[What follows is a chapter from my new book set for publication in 2018, House Rules: Considerations for Leaders. Recent criticism prompts this post. I really do love my critics, especially the honest ones.]
“I like criticism. It makes you strong.” LeBron James
“Few people have the wisdom to prefer the criticism that would do them good, to the praise that deceives them.” Francois de La Rochefoucauld
"You can’t let praise or criticism get to you. It’s a weakness to get caught up in either one.”
“The final proof of greatness lies in being able to endure criticism without out resentment.”
“A successful man is one who can lay a firm foundation with
the bricks that others throw at him.”
Pay Attention to Critics
Few of us like to hear it directed at us. In fact, most of us don’t even enjoy it when leveled against another person, do we?
I know that I don’t like it at all. It is somewhat amusing to consider the lengths to which I often go to sidestep criticism. I find all sorts of creative ways to justify my actions in the face of the critic.
You know what I mean:
“Well, that’s not what I really intended!”
“You’ve got to understand me here. I had no choice but to defend myself.”
“The fact is no one really understands me. If they did, they wouldn’t criticize me for this.”
“If you were in my shoes, you’d react just like me!”
“No way was I going to let him get away with that sort of thing!”
“If you knew all the facts, you wouldn’t be so quick to criticize me.”
“I saw the red light. You started yelling at me a hundred yards away from it!”
“I intended to pick up the office, but I just go too busy. Give me a break, already!”
“I did the best I could. Obviously, that’s not good enough for you!”
“No one cares if I go ahead without asking. Why would they?”
My lists of reactions can go on and on! I become a master excuse-maker when faced with even an honest critic.
Sadly, at times, it doesn’t stop with my rationalizing to critics or to innocent by-standers. What comes next is even uglier. I begin a conversation with myself! I actually carry on an argument internally, a debate within my own mind and heart! Somehow it’s just important for me to establish to myself that I am not deserving of the criticism that I’ve received.
Often this internal argument gives way to external arguments with both my critics and my allies. How easy to divide people up into groups along the fault line of an honest, but negative piece of feedback!
So, note the progression.
Criticism heard and “received,” sort of.
Excuse making and the initial explanation and rationalization.
More detailed and articulate (sometimes, at least!) rationale explained.
Gathering allies to hear and bolster my case.
Development of a more comprehensive list as to why and how I am right and my critic or critics are wrong.
Shameless attempts to explain away a mistake or a failure or a weakness. Blood pressure may rise at some point along this continuum. Or, I may “stuff” all of the emotions generated by my critic so that it emerges sort of sideways at some strategic point in the future—immediate or distant, depending on my memory.
Depending on where and why this escalation of defensiveness occurs, other people may be brought into the fray. At the extreme, I create a situation where I and others expend and waste a lot of energy that could be directed toward mission and purpose, all because I don’t want to honestly accept and evaluate a word of criticism from someone near me.
If this repeats itself as my normal response to criticism, I can expect really sub-par results no matter what I tackle.
Every effort worth your time and energy likely will spawn some negative reactions, evaluations and appraisals. It’s just a fact that of work and of life I’ve had to face. The truth is, any honest critic who is moved by a desire to see things improve is worthy of my attention. The honest critic should be regarded as a very important and necessary alley. Critics who care about what you care about will tell you the truth almost all of the time, and they should be given an honest, open hearing.
We all need the honest critic. And, I must learn to respect, appreciate and listen to the voices and opinions of such people. Critics, rather than enemies, should be considered highly regarded assets.
Any critic just “out to get you,” your project or your team should be treated with respect, given a hearing and then dismissed. That assignment is actually very manageable after a while.
Not long ago, I ran into a vociferous critic who attacked my organization, my personal philosophy concerning a central portion of our work product and my basic motivation for championing a particular approach to a difficult, but not impossible social challenge.
I reached out to him, attempting to establish meaningful conversation about the issue, as well as our differences. He seemed very open to a meeting, which I arranged. We met at his place of business, a very interesting place. We had a long and spirited discussion. I took him a book that I had found very instructive in regard to our point of contention. We talked for about an hour. I left feeling that we made progress and that, even though we still disagreed on several things, we could work together.
I was wrong. At the next large, public gathering of our work group he stepped up his attack on our solution to the vexing problem we met to address. At that point, I simply checked him off of my “helpful to engage” list.
No elevated blood pressure.
No arguments or attempts to defend, justify or persuade.
He had staked out a clear position. I knew what I believed and I knew what worked in my hometown and across the nation. No reason for further argument with his gentleman.
I was kind.
I was honest.
I respected him. I heard his critique.
I evaluated it.
I rejected it.
There are just times when that is the best option.
Notice, I did not reject the messenger. I rejected the message.
If that same person raises another criticism about another subject unrelated to our first engagement, I feel it is important that I hear him out again. I have found that I take care of myself by going the extra mile and by not prejudging or stereotyping based on past experiences. Besides that, I’m looking for the truth about what works, what is effective and what will make us all successful. Once a rejected critic does not mean always a rejected critic!
Don’t hear me saying that this will be automatic or easy. Responding with respect to those who challenge you, especially publicly, is not an easy assignment. But, taking the high road in search of objectivity is always the good road, even when you discover your critic was correct.
Honest, openness to other points of view endears me to observers.
In my former life I served as a pastor in four congregations over a span of almost twenty-five years. Along the way, I attracted a nice group of critics. Nothing all that bad, but just the normal experiences with those who found me lacking in one area or another, and believe me there was a lot lacking to point out!
Most of the critics were kind. Many wanted to help me out, and they did. Anyone who stands up every week and has to say something, no matter if they have anything to say or not, is a set up for critics! I’ve made so many awful gaffs while preaching. Most are really funny. Some mistakes had to be ironed out the following Sunday morning after a week of stewing on my own stupidity.
After a while, I came to realize that most folks who point out the mistakes are really good friends who want to see you grow and do better. The critics with the more substantive issues, they are the ones who cause the heart burn and headache. These are the good people, almost all honest, who simply believe that you are wrong, possibly heretical and maybe just evil. These folks are much harder to manage because their concerns often come down to a win/lose struggle, with the loser going away.
I had such a critic at my last church where I served for over 14 years. He determined that my view of the Bible was anything but Evangelical. He regarded me as neo-orthodox, and possibly downright liberal. He picked that up from my preaching, from the sources I read and studied and from my community agenda in the church. So incensed was he that finally, he wrote a personal letter to every member of the church in which he called me out for heresy, literally. He had not given me any advance notice, nor had he shared his letter with me before it showed up in my mailbox at about the same time it arrived at the home of every other member of our church.
I can remember vividly crafting a letter of response to everyone in my church. The uproar necessitated the response. I remember speaking to his charges while doing my best to respect him as my critic.
I confess: the situation was very hard.
I was supported by the church’s leadership board. The critic and his family left the church, as did several others. It was a painful time.
Ironically, it was a time of growth as well, both personally and as a church. My critic was honest and good. He did what he felt he had to do. Somehow, I came to that conclusion rather quickly. I realized that the criticism, though its delivery rather dramatic and a real blindside, made me stronger and our group closer and more effective.
And, all these years later, I’ll tell you what I told those who stayed with us, in part my critic was exactly right. I am not an Evangelical in my approach to the Bible. Things just aren’t that simple. And, I’m more of a Liberal than even he or I discerned at the time. By embracing the truth about myself as defined by a harsh critic, I experienced personal growth and genuine inner peace. I know I found it easier to pray! And, the struggle made me stronger in faith and in perseverance.
There are situations and circumstances guaranteeing criticism will arise.
At one point in our housing development for homeless persons, we attempted to gain control of an old hotel property at the corner of Akard Street and I-30 on the south side of Downtown Dallas. I recall attending a number of meetings with the local neighborhood association to discuss the project.
We hosted a design charrette. We briefed everyone on numerous occasions. We answered questions again and again. Finally, the neighbors banned together and threw us, the mayor at the time and the council member form the district out on our ear, almost literally.
Nothing personal you understand. Just not in our back yard! Not here, not now, not ever!
This one made me fighting mad, until I calmed down and realized that people often want different things. In this case our critics were property owners. They had the support of elected officials, whom they elected and re-elected. We were beat before we even showed up. And, it wasn’t our fault. We arrived well prepared, but preparation made it worse because it seemed that we might prevail. We had done our homework.
At the end we were defeated by an organized group of democracy-exploiters. The well-presented self-interests of the property owners prevailed over the pressing needs of the voiceless homeless.
We had to gather up our maps, our renderings and our big plans and hightail it back to where we came from!
What a valuable lesson.
Critics can be fact tellers.
They warned us. We didn’t listen carefully enough. There may have been a way to win them over, but I really don’t think so. Our critics won. Game over. Respect maintained. We’ll do battle elsewhere another day.
Ironically, years later our housing company (CitySquare Housing) entered a partnership with a for-profit developer, helped capture the same old hotel property and redeveloped it as a convention hotel with a mid-range nightly price point. This time our plan worked, and we got paid for it. We put the funds earned back into our community development corporation to be used in building more affordable housing in Dallas. So, our critics didn’t stop us. They just diverted us toward a new, practical approach around a real opportunity.
Guess who some of our loudest cheerleaders for the project are today?
You guessed it, the same group that opposed our original plan.
It just works this way if you take the long view on the high road, while working hard to respect your critics, no matter what.
One final note.
Determine to be a positive, constructive critic yourself.
People who are determined to get things done will take seriously the challenge of growing into the kind of critic that others appreciate and seek out. Some of your best work likely will involve you in assisting allies and new friends by offering an honest, concerned word of critique in a manner in which it can be received more easily by those to whom you offer it.