Sunday, July 31, 2011

Thoughts on Critics

As I sit here on vacation I find that my mind has time to reflect on many things that are pushed into the corners during the usual busyness of my life. I was sifting around in those corners today and came across a couple thoughts on critics and criticism that I had conjured up and set aside for a better time. That better time is now, so here goes.

We all receive criticism. Maybe its the driver behind you who doesn't like your driving and lets you know with an annoying honk. Maybe its your kids who seem more and more to be experts on everything and never miss a chance to let you know just how lame you are. Maybe its more serious than either of these because it happens at work when your boss or your customers start complaining about your work or customer service. Maybe its your spouse, or your neighbor, or even a close friend who gets frustrated and goes off on you. Then again maybe it isn't personal criticism. Maybe its someone who starts complaining about your company or your town or something else that you've poured your heart into. Maybe the criticism is aimed at someone you love and respect, or even as some ideology or platform you support. No matter the package it comes in, we all are on the receiving end of criticism, and understand that critics are all around us just waiting for the chance to show how wrong we are, and how much better we'd be if we adopted their view of things.

Every weekend I stand up before over 2000 people and preach. And each of them has the right to be critical. Add to that the fact that, in the public eye, I'm responsible for everything that goes on at Grace Baptist Church, and I seem to be fair game for criticism of all kinds. And then I go and write an opinion column for the local newspaper and that opens me up to a whole new arena of critics. By nature I have always assumed that people would both like and agree with me. What's not to like? LOL But apparently I say and do things that others don't like, or at least think could be vastly improved. So, what to do? What strategy can I employ that will take the inevitable criticism that comes my way and both keep it from being a grave discouragement, and turn it into a useful tool?

I've come up with some rules I try to follow, and even as I write this I realize that some will now be able to critique these rules and the way I employ them. O well ...

Rule #1: Consider the comment before considering the source.

 By this I mean that in every criticism there may be some truth that needs to be heard and learned. Even if it comes from a recalcitrant, closed-minded, ignorant, venomous, and well-known enemy, there still might be some truth to it.  I can't let "commitment bias" keep me from benefitting from what truth there may be in the criticism. And I can't let the fact that the critic is an idiot keep me from finding whatever necessary truth there may be in the criticism.

Rule #2: Recognize that what is being said is not usually the real problem.

I have found that people most often criticize a "presenting symptom" which they feel represents what is really wrong. They probably aren't going to tell me what the real problem is at first, but they want me to ask them.  An example: Every year on certain political holidays I get critical emails asking why we didn't sing the National Anthem or some other patriotic song in our weekend worship services. But the real problem is that they think patriotism is dying, and that we as a society aren't recognizing the sacrifice our service men and women are making. Even more, those who send the emails feel that they aren't being lauded enough for their military service. It isn't really about what we sang or didn't sing; it is about their sense of personal value.

Rule #3: Criticism from those who love you carries more weight than that of those who rejoice in your shortcomings.

Some folks just don't like me. I don't know why, and it probably is the case that they don't even know me, have never really spent time with me, and don't know my heart. But they see me as representing some change, or some new idea, or some ideology, or some movement, or something they don't like.     And so I become the target of their criticism. And truthfully, they really are glad that I give them something to criticize because this allows them to feel justified in their dislike of me. They love seeing what, in their judgment, I am doing wrong. These chinks in my armor are evidence that they are right in not liking me. Now all of this doesn't mean that I don't sift through their comments to find some truth to use. What it does mean is that I don't let myself get discouraged on their account.

Over my years in ministry I have found that I just can't let myself dwell on the criticism of those trying to tear me apart. I can't stop focusing on what I have to do in order to chase down these folks and try to change their minds. I am not told by God to defend my character; I am commissioned by Him to pursue the tasks He has assigned, and to live a life that silences those trying to defame me. And if their criticism helps me improve my service to Him, so much the better. If it doesn't, I am going to flush it. In either case, I will refuse to let them rent space in my heart for very long.

On the other hand, those who are solid partners with me in the mission of Christ are vital to me and to our ministry. When they have a criticism, I consider it as new fuel for improvement.

Rule #4: Most critics just want to be heard.

I think most critics just want to express themselves, and know that they've been heard and and that their thoughts have been honorably considered. And many times they voice their criticism in the heat of some moment, and after a time of consideration, they will temper their words. If I get back to them in a few days and invite them into my world, giving them some information they maybe lacked, and as well, thanking them for their concerns, and for their insights, I find that most feel that the situation was handled well. They just wanted to be heard and valued.

Rule #5: Almost never respond to a critic via email.

I've learned the hard way that email is too quick, too prone to misinterpretation, and too easily a tool for anger and strident reprisal to be useful in dealing with critics. I do use email in dealing with ongoing critics, those I know and who know me, and with whom I have a relationship. But I have found that initially, email can be like pouring gas on a fire. Most of my critics use email, and I know that they often come with more of a sting than the writer intended. Email just doesn't allow us to express the proper level of emotion and intensity, and usually it is interpreted as more negative than is meant.

Rule #6: Where change is needed, make it; where it is not, flush the criticism.

One of the things that I've learned about criticism is that I need to deal with it within a week or so to keep it from festering. If I move too quickly, I may act rashly, but if I delay too long, it burrows into my mind and becomes a greater problem than at first because I keep ruminating on it. So, my ideal is to take a couple days (if warranted), sift out whatever helpful insights are in the criticism, devise a plan to deal with the critic, and then flush the whole thing. Life is too short to be burdened with bags and bags of unresolved criticism.

Rule #7: Be ever striving to be a better critic yourself.

As the target of criticism, I know how hurtful, how debilitating, how frustrating and discouraging, and  downright overwhelming criticism can be.  That means I ought to be the best kind of critic. I ought to pick only those spots where my criticism can make the most difference, bring the most benefit, improve something the most. And I ought to be the guy whose criticism lands with the best hope of being understood and welcomed, and not like a knife in the back. Here is an area where I greatly need improvement!

So, there you go. We all get criticized, and we all hate it. But, to the extent that we can manage it, and gain from it, just maybe we can turn criticism and critics into the stepping stones to improvement.

Hope this helps,



At 9:40 AM , Blogger Ron said...

Well said! Bet you're glad you got that off your chest. Hope you're having a delightful vacation. You're missed and loved back here.
Ron T.


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