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5 Right Ways to Respond to Criticism

Let’s be honest! Criticism hurts. No one enjoys hearing something negative about themselves or finding out that something you did wasn’t perceived as well by others as you hoped it would be.

Criticism, however, is a part of leadership. It comes with the territory. And, if handled correctly, it doesn’t have to be a bad part of leadership — or at least not as bad as we make it.

The truth is there is usually something to be learned from all criticism. Allowing criticism to work for you rather than against you is a key to maturing as a leader.

Recently I posted 5 Wrong Ways to Respond to Criticism. This is the companion post.

Here are 5 right ways to respond to criticism:

Listen to everyone

You may not respond to everyone the same way, but everyone deserves a voice and everyone should be treated with respect. This doesn’t necessarily include anonymous criticism. It’s hard to give respect to someone you don’t know. I listen to some if it, especially if it appears valid, because I’ve often learned from that too. Plus, I always wonder if something in my leadership prompted an anonymous response. At the same time, I never “criticize” leaders who don’t listen to anonymous criticism. I don’t, however, weight unidentified criticism as heavily as I would criticism assigned to a person. (Feel free to leave a comment about anonymous criticism and how you respond.) But, the point here is to at least listen to criticism when people are willingly to put their name behind it.

Consider the source

In a stakeholder sense, how much influence and investment does this person have in the organization? This might not change your answer to the criticism but may change the amount of energy you invest in your answer. Years ago our church met in two schools, for example, so if the Director of Schools had criticism for me I would invest more time responding than if it’s a random person complaining about our music who never intended to attend our church again.

Analyze for validity

Is the criticism true? This is where maturity as a leader becomes more important. You have to check your ego, because there is often an element of truth even to criticism you don’t agree with completely. Don’t dismiss the criticism until you’ve considered what’s true and what isn’t true. Mature leaders are willing to admit fault and recognize areas of needed improvement.

Look for common themes

If you keep receiving the same criticism, perhaps there is a problem even if you still think there isn’t. It may not be a vision problem or a problem with your strategy or programming, but it may be a communication problem. You can usually learn something from criticism if you are willing to look for the trends.

Give an answer

I believe criticism is like asking a question. It deserves an answer even if the answer is you don’t have an answer. You may even have to agree to disagree with the person offering criticism. By the way, especially during seasons of change, I save answers to common criticism received because I know I’ll likely be answering the same criticism again.

The picture with this post is from one of my favorite movies “It’s a Wonderful Life”. In this scene, George Bailey responds to criticism the Bailey Building and Loan is going to collapse. I love how he takes the criticism serious, considers the importance of the critics, responds as necessary, attempts to calm their fears, and refocuses on the vision. What a great leadership example during times of stress!

Obviously, this is an extreme and dramatic example, but it points to a reality that happens everyday in an organization. And, some times it is extreme and dramatic. Many times people simply don’t understand so they complain — they criticize. The way a leader responds is critical in that moment.

What would you add to my list? Where do you disagree with me here? I’ll try to take the criticism the “right” way!

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 30 Comments

  • jimpemberton says:

    In an organization like a church, you will often have the same critics over and over. There are a a few different kinds of these. Three I can think of off hand:

    1) Critics who you suspect are intent on undermining the church. They are plants with social, political, or evil spiritual agendas. I've seen these people and they are often difficult to discern. They are typically nice enough people openly, but are adept at generating strife covertly. You may never have enough evidence for church discipline and they typically won't make themselves known until they feel they have enough support in the church. Nevertheless, these folks exist and should be handled on a case-by-case basis according to the situation.

    2) Critics who have good intentions, but have serious errors in their theology, political sensibilities, or character assessment (yours). If you know about these people, answers can be thought of ahead of time so that they don't catch you flat-footed. Hopefully, over time, the teaching ministry of the church is strong enough that their errors are corrected.

    3) Critics who have good intentions, and often legitimate criticisms, although they may have errors in their assessment from time to time. Many times, these people can become fruitful supporters if they are consulted. Many people will be able to buy into a decision, or even assume some ownership for it, if you show them enough respect to ask them what they think in the decision process. It gives them the opportunity to see your heart in the matter and to consider the challenges and obstacles that you face in the decision. If they sense some ownership in your decision, they will help handle other critics.

  • Eric Secker says:

    Sorry, @undefined is NOT my account FYI. Not sure why it's doing that.

  • Eric Secker says:

    I love all of these. Tying in with Analyze the Validity, I also like to Evaluate the Emotion. Often behind a complaint is a deeper-rooted emotion that the person isn't able to express (fear, disrespect, discouragement, etc.) A statement like "Our church shouldn't grow " may actually mean "I am afraid of losing close friendships". Personalizing the complaint can help us to see someone through more loving eyes and find a valid concern to address behind an otherwise easy to dismiss complaint.

  • @undefined says:

    I love all of these. Tying in with Analyze the Validity, I also like to Evaluate the Emotion. Often behind a complaint is a deeper-rooted emotion that the person isn't able to express (fear, disrespect, discouragement, etc.) A statement like "Our church shouldn't grow " may actually mean "I am afraid of losing close friendships". Personalizing the complaint can help us to see someone through more loving eyes and find a valid concern to address behind an otherwise easy to dismiss complaint.

    I might push back on Consider the Source a little. Should we look at how much we want to invest in a person / group as much as looking at what they invest in the church? After all, if society is critical of my church (people that don't invest anything in it), aren't those still the people we should most be trying to reach – those who don't know Christ? Even if they critique the church for seeming unfriendly but haven't even been in a small group or visited, that still tells me we need to communicate that better to the outside world.

  • Bryankr

    I have to agree on the part of listening to everyone. I have found some of the most wonderful wisdom from some of the most unlikely sources!

  • Ruben

    This is good stuff and as a younger leader in my church I am always benefiting from wisdom like this. So crucial too! Thanks Ron! Keep it coming!

  • Just an addition to number one – Considering the Source: Sometimes criticism is given in the form of feedback because it is the first instance of a problem that may have deeper roots that affects the corporate body. A great example would be a pastor who is quoting a portion of another pastor's sermon or book where the quoted information is not entirely biblical. In this case, both are at fault for lack of discernment, but the former guiltier than the latter.

  • Ron – Some have refused to respond to criticism that is not based in relationship. Especially with respect to criticism coming from external so called "Heresy Hunters." But you seem to be saying that all criticism should be responded to. Seems to me that a Pastor/Leader could end up losing focus on the task at hand and end up spending all their time responding to critics/defending themselves and their position. I wonder what your take on this would be?

    Thx – Brad

    • ronedmondson says:

      That is very true. I believe sometimes we are clouded by relationships. If they "like" us many times they won't tell us the whole truth for fear of hurting our feelings.

  • Scott Gould says:

    Thanks Ron – I needed to read this.

    Been criticised very heavily recently, and it is hard taking responsibility and not slinging mud back in return, but it is necessary and also the way a real leader responds.


  • When we are criticized, the response can be “Value-the-Other-Person’s-Perspective” approach when we feel that it is constructive and healthy. But, when we can understand that it was made with malicious and evil intention, we can safely ignore the same. I believe that we should not be oversensitive in responding to criticisms. For it is said in Ecclesiastes 7:21-22 that, “Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you— for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others. “

    The unfortunate but unavoidable fact of the matter is criticisms are going to come our way. When they do, it’s okay to admit that it hurts. However, we don’t have to get upset about it. We can choose to not be offended. It is better to remember that you should “bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” as spelt out by Colossians 3:13.

  • Deb says:

    I suppose for me it really depends about how criticism is delivered. I am a huge believer in the importance of kindness. With that being said I completely agree with your analysis. I would like to make a list of your dos and don'ts for responding to criticism and keep them close by for moments when my feelings get in the way of my brain. Thanks!!

    • ronedmondson says:

      I like kindness too. I suspect you are a "Feeler" on the Myers Briggs though…probably appreciating kindness even more than I do. I'm more truth over tact, so I can usually filter the message through even when the delivery method isn't as kind as I would prefer.

  • Laurinda says:

    As far as the anonymous criticism is concerned:
    It's really hard to respect someone who remains anonymous yet criticizes. But sometimes it's the only way to get honest feedback. When I have a team member who comes to me with criticism about another team member, I have to weigh their criticism and act. But I also deal with their unwillingness to confront the situation.

    I'm curious as to your answers to criticism. Most of the time, it takes me a while to even process it. I think I initially come of as not taking it seriously.