Criticism-bane or blessing?

Criticism can be a tool for growth-for both the giver and the receiver.

Richard Cooper pastors the Belfast and Lame Seventh-day Adventist churches in Northern Ireland.

Leadership involves coping with critics. Leaders often face the challenge of personal reaction to the decisions of a committee. They frequently have to defend decisions that may not reflect their personal preference. A teacher has to face an irate parent. A personnel director has to handle the anger of the experienced worker over the mistakes of a new worker. The pastor has to cope with the scalding words of a church member who cannot understand a board decision or who feels that the pastor deliberately left some vitally important element out of the sermon.

How can we turn the potentially painful into something that helps us to grow? Is criticism always a bad thing? How can I disagree strongly, express myself clearly, and still retain the respect of those I criticize? Does the critic really have a point that I need to be aware of? I believe that criticism can be a tool for growth both personally and corporately. We need not dismiss critics as troublemakers; instead we ought to take time to look at their points of view. More growth is nurtured by open dialogue than in an atmosphere where all criticism is shut off as disloyalty. In fact, unresolved differences of opinion or a persistent failure to listen to another point of view can not only sour relationships but also destroy the atmosphere of trust that God expects within the church.

How then shall we handle criticism? Perspective is the key word. Getting to know the other point of view, taking time to understand, giving the benefit of doubt, looking at issues more positively, all make up the way you can best deal with the critic. Let us consider criticism from two points of view: the giver and the receiver.

If you are the criticizer

If you choose to criticize an action or decision, consider the following before you give final shape to your criticism.

1. Be sure you have something worth saying. What is your point? Are you really clear about what you wish to say? Is your viewpoint valid? Is your objective practical, realistic, and free from personal bias and prejudice? Have you checked out the information that you are reacting to? That could save you real embarrassment.

2. Decide how you can best make your point. Will you talk to the party involved or write a letter? Depending on the situation and the subject matter, it may be preferable to talk things over rather than to write. If you are sure of yourself and wish to write, make your point clearly, honestly, and with a loving attitude. Consider to whom the writ ten communication should be sent in order for it to be most effective and fair. To one person? To many? To the pas tor? To a column in the church paper? To the conference president? The subject matter of your criticism will decide that, but at all costs, stick to facts. Shun injury, prejudice, and insults.

3. Take your time. The proverb "haste makes waste" is true in human relationships too. Check all your facts. Define your objectives. Give the other person time to meet with you and discuss your concerns. Seek an appointment with the other person and ask for time to discuss the issue and its importance for you and the church. Premature discussions often lead to embarrassing situations and frustrations.

4. Be charitable. Even at this stage you might discover that you were wrong in either facts or interpretations or both. Admitting this opens the way for a better relationship. In your conversation, be willing to listen, rather than carrying on a monologue. Show that you have a real interest in the issue. You may even find yourself moving from the role of an opponent to that of a supporter! Remember: "He has the right to criticize who has the heart to help."

5. Know yourself. Be aware of your own personality and how it affects others. Aggressiveness, personal remarks, rough language, loud voice, and threatening gestures often create hurdles in the dialogue process and may make the situation worse. Respect for the other's personality and views must not be com promised in pressing a place for your own. Be sensitive and keep your objectives limited and clear in your mind.

6. Determine whether your response is constructive or destructive. When you are tensed up with strong feelings, your intentions may be constructive, but your approach and the end results may not be. In expressing criticism, choice of words is very important. Some words hurt, while others convey the point with nuances of concern. Any expression of opinion should take into account the weakness and the strength in the opposite point of view. If you write a letter, can you wait for a day or two before you mail it? Such a waiting period often prompts its own answer to the issue at hand, making confrontation unnecessary.

7. Consider the alternatives. You may have clearly expressed rejection of a certain idea, but have you suggested a constructive alternative? Have you included in your response what you agree with, what you appreciate, and what you think may be improved or changed? Sometimes we are so concerned about what we dislike or disagree with, that we do not identify what we really want the person to do, to consider, or to be. It is easy to assume that others can read your mind, but they can't. So strive for clarity and effectiveness.

If you are criticized

If you are the recipient of criticism, the following ideas may cushion you in your moments of distress.

1. Identify the source clearly. Don't respond to hearsay. The nature of the criticism and the extent of its spread may determine whether you want to give an oral or a written response. Whatever, deal directly with the person concerned and do not involve unrelated issues or persons. Approach the person with an open mind and with the assumption that the criticism was meant for the common good of all concerned.

2. Set a time. When making the initial contact, avoid being drawn into immediate discussion, or getting into an argument. This is not the time to reveal any hurt or anger that you may be feeling; instead create an atmosphere of trust and openness. Let the critic feel that you are genuinely interested in listening.

3. Clarify the issue. Be willing to listen. Gently find out what is upsetting the other person. Pay attention to the feelings that lie behind what is being said to you. Be aware enough of your self so that you can honestly express your own feelings and not be dominated by your critics. Provide an objective outlook for a mutually helpful dialogue.

4. Ask yourself whether you have heard this criticism before. Is the issue something you have had previous problems with? If so, you may need to take a second look at your own position. Get professional help, if needed. It can be painful to admit your weaknesses, especially when you have made strong efforts to make positive changes. Take courage! Hurting is a part of growing. He who touched the skin of the leper, the eyes of the blind, and the prejudices of His own disciples can also help you to turn the stumbling blocks into stepping stones! With His help you can set your own objectives and achieve them!

Don't allow yourself to be destroyed. Make the choice to take what is harshly stated and use it to help you to grow. Remember critics are as human as you are; they may be harsh in their statements, but if there is truth in them, accept it.

5. Ask questions. Critics, when con fronted, have a tendency to wander from the subject. Ask them to be more specific. Prod them to tell you what they would like you to do. Questions bring wider understanding and open up potential answers that neither side had considered. Your questions can also help critics to see that their response was not as complete as they thought. This may help take some of the pressure away from you. Remember the ancient Chinese saying: "Build your enemy a golden bridge over which he can retreat."

6. Keep a sense of humor. One failure in one part of your life does not make the rest of it a shambles. Remember: "The fact that people are born with two eyes and two ears but only one tongue suggests that they ought to look and listen twice as much as they speak."

7. Keep calm. In time you will usu ally have the chance to respond to the points raised. Keep your focus on the central issue. Be constructive. Do not blame and attack. Try to build as Jesus did.

8. Evaluate. Don't make immediate commitments to change. Don't agree with criticism just to placate the critic. This kind of agreement may help you for the time being, but in the long run it is detrimental to your growth and self-esteem. Instead take time to consider what has been shared with you. Pray about it. Take advice from those who know you well, those you can trust. Accept responsibility when you are in the wrong. This phase can be uncomfortable as it challenges you to face your mistakes and use them as a basis for improvement and change. You can also find confirmation of your strengths. Your choice determines how much you will grow.

9. Thank your critic! Critics come in all hues: combative, aggressive, frivolous, forceful, personal, rational, illogical, silly, intellectual, etc. Whatever the case may be, your recognition of each as a person, your appreciation for the time and concern they have shown, and your interest in their point of view would help you build strong relationship with them. You might even win a friend.

The critic and the criticized are both God's children. As we grow together as part of God's family, why not follow the counsel of Paul: "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap the harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (Gal. 6:9, 10, NIV).

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Richard Cooper pastors the Belfast and Lame Seventh-day Adventist churches in Northern Ireland.

September 1991

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