to restore tranquility. Often because the critics are big givers or wield relational influence in our churches, we pander to them.
  2. Isolate or ignore critics, troublemakers and those with whom our personalities rub, thinking that if we don’t hear those voices, they will go away.
  3. Get defensive and power up to quiet the critic.
  4. Show courage and stay calmly connected to the critic.

Shackleton wisely chose the fourth option. Smart leaders do the same.

How have you managed the critics in your life?

(Taken and adapted from People-Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership by Charles Stone. Copyright (c) 2014 by Charles Stone. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com.)

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