The new school year is upon us! Our schools will soon be teeming with students, staff, and parents.
We will enjoy the new school year honeymoon. Teachers will be refreshed, all of the students still have A’s, and no one has misbehaved. Everyone has just arrived from Lake Wobegon “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." Happy Days, or Mayberry, are here again!
It will not last. I’m not being “a Debbie Downer.” The reality will set in soon enough; not everyone is from Lake Wobegon. Inevitably criticism will come. Some of it will be deserved, much of it will not be. Expecting and preparing for criticism are the best ways to profit from it, reduce stress, and avoid discouragement. As James Clear observes:
Christian school leaders should not be surprised that we face criticism, after all we are “only” dealing with people’s children, their money, and their religion—what could possibly go wrong?
Practical Advice for Preparing for and Responding to Criticism and Critics
An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure
This famous axiom was penned by Benjamin Franklin. When Franklin wrote this he was referring to fire prevention, which in his day was a constant threat.
In other words, if you carry the hot coals carefully you are less likely to break your neck jumping out the second floor window! The first place to start preparing for criticism “is to carry our hot coals carefully,” that is, do all we can to prevent the fire of criticism. This means that we ensure that our schools are focused on delivering a high quality service to our parents, that our classrooms are staffed with caring, competent, and Christlike professional teachers, and that everyone is deeply committed to exemplary quality, customer service and proactive communication. A great deal of grief and stress will be avoided by everyone doing his or her job well. Happy customers—and parents are our customers—have less reason to criticize.
Get Control of Your Biggest Critic
I don’t know about you—actually I do!—but I can receive five compliments and one criticism in a single day. Guess which one I remember and focus on? You’re right—the one criticism.
The tendency to hold onto negative criticism is natural for most people. According to Roy Baumeister et al we remember negative emotions much more strongly. In a research paper titled, Bad Is Stronger Than Good, Baumeister and his colleagues summarize academic studies that prove that we are more likely to remember negative criticism than praise. In fact, Baumeister and his team assert that it takes about five positive events to make up for one negative event. That is certainly my experience!
I am convinced that to one degree or another we are fundamentally insecure and beset with pride. Insecurity and pride inevitably cause us to focus on that which threatens either—which criticism always does. As James Clear puts it: “It’s easier to complain about the outside critics, but the biggest critic in your life usually lives between your own two ears.”
Relax, admit you are not perfect nor is your school, swallow your pride, and seek to learn from the criticism. There may be boulders or grains of truth in the searing criticism that can profit you and your schools. You may have to pry open the oyster but the pearl of truth and wisdom is probably there.
Solomon’s advice? Don’t be stupid! His bluntness makes me chuckle!
Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.” Proverbs 12:1
He also offers the following sage advice:
Poverty and disgrace come to him who ignores instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is honored. Proverbs 13:18
A fool despises his father's instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is prudent. Proverbs 15:5
The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. Proverbs 15:31
Another way of thinking about this is to reflect on Steven Covey’s advice to“seek first to understand and then to be understood,” a paraphrase of James’s command: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”Our natural tendency when criticized is to defend ourselves and/or our schools or to deflect the criticism by minimizing it or blaming others or circumstances. Self-justification and deflection are as old as Adam and Eve. However, if we are to allow reproof to make us “honored, prudent, and wise” we must listen to it—which means shutting our mouths and quieting our minds to genuinely listen to our critic. He may have something profitable to tell us.
DEVELOP ALLIGATOR SKIN BUT MAINTAIN A TENDER HEART
Thin skinned people are almost always in turmoil—external and internal. They simply cannot let something “go.” They feel compelled to react or they collapse into a heap of self-pity or self-doubt, or both. Neither response is helpful. In fact, being thinned skinned only invites more criticism—of our reaction to criticism. It is a vicious cycle.
Don’t take it personally—even if it was a personal attack. Over the years I’ve learned to develop alligator skin while, by God’s grace, maintaining a tender heart. Nine times out of ten, the person “sharing a concern” is not attacking you—although it may feel that way. She is upset about a situation and is “taking it out on you” or merely venting anger and frustration. Learn to “take it” without reacting. Develop empathy even if in the final analysis you disagree with the criticism. As you are listening to the criticism, remember Solomon’s wise counsel, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1) In short, respond but don’t react.
NURTURE AND PRACTICE EMPATHY
Maintaining a tender heart nurtures empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is to put ourselves in their shoes and consider things from their perspective. Chad Fowler from Lifehacker suggests the following benefits from practicing empathy:
- You will be more likely to treat the people you care about the way they wish you would treat them.
- You will better understand the needs of people around you.
- You will more clearly understand the perception you create in others with your words and actions.
- You will understand the unspoken parts of your communication with others.
- You will better understand the needs of your customers at work.
- You will have less trouble dealing with interpersonal conflict both at home and at work.
- You will be able to more accurately predict the actions and reactions of people you interact with.
- You will learn how to motivate the people around you.
- You will more effectively convince others of your point of view.
- You will experience the world in higher resolution as you perceive through not only your perspective but the perspectives of those around you.
- You will find it easier to deal with the negativity of others if you can better understand their motivations and fears.
- You will be a better leader, a better follower, and a better friend.
That’s quite a list!
FOCUS ON THE ROAD, NOT THE WALL
James Clear offers this advice:
While we should listen empathetically to criticism, we should not become fixated on it. Glean what you can, fix what you should, and then move on. Focusing on the criticism or the criticizer will only cause you to hit the wall—which is bad for you, for him, and for your school.
All honeymoons must come to an end. Relish the honeymoon of the new school year but prepare for criticism and critics. If you do, you will have a better year and substantially less stress!