How to Handle Criticism

The other day, I was criticized (I know you find it hard to believe). I got an email that was rather rude and well, nasty. I wish I could say these kinds of things were out of the ordinary, but they’re not. Criticism is a fact of life.

If you’re in any kind of leadership, you’ll attract criticism. I used to think it was only pastors who got treated this way, but now I know just about everybody, in some form or fashion, deals with anger directed at them for who they are or what they’ve done.

Social media has only made this worse. For some reason, people feel emboldened to say things in email things we’d never say face to face.

So, if criticism is a fact of life, how do we deal with it?

Here’s how I’ve learned to respond. It may not be the perfect system, but it works for me. Perhaps it’ll work for you.

First, when I hear (or read) the criticism, I ask myself, “Is it true?”

Whether I like to admit it or not, sometimes the criticism is true and even deserved. If true, I own it. If part of it is true, I own that part and release the rest. But sometimes, the messenger may be rude and hateful . . . and right. God’s messengers aren’t always angels of light.

But what if it’s not true? Then I let it go. Just because someone has dumped something on me doesn’t mean I have to keep it. I’ve learned that I can reject the message without rejecting the person. If I hear them out—if I really listen—I’ve valued them as a person without necessarily having to agree with their message.

Second, I ask myself, “Could this person be trying to tell me something else?”

Sometimes, people in pain sound angry, but they’re just hurting more than they can say. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had that started in anger but ended up being pastoral care. Especially if you’re a minister, don’t let someone’s anger push you away before you have a chance to really hear what’s on their heart.

Third, I try not to get defensive.

The person criticizing me really can’t take anything important from me (or you). At the end of the conversation, Jesus will still love me. My wife will still love me and so will my sons and their wives . . . and most of my friends. I’m free to remain open to truth . . . no matter how God brings it to me. I’ve found there’s very little risk in doing this.

Lastly, I deal with the criticism once.

I don’t keep going over and over the same conversation either in my head or with the other person. Once I’ve dealt with it, I move on.

If the other person wants to keep on talking about it, then let them. Perhaps I haven’t really heard them and they have a reason they want to keep on talking. But if I have heard them, I try to understand why they keep going over the same thing again and again (which is something else entirely) and help them move on.

One final word: you can’t spend all of your time responding to critics. You would never get anything done.

Be polite. Be loving and prayerful, but don’t lose focus.

Jesus has called you to a mission. He warned us there would be critics. So, don’t be surprised when there are.