How Not to Be Offended When Criticized

This is a follow-up article toHow To Deal Effectively with Conflict and Difficult People.

Dr. Barrett Mosbacker, PublisherOne of my favorite movies is Star Wars.  It has a compelling story, good actors, and excellent special effects. 

My favorite character in Star Wars is not the hero Luke Skywalker nor the heroine Princess Leia Organa; my favorite is a short creature called Yoda.  At a little more imagethan a foot tall, Yoda is a greenish brown fuzzy creature.  He is also a Jedi Master who teaches Luke Skywalker the Force. He's very wise, but talks seemingly backwards, verb first and noun last.  He teaches Luke to be a Jedi and drops pearls of wisdom such as "do or do not, there is no try."

Luke learns much from Master Yoda who teaches him the danger of the dark side of the Force.  One of my favorite scenes is when Yoda asks Luke, referring to the dark side, “Are you afraid?”

Luke:"I'm not afraid."
Yoda:"You will be!"

I’m not Yoda but my question to you is, “Have you ever been offended by the criticism of others?”  Have your decisions been questioned, your competence questioned, or your motives impugned? Have you ever been or felt shunned because of decisions that you have made as a teacher or administrator?  If not, in the words of the Jedi Master himself, “You will be!” 

Over the years I’ve encountered my share of criticism—both fair and unfair.  As we enter a new school year I thought this might be a good time to share some thoughts with you about how we can more effectively deal with this unpleasant reality of leadership.

Accept the Inevitable

imageAnyone with any level of responsibility is going to be criticized.  Consider Moses. 

Despite the fact that he gave up the riches and comforts of the King’s Court to suffer with his people and risked his own life to rescue them from slavery, as soon as the People of Israel were uncomfortable and inconvenienced, they turned on him:

And the people quarreled with Moses and said, "Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD! Why have you brought the assembly of the LORD into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle?  And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? It is no place for grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, and there is no water to drink.

Talking about being unappreciated and having your leadership questioned!  A typical “What have you done for me lately?” response!

The first step in dealing effectively with criticism is to recognize that, like conflict, criticism, is inevitable.  Criticism comes with the territory.  Needless to say, given the sensitive nature of the things we deal with and the hard truth that we are not perfect, we WILL be criticized.  There is no escape; one might as well accept it and learn how to deal with it graciously and effectively.

Trying to avoid criticism and conflict is like spitting in the wind—despite our best efforts it is going to hit us in the face!  Rather than diving for cover, pointing fingers at others, or feeling sorry for ourselves, it is wiser to accept the inevitability of criticism and to seek by God’s grace to use it for the good.

Grow Alligator Skin

Unless we have been personally offensive to someone, the criticism we receive is usually not directed to our persons.  The criticism, although voiced to us because of the role we fill, is not usually intended a personal attack.

Simply put, to lead effectively we must develop alligator image skin.  The way we react to criticism can block communication and opportunities to work together. Hurt feelings and resentment do not foster a positive or cooperative environment. At its worst, such reactions can have long-lasting negative effects on our relationships and  are corrosive to the school’s culture.

Keep in mind that the criticism we are hearing is most often directed at a real or perceived deficiency in how something was handled—the lesson, the conversation, the disciplinary action, the policy, etc.  Learning to distinguish a personal attack from a critique, even if expressed in anger, goes a long way to making it easier to deal appropriately with it.  Learning not to let the criticism get under our skin, learning to control our emotions, learning to maintain a calm reasoned composure in the face of sharp criticism, and learning to preserve relationships and unity after the criticism will go a long way to fostering peace of mind and peace within our schools.  In short, love people but have a tough hide!

Look at the Beam in Our Eye

It’s ironic; we don’t like to be criticized  but we are quick to criticize the criticizer!  I believe there are three reasons why we respond poorly to criticism:

1) Human pride:  We don’t like to admit that we made aimage mistake or worse, that we sinned.  It is much easier to criticize those (usually behind their backs) who criticize us than to admit that we were wrong.

2) Insecurity:  Most of us have spent a life-time trying to prove ourselves worthy—in school, in athletics, in appearance, in career success, in possessions.  You name it—we constantly feel the pressure to “measure up.”  Criticism implies that we don’t and that can be threatening to our sense of self-worth.

3) Our sense of justice:  We naturally and appropriately react when we believe that the criticism is unjust. 

The antidote is to ask the Lord to grant us the grace to readily acknowledge our own sins and weaknesses, to deeply believe that our worth is anchored in the fact our intrinsic worth is grounded in God’s estimate of us, and to respond appropriately to injustice. 

In other words, a little (or a lot depending on the imagecircumstances) humility goes a long way to softening the sting of criticism.  If I readily admit that I am not perfect, that I sin, that I am not always wise, that I don’t always make the right decisions, and that I am merely a  hardworking administrator with clay feet, then criticism will not be nearly so threatening or demeaning.

Be Willing to Take It--Graciously

But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Mat 5:39-48)

Matthew Henry provides a wonderful commentary for this passage:

See how it is cleared by the command of the Lord Jesus, who teaches us another lesson: “But I say unto you, I, who come to be the great Peace-Maker, the general Reconciler, who loved you when you were strangers and enemies, I say, Love your enemies,” Mat_5:44.

Though men are ever so bad themselves, and carry it ever so basely towards us, yet that does not discharge us from the great debt we owe them, of love to our kind, love to our kin. We cannot but find ourselves very prone to wish the hurt, or at least very coldly to desire the good, of those that hate us, and have been abusive to us; but that which is at the bottom hereof is a root of bitterness, which must be plucked up, and a remnant of corrupt nature which grace must conquer. Note, it is the great duty of Christians to love their enemies; we cannot have complacency in one that is openly wicked and profane, nor put a confidence in one that we know to be deceitful; nor are we to love all alike; but we must pay respect to the human nature, and so far honor all men: we must take notice, with pleasure, of that even in our enemies which is amiable and commendable; ingenuousness, good temper, learning, and moral virtue, kindness to others, profession of religion, etc., and love that, though they are our enemies. We must have a compassion for them, and a good will toward them. We are here told:

1. That we must speak well of them: Bless them that curse you. When we speak to them, we must answer their revilings with courteous and friendly words, and not render railing for railing; behind their backs we must commend that in them which is commendable, and when we have said all the good we can of them, not be forward to say any thing more. See 1Pe_3:9. They, in whose tongues is the law of kindness, can give good words to those who give bad words to them.

2. That we must do well to them: “Do good to them that hate you, and that will be a better proof of love than good words. Be ready to do them all the real kindness that you can, and glad of an opportunity to do it, in their bodies, estates, names, families; and especially to do good to their souls.” It was said of Archbishop Cranmer, that the way to make him a friend was to do him an ill turn; so many did he serve who had disobliged him.

3. We must pray for them: Pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you. Note:

(1.) It is no new thing for the most excellent saints to be hated, and cursed, and persecuted, and despitefully used, by wicked people; Christ himself was so treated.

(2.) That when at any time we meet with such usage, we have an opportunity of showing our conformity both to the precept and to the example of Christ, by praying for them who thus abuse us. If we cannot otherwise testify our love to them, yet this way we may without ostentation, and it is such a way as surely we durst not dissemble in. We must pray that God will forgive them, that they may never fare the worse for any thing they have done against us, and that he would make them to be at peace with us; and this is one way of making them so.

Easier said then done!  In fact, we can’t do it without the grace of God. Pray and cultivate the grace to respond as Jesus instructs.  Be willing to take it—graciously. 

Be Quick to Listen

As I outlined in my prior article on conflict, we must LISTEN!  Have you ever found yourself “hearing” imagebut not really listening?  Have you found yourself preparing your “defense" rather than considering the merits of what is being said?

Doing so is both unbiblical and disrespectful of the one voicing his or her concerns.  King Solomon and the Apostle James remind us:

Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (Jas 1:19-20)

A rebuke goes deeper into a man of understanding than a hundred blows into a fool. (Pro 17:10)

Steven Covey, in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” put it this way, “seek first to understand and then to be understood.”  This requires that we honestly listen to the criticism.  Here are some questions to ask as you listen:

  • What can I/we learn from this?
  • What can we do better/differently?
  • Where is the wheat in the chaff?
  • How can I minister to this individual? How can I be helpful?  How can I encourage him or her?
  • What can I do to foster a positive relationship?
  • How should I follow-up this conversation?

Don’t Discount the Message Because of the Messenger

Some people simply have more credibility than others.  Our tendency, with some justification, is to discount the image chronic complainer, the “high maintenance” parent or employee, or to miss the message because of the inappropriate communication or behavior of the messenger.

Don’t.  It is important to look for the nugget of truth that may lay beneath the harsh or emotional criticism.  Listen to the content of what is being communicated, not the way it is being delivered.

This also applies to the “anonymous” letter.  In years past I would typically ignore anonymous letters.  My reaction was, “if they don’t have the moral courage to sign their name, I don’t have time to read it!”  Rather smug, don’t you think?

I have changed my perspective on anonymous communications.  I still give less weight to anonymous letters but I do read them and I do look for that nugget of truth that--notwithstanding the moral cowardice demonstrated by an anonymous letter—nevertheless still needs to be addressed.

Be Forgetful

I have a bad memory, which usually frustrates me, especially when I forget imagenames. However, a bad memory can be a blessing!  

What I mean is this: hear it, deal with it, forget it!  Don’t rehearse the offense in your mind, don’t nurture the anger or hurt feelings, and don’t talk about it.  Deal with any legitimate issues being brought to your attention, even if that is your own failings, work to address the problem(s), and then move on.  Nothing is gained by allowing discouragement or bitterness to take root.  We have more important things to do than nurse our wounds.

Putting it All Together

Criticism thumbs down2 

No one likes to be criticized and when we are it is easy to be offended.  It is, however, possible to deal with criticism without being offended—at least not for long-by applying the following principles:

  • Criticism is Inevitable-Expect and Accept It
  • Grow Alligator Skin
  • Look at the Beam in Our Eye
  • Be Willing to Take it Graciously
  • Be Quick to Listen
  • Don’t Discount the Message because of the Messenger
  • Be Forgetful

Our Most Important Lesson

The way we respond to criticism may be one of the most powerful lessons we ever teach.  We can give wonderful speeches and inspiring devotionals but the demonstration of the Fruit of the Spirit when dealing with criticism may be what the Lord uses to minister and instruct others.  If actions speak louder than words then how we deal with those who are criticizing us is more important than our pronouncements.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:22-23)

I encourage you to share your suggestions on dealing with criticism with our readers by leaving a comment to this article.