I’m not very good at it, honestly. I know, I know, we’re supposed to welcome “constructive criticism.” But even the so-called “constructive” kind is still criticism, and for those like me cursed with strong ego and thin skin (relatively speaking) criticism stings. In my online dictionary the first definition of “to criticize” is to express disapproval — the second is to give a considered opinion. When I am on the receiving end I tend to confuse the two.
Nevertheless, I know that receiving criticism well is a mark of maturity. In the best sense of the word, the one who criticizes me is not trying to hurt my feelings — quite the opposite. He/she is trying to point out something I need to see in order to be more effective. The well-meaning critic is (hopefully) following the Biblical admonition to tell the truth in love. So how do I learn to set aside my reflexive defensiveness and take criticism well?
The first thing I need to do when someone criticizes me is indeed to check my defenses. As I said, my defensive reaction is a reflex, a learned response to a perceived attack. When I am on the defensive I am generally at my worst, prone to put up my dukes, lash back, and say things I should not say, using accusatory or retaliatory words which can quickly turn a productive dialogue into a raging conflict. Maturity demands that we learn to check those defensive impulses the moment they arise! I’m better at this now than I used to be, but still working on it.
So when I’ve decided to respond in a calm and mature fashion — more or less — I can move on to the next two things: consider the source and consider the motive. Is the criticism coming from someone I trust? Is it coming from someone in authority? Is it coming from someone who reports to me? Is it coming from someone who knows me well? Does my critic understand the situation? Deciding if the critic is credible is fairly easy, but evaluating the critic’s motive becomes tricky: I have to consider carefully whether the critic has an agenda of his or her own. For example, I may be pushing forward with a new initiative, only to encounter critics of change who have a vested interest in the status quo. Do I dismiss them, or do I decide that their concerns are valid and I need to pay careful attention? The motive of the critic is a huge factor in determining how much credence we give them.
That’s why, when handling criticism, I need to remind myself to seek the truth. Seldom does criticism come to us without at least some shred of truth. Do I have the maturity (there’s that word again) to sift through what may be harsh words and find the gem of honest evaluation that I need to take to heart?
Sometimes the final step, and the hardest, may actually be to thank the critic. This isn’t always possible, and it may not always be appropriate, but most of the time I think it’s an important step toward closure. Proverbs 15:1 brings timeless advice when it says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” When I am criticized, can I be the one who listens and responds with grace and humility? Can I thank the one who criticizes me?
Like I said, I’m working on it. How about you?