This is the first in a series of posts on criticism. Click here to read the first post, It Is Not the Critic Who Counts.
The sanctuary was dark except for the light streaming in from the hallway. I made my way to the front right pew and sat down, bewildered.
I was in my mid-20’s and we had just finished a rehearsal for the Easter musical at the church where I was the worship leader. The rehearsal had not gone smoothly. There was still music to tighten up, lines to be rewritten, and hundreds of details that screamed for my attention.
The biggest disaster, strangely enough, was not in the sanctuary, but in the nursery. I had not recruited enough workers to babysit the kids of the cast and crew, and the kids were out of control.
One of the cast members had finally had enough. She burst into the sanctuary, stopped rehearsal, and spent several minutes loudly chewing me out. Why didn’t I plan for more workers? How could I be so disorganized?
At that point, we called it quits and everyone went home. Except for me.
I sat there in the shadows wondering how I had made much a mess of things. I felt like a complete and utter failure. I turned to make sure everyone was gone, dropped my head in my hands, and sobbed like a baby.
I was alone, exhausted and incredibly confused. I had been verbally flogged in front of dozens of people, and I couldn’t figure out how to deal with the criticism.
The reason? Because I was asking all the wrong questions.
Avoiding the Wrong Questions
If you are an artist or leader, criticism is an unavoidable part of life. We usually shrink back from it or do everything to avoid it, but when you are criticized, it can be a learning experience.
The key to learning from your critics is asking the right questions. Some examples of the wrong questions include:
- Why can’t he just leave me alone?
- Why does she always have to be so negative?
- Why can’t they just see things from my point of view?
- Why can’t he just keep his opinions to himself?
- Why does she always have to point out my mistakes?
None of those are bad questions, per se, but they won’t help you grow and learn. All of those questions place the blame on others. Whenever you put blame on others, it comes with an expectation that they will change or improve.
But since you can only control your actions, it’s best to focus on what you can do to make yourself better. You’re neither responsible nor able to control other people’s behavior.
Asking the 5 Key Questions
When you are criticized, there are five key questions you should ask to maximize your growth and learning.
1. What is the source?
All criticism is not created equal. If your critic is a perpetually negative person, or has been known to attack others, you may just be the latest in a string of verbal assaults.
But if the critic is a friend, sit up and take notice. Proverbs 27.6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” A true friend is someone who cares enough to graciously point out a flaw you need to correct.
2. What is the issue?
Is someone bringing a criticism that you’ve heard before? Have multiple people said the same thing? Is there a pattern of behavior that you need to address?
At the end of every semester I ask students to fill out an evaluation form in each class. I want to know what went well, and what I can improve the next time I teach the course. There are a couple of issues that students routinely point out that I need to improve in my teaching. I am continually working on them, and I don’t get defensive because I know students’ comments are legitimate.
3. What is the critic’s motive?
You can’t read people’s minds, but most of the time you can discern someone’s motive when they criticize you. Is it constructive criticism tempered with love and concern? Or is it destructive criticism designed to bring you down? The critic’s motive can be a clue to whether or not the criticism is legitimate.
4. What is the kernel of truth?
Many times, there is some truth to what a critic is saying. If it’s delivered in a loving way, it’s much easier to accept. But if criticism is given in a hateful or sarcastic way, it’s very difficult to admit there might be some truth to it.
When it comes to criticism, the best medicine can be the hardest to swallow.
As a worship leader, I have received all kinds of criticism. At my former church, sometimes people would write their complaints about music on the back of the attendance cards and put them in the offering plate. The church secretary would gather these and give them to me.
I would often get comment cards that had “THE DRUMS ARE TOO LOUD!!!” scrawled on the back. As a young guy who liked drums and guitars, I usually wrote this off as the pointless complaints of the old people who were stuck in their traditions.
Then one Sunday, we had a guest worship leader and I sat in the audience. As I listened to the music I was struck by a surprising truth:
The critics were right. The drums were too loud.
The truth was that I hadn’t set up our drum shield well enough to contain the sound and give our drummers the freedom they needed to play without overpowering everyone. I was unintentionally frustrating our musicians, sound crew, and some people in the congregation.
In my arrogance, I had dismissed the critics as old-fashioned and cranky. Even the harshest criticism can contain a bit of truth.
5. What can I learn?
Criticism can be a stumbling block or a stepping stone. It all depends on how you use it. (Click to tweet.)
It’s a stumbling block when you refuse to learn from it or ask the right questions. Your arrogance and pride can trip you up make you blind to your own shortcomings.
It’s a stepping stone when you ask the right questions and determine to learn something from the criticism. The lesson may not be pleasant, but it can make you a better artist or leader.
I’m not suggesting that you take a passive approach to responding to your critics. Not every critic has good intentions or wants to help. Indeed, there are times when you must confront your critics directly, especially if they are poisoning the morale of the team, ministry or organization.
But when someone criticizes you, it’s helpful to respond by asking these five key questions instead of reacting with anger or vengeance. Then it can become a point of learning and take you further down the road of success.
(Note: I shared a couple of stories about my former ministry to illustrate my points. I don’t want to give the impression that it was an bad experience. In fact, the exact opposite is true! I loved serving with the people there (you know who you are!) and I still miss that church. It was a wonderful ministry, but the examples I shared here are the kinds of things that happen in every normal worship ministry sometimes.)