What is the difference between positive and negative criticism? What are some practical way for Christians to give and receive criticism?
YOU’RE TROUBLED, deeply troubled by a terrible problem – one dealing with people. Well, let’s be more specific. It concerns two of your neighbors. They’re nice and you know they mean well, but they really are hard to get along with. They’re noisy. Their yard is a mess. Anyway you look at it, things could be so much better.
Or, you have a youth minister, Bill, who just isn’t listening to the kids. The kids would like to have a hand in what’s going on. But Bill just runs the group himself, he decides everything. If you confront him, he’ll think you’re trying to run the program – ruin it, too, perhaps.
Or, you’re on the taking end of some pretty hard criticism from your friends. At least you thought they were your friends. Lately they have been getting after you for everything! “Pardon me for living!”
Criticism – expressed and unexpressed, specific and vague, valid and invalid – is a fact of life inside the Christian community and outside as well. Often it is unhealthy. It can turn people against each other and destroy fellowship. It can bring civil war to a witnessing, loving Christian community, sap its life and ruin its worship of God and its ministry to people.
But criticism can be healthy. Criticism can be the surgeon’s knife that cuts away a cancer in your life and makes way for wholeness once again. We need to learn how to give this kind of criticism and how to take it – that is what this article is all about.
Mature Criticism: Positive and Negative
Criticism is judgment. A critic is a judge who observes evidence, evaluates, draws conclusions and expresses them. He applies his mind and heart to the discernment of problems and he tries to put his finger on the vital issues.
Mature criticism is healthy. Surely it is one of the components of genuine fellowship referred to in 1 John 1. If we have true fellowship, we will offer and receive mature criticism – a wise mix of positive and negative evaluation.
Positive criticism identifies strengths and accomplishments. It indicates satisfactory achievement as judged by the critic.
We all need positive criticism. Evaluation from trustworthy critics in the form of commendation, appreciation and thanks satisfy a deep hunger in our souls. It is essential for healthy self-images and for perseverance in good works. It is the prime ingredient in valid encouragement which helps us endure discouragement. A good parent, pastor, teacher, leader motivates people by words and attitudes skillfully chosen to build confidence and express appreciation for not only their finished products but also their efforts and willingness to try.
But we must beware extremes. Too little commendation can discourage a person: “Anxiety in a man’s heart weighs him down, but a good word makes him glad” (Prov. 12:25). Too much commendation can do harm: “It is not good to eat much honey, so be sparing [judicious] of complimentary words” (Prov. 25:27).
Inadequate positive criticism is a weakness among Christians. There needs to be more healthy encouragement (appreciation, thanks, commendation) without being superfluous. “Lord, give me the ability to see strengths and achievements in people and commend them honestly.” Let that be our prayer.
Negative criticism evaluates weaknesses and mistakes. It indicates unsatisfactory achievement as judged by the critic.
Negative criticism can be constructive. When based on valid evidence, formulated according to true analysis and expressed in a loving manner to the proper recipients, negative criticism can help a person recognize his flaws and commence remedial measures for improvement. After all, we cannot strengthen weakness of which we are ignorant or avoid mistakes which we do not see.
Negative criticism can be destructive. When based on hearsay or subjective rather than objective evidence, when improperly analyzed, when communicated to the wrong person, in an unloving manner and for the wrong motives, negative criticism can do terrible damage not only to those being criticized but also to groups of which they are members.
Gossip (slander) is a common mode of negative criticism. Talking behind the backs of persons is a besetting sin of too many Christians. Scripture (for example, Psa. 15:2-3) admonishes us to walk blamelessly, speak truth from the heart and not slander with the tongue. Discord among brethren is sown by such negative criticism, sometimes referred to as “poison in the grapevine.” How many families, neighborhoods, churches, missionary societies, denominations, trans-denominational movements, cities and other groups are being torn apart and paralyzed by grapevine poisoning!
Slashing is the opposite of gossip in that the critic goes directly to the person, but he expresses his evaluation in a loveless manner which bruises, cuts, and stabs. Slashing is often disguised with a spiritual mask like “honest confrontation.”
How many Christians are suffering from wounds inflicted by negative criticism? How many pastors, Sunday school teachers, and Christian workers spend sleepless hours after such attacks? Many a member of a Christian organization finds that his greatest pain comes from criticism by fellow Christians.
The negative critic is an unpleasant person to have around. He seems incapable of recognizing what is good and commendable; he calls attention only to what is wrong or deficient, always pointing out weaknesses in other people. Negativism is a disease. And it is contagious. One of the mysteries in evangelical Christianity is how there can be so many chronic complainers in the body of Christ.
Negative, destructive criticism is unhealthy. It saps the energy of people, sets up stresses and strains and may even poison a movement. Its presence can be identified when some or all of the following conditions exist:
- A person spends an inordinate amount of energy thinking about weaknesses of his friends or the group he belongs to. He gives comparatively little energy to exploring remedial measures.
- Expressions of his thoughts are in tones of complaint. He talks about people behind their backs. There is little thanksgiving in his demeanor. His statements deal more with flaws in other people than with those within himself. There are more judgmental pronouncements than requests for help in understanding. His spirit is loveless and destructive rather than compassionate and constructive.
Scripture speaks in several places to this problem: Num. 12:1-16; 14:36; 16:1-3; Prov. 6:16, 19; 16:28; Matt. 18:15-17; Phil. 2:14; Heb. 12:15; Jas. 3:6-12. If you are being plagued with such destructive criticism, a study of these passages will put your situation in proper perspective.
Negative criticism is like fire. In the right place, at the right time and under control it can do great good. In the wrong place, at the wrong time or burning out of control it can do great harm.
A major problem among Christians is what to do with negative criticism. Is there a way to control this fire so that it produces benefits instead of damage, builds up rather than tears down, strengthens instead of poisons? The solution is not excessive positive criticism or absence of negative evaluation. We all need the benefit of some negative criticism. How else can we be sure we know some of our weaknesses? None of us needs flattery.
Ten Rules for Giving Constructive Negative Criticism.
I would like to propose ten rules to help toward a more constructive negative criticism.
Rule 1. Pray. “Lord, please control and direct my expression of negative criticism. Restrain me from overcorrecting and resorting to flattery. Restrain me from clamming up and remaining silent when I should speak. Guide my utterance so that critical communication will be constructive; and please prevent my sowing discord among my brethren.”
Rule 2. Go directly. Go directly to the person criticized. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” (Matt. 18:15). This holds irrespective of whether he is your parent or child, neighbor or friend, pastor or layman, teacher or pupil, supervisor or supervisee, alderman (legislator) or mayor. It holds true whether he is thousands of miles away or near at hand. The rule is valid within an organization. If I disapprove of a colleague, my criticism should be expressed directly to him (no matter what his position) unless the organizations procedures suggest that it would be wiser to forward the criticism through “the line” of supervisors.
Rule 3. Go privately. Deliver the criticism in private. It is “between you and him alone” (Matt. 18:15). Criticizing a person in the presence of others prior to discussing it privately is not only rude but a violation of 1 Cor. 13:4: “Love is patient and kind.” If he fails to respond, then inform him that the criticism will be shared with a third person – possibly his supervisor – who, with you, will attempt to help him understand. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (Matt. 18:16).
It takes courage to criticize a person directly and privately. The easy way is to criticize behind his back. It is easy to end-run him, taking the complaint to his supervisor (or somebody’s higher up the line). If the critic cannot deliver criticism directly, let him find a third party whom he trusts, whom the criticized person respects, and then request the intermediary to convey the criticism. Such procedure is not as satisfactory as direct communication, but it surely is better than suppressing the complaint or airing it through gossip.
Sometimes it is necessary to go privately in writing. Where a relationship is strained, you may discover when speaking face-to-face that either (a) your courage evaporates, leaving you unable to utter the criticism, or (b) the other person tenses in sell-defense, his selective hearing mechanism preventing his comprehension of your criticism.
For example, two people experience a worsening relationship until finally one of them, Bill, can stand it no longer. He goes to Frank and tries to talk through the problem – without success. In desperation Bill contacts Harry with a cry for help. Harry then phones Frank to give a report on Bill’s discomfort. Understandably Frank is hurt and exclaims, ‘Why didn’t Bill tell me!” Then Bill responds. “But I did! I tried my best to get through to you. But you wouldn’t listen.”
In such a situation Bill should compose a written statement of his complaints against Frank and request that Frank sit down and go through the list of grievances in discussion with him. If that fails, Bill should request Harry to sit in on the discussion and prayerfully help the two go through the list.
Let’s face it – there are times when a person simply cannot express criticism through the spoken word directly – and when recipients cannot hear the spoken word. It is essential that such critics be helped to get it out of their systems in writing. If it is not flushed out, it is sure to fester and cause worse trouble later.
Likewise, it is essential that we help such persons being criticized to see the grievances being expressed against them – in writing.
In different words, if a man is deaf to your spoken criticism, write him a letter clearly articulating your criticism, complaints, and grievances, and insist that he give you time to discuss them with him.
A note to leaders: If one of your supervisees is unhappy with his relationship to you, insist that he express his grievances – in writing – so that together you can go through them prayerfully with hope for solution. This can enable you to transform destructive negative criticism into constructive criticism.
Failure to follow rules 1, 2, and 3 can cause damage, both to the criticized and to the critic. It is one aspect of sowing-of-discord-among-brethren mentioned in Proverbs 6:19. Such gossip can destroy a local church, paralyze a pastor, kill a group, and poison a movement. In too many churches and Christian organizations there simply is too much complaining, grumbling, and criticizing behind the backs of people. Movements can survive many a crisis, but a poisoned grapevine can be fatal.
Rule 4. Lead with positive questions. An effective procedure is to ask sincere questions of the person being criticized, so that (a) the critic can procure additional information to make sure he has sufficient evidence on which to base criticism, (b) the one being criticized can explain his position and, (c) the critic can ask the one being criticized if he has considered alternatives. The questions must be positive; it is possible to use negative or loaded questions which produce negative results.
There are practical reasons for this procedure. First, the one being criticized may have access to information not possessed by the critic. If the latter goes to the former, he may be able to divulge information and satisfy the inquirer. Second, the inquirer may possess information not possessed by the other, in which case he can share his information.
But suppose the one being criticized isn’t free to divulge information? At such times the problem boils down to a matter of trust. If a man trusts his colleague, he will return to the battle line and go on with the fight against the enemy – not against his fellow soldier.
Rule 5. Double-check motives. Ask yourself: Why am I expressing negative criticism? Has my ego been hurt and I want to embarrass somebody? Is the motive retaliation or a desire to advance my status? Or is my concern truly to help the person and strengthen our Christian group?
Honesty here may force you to cancel all plans for criticism. Be careful how you manage to pass the test!
Rule 6. Be honest. Let us communicate, both verbally and nonverbally, what we honestly think and feel – and why. I can take my complaints directly. I can lead with questions – and still not communicate my real feelings. How many laymen leave a church and, in explaining their reasons, hide behind a smokescreen of excuses which do not express their true motives? How many a supervisor inwardly feels a supervisee is failing but lacks the courage to tell him?
When you deliver criticism, ask the Lord to give you courage to be honest. Withholding information or concealing criticism which a person is entitled to receive is dishonest.
There are times, of course, when it is not wise to express all we think or feel. Timing is important. But what we do express must be true. How great indeed is the temptation to tell a man one thing but say something quite different about him to other people. To his face we express positive criticism; behind his back we are negative. This is deceit.
Rule 7. Speak the truth in love. The first six rules are not enough. I can go to a man, lead with questions and speak the truth – but do so in a manner which bruises, stabs, and crushes. It is possible on such occasions to employ a facade of “honesty” for venting hostility. Rule 7 is the application of 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.” It is absolutely essential that we “speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).
How much of the criticism which I levy at others is actually rooted in my own impatience, lack of kindness, jealousy, conceit, fiendish delight in pointing out another’s mistakes? Love which originates in our Lord is the only cure for such impulses. Genuine love tempers the truth embodied in criticism.
Rule 8. Be objective and specific. Support your criticism with objective evidence rather than subjective opinions. Do your homework in procuring adequate data so that you know what you are talking about. Considerable negative criticism flows from persons who are unfamiliar with the facts and simply pour forth opinion. In this connection the term objective means evidence which anybody can observe if he so chooses, evidence which is the same no matter who views it and, therefore, is not dependent on the viewer’s prejudices or feelings.
Objective evidence should be specific. Are you dissatisfied with growth of your church or group? If so, procure objective information as to what the growth actually has been and then indicate – be specific – what constitutes satisfactory growth. Do you dislike the music in your local church? If so, confer with the proper authorities – and explain why you are dissatisfied. Negative criticism cast in terms of subjective and vague evaluation does little good – unless it sets the stage for objective evaluation.
Rule 9. Earn the right to be heard. If your purpose in criticizing is to accomplish change (rather than vent complaint or discomfit the person being criticized), it is important that you earn the right to be heard. The listener will be more attentive to your evaluations if he respects you.
There is only one way by which you can earn his respect: the production of a record of deeds well done. And this takes time. This is the basic reason why it is risky for a neophyte, regardless of his pedigree and credentials elsewhere, to come on strong with negative criticism too soon. This doesn’t mean you remain silent during initial stages of your work. But the fact is there: Your negative criticism is more likely to be received with an open mind (and, therefore, more likely to be acted upon favorably) if you have first earned the right to be heard.
Rule 10. Suggest alternatives. Accompany criticism with remedial suggestions. To blame a person and suggest no cure or possible alternative is immature. Most anybody can point out weaknesses; it takes creativity to propose solutions. Many a negative critic, loquacious in describing mistakes, is silent when it comes to workable alternatives.
A useful approach is to organize suggestions in terms of three categories:
“Here is what I think you should stop doing.”
“Here is what I think you should start to do.”
“Here is what I think you should continue doing, but I believe it would be better if you did it this way.”
Augment your criticism with a promise to pray for the person. Then volunteer at least a little assistance. Doubtless your church (and other Christian groups) would benefit if more critics balanced their criticisms with such offers.
Loveless negative criticism is a prime component of worldliness. It is also one of the burdens of leaders. The spirit of Christless society is to gossip, ridicule, focus on mistakes, and emphasize the weaknesses of leaders. Our nation is riddled with critics who can point out what’s wrong with nary a word of how to make it better. Rare indeed is the individual who can temper the indictment with a commensurate dose of viable options.
Christians ought to be different from the world. One distinctive should be the tone and substance of their negative criticism. May the Lord enable us to improve our witness as Christian critics.
Eleven Rules for Receiving Negative Criticism.
The foregoing suggestions deal with giving negative criticism. How about receiving it? Secure people are able to take a lot. Insecure people cannot. On one occasion I finally mustered enough courage to express a bit of negative criticism to a colleague who surprised me by responding, “Well, do you want me to resign?”
Strange it is that some of the outspoken givers of negative criticism have little capacity to receive what they give. I remember one instance. After receiving considerable criticism (practically all of it via the grapevine) for quite a few years from a particular person, I attempted to express just a little negative criticism face to face. She broke down and cried, saying that I no longer wanted her connected with Inter-Varsity, I did not appreciate her gifts and so forth. Her insecurity probably had the double effect of maximizing her tendency to criticize and minimizing her ability to receive.
Regardless of one’s degree of emotional security, there are a few rules which can be applied by anybody receiving negative criticism.
Rule 1. Pray. Ask the Lord to guide you in responding to the criticism – sensitive to hear what should be heard, strong to turn aside that which should not be entertained, able to control your temper and anger.
Rule 2. Beware of becoming defensive. The natural reaction is to fight back with defensive tactics, explanations, and excuses. Anxiety peaks sharply when negative criticism hits home. It is as if a tightly-coiled spring deep inside is cocked to snap back in self-defense.
Rohrer, Hibler and Replogle write, “It is human to defend ourselves. We all defend our egos in varying degrees. It is almost as automatic as the reflex action that closes the eyelid as a foreign object approaches the eye. Thus, when our ego comes under fire through criticism … our automatic impulse is to find some way to protect the inner self” (“You Are What You Do,” p. 5).
Rule 3. Let the critic finish. Don’t interrupt him. Self-defensive interruptions can choke off his message and deny you his whole story. When he appears to be through, encourage him to go on – in an effort to flush out any residue of criticism. Ask, “Is that all?” If he continues and comes to another stop, you might inquire, “Is there anything else?” Indicate sincerely that you desire to hear everything on his mind concerning your shortcomings or whatever he feels critical about.
Rule 4. Ask for evidence upon which the criticism is based. You may discover the evidence is valid; on the other hand, it may be rumor or hearsay.
If the critic’s evidence is adequate and his conclusions valid, then he has done you a favor by providing guidance for making corrections. He may have called your attention to a weakness that you knew nothing about, to a mistake which you did not realize had occurred, to oversights of which you were not conscious, to flaws which you had not noticed. “Why didn’t somebody tell me,” we often say. The negative critic may be endeavoring to do just that: tell us!
God may be using him! It may be that God has been trying a long time to arrest our attention. The negative critic may be God’s last resort to flag us down and give us a chance to change our ways.
On the other hand, if the critic’s evidence is insufficient or the conclusions invalid, you have an opportunity to call his attention to the inadequacy of the criticism. But he may not listen to you, in which case ask the Lord to give you a tender heart, an open mind, a strong will – and a thick skin.
Rule 5. Ask questions of yourself. “What is the Lord trying to do to/in/through me via this criticism? Did he know in advance that I would be receiving this? If so, why did he let the attack come? He must have had some reason. What might it be?”
Perhaps your attitudes need changing. If so, can this criticism help you to see what those attitudes are and stimulate change? Perhaps you are too proud or self-centered. Or possibly you are overlooking information which you need to observe and only the jolt of negative criticism will draw your attention to the right focus.
Rule 6. Let the criticism be a source of learning. “Learning about ourselves is enhanced considerably by help from others. We are just too involved with ourselves and too biased about ourselves to be as objective and penetrating in self-examination as we need to be. We know how we would like to regard ourselves and this idealized picture keeps competing with the picture of what we really are and what we should become. We should use outside resources that give us clues about what we are like and how we affect others.
“One of the better ways to learn from others is to watch their reaction to us. We perceive that they turn away from us or turn toward us, seek us out or avoid us, enjoy our company or are bored with it. If we learn the lessons these reactions can teach, we will understand ourselves more completely. Our actions, like radar signals, bounce off people in our immediate environment. The bounce-back we get helps us evaluate the appropriateness of our behavior if we are objective enough to interpret it.
“Constructive criticism is an invaluable source of information for those who accept it. Quite often we spend more time justifying, excusing, or rationalizing an error than in trying to understand and benefit from criticism. When we are non-defensive we become aware that constructive criticism is a real compliment to us. The person offering it is usually uncomfortable in doing so, but if he is willing to endure the discomfort in order to help us, we should listen and appreciate his suggestions. He runs the risk of arousing our enmity, but he cares enough for our welfare to take this chance.
“The most effective way to gain self-knowledge from others is to deliberately establish a relationship of mutual trust and confidence with another and to invite his continuous appraisal. The extent to which we accept and consider this counsel, without resorting to defensive tactics, will encourage or discourage his willingness to hold the mirror for us” (“You Are What You Do,” pp. 6, 7).
Rule 7. Determine whether the critic has needs revealed by his criticism. If he does, what can you do to shift attention from defending yourself to helping him? It is possible for a person to cry for help, unable to express his message in any form except criticism of other people. If you happen to be on the receiving end, you need God’s help to avoid being overly defensive and to be sensitive to the critic’s need.
Rule 8. Determine why the critic has criticized. Does the critic have a motive other than what might appear on the surface? It is important to determine this if you can. But beware of psychoanalyzing here. Give each critic the respect he deserves and hesitate long and hard before deciding that he is deceiving himself in criticizing you. It is painfully easy for the one criticized to fool himself.
Rule 9. Determine what the real problem is. Does the expressed criticism indicate the basic problem, or does it deal with a surface issue which is underlain by a more important issue that needs to be dealt with? Put the criticism inside the largest frame you can deal with. Look for the hidden factors that may underlie the issue raised. And help the critic to see what may be involved.
Rule 10. Determine carefully how to respond. Face-to-face confrontation? Should you telephone him? Or write to him? Or make the initial response through a third party? The more direct way is usually the better way, as we have seen above. The important thing is to respond with honesty and honor. Respect for the critic will go a long way toward patching up your differences.
Rule 11. Talk about it. First talk to God, then to your spiritual leader. Seek advice from the ministry leader whose wisdom and perspective can augment your own. This is especially true if the leader is familiar with the critic and with the issues involved. When the leader listens to you in such a situation, he enables you to benefit from “the talking cure.” One of the debilitating aspects of negative criticism is the energy it saps from the bloodstream of the person being criticized – unless he has an unusually thick skin making him immune to barbs. This is especially true for leaders. My impression is that most leaders of Christian organizations (whether small as a Sunday school class, larger as a church, or still larger as a nationwide movement) are sensitive individuals. Criticism stings them. They really feel it. It is not the criticism from non-Christian sources that hurts but the comments originating with fellow Christians. The sharpest pains – the ones that awaken the leader in the middle of the night and keep him from going back to sleep – come from Christians within his own organization.
How to handle such attacks is the question. “The talking cure” is especially helpful – talking first to God in prayer, talking then with the ministry leader. If he understands enough to offer suggestions, so much the better. But even if he offers nothing in response, the very fact that he listened contributes immeasurably in helping the criticized person carry the burden.
Practicing the Principles.
So what will you do now as you continue to live with annoying neighbors or with frustrating supervisors? How will you approach your youth minister about running the group on his own? How will you listen to your friends who seem to be down on you? Thinking through and putting into practice the principles above should help.
Actually, practicing the principles of practical criticism is ultimately a matter of discipleship. God has called us to unity. We really are “one in the Spirit” and “one in the Lord.” By developing an ability to give and take criticism, we can more fully express that unity before God and reveal that unity before men.
John W. Alexander