What Happens When People Criticize You?

Taking a stand is one of the most important tasks of leadership. When leaders take a stand, people will react automatically, but they will often come along in time if the leader sticks to it while staying in good relationship with the followers.

Sometimes you stand up and chart a direction and then are surprised when people don’t automatically stand up and cheer. You have to expect the reaction, not get thrown by it, and stay on track with the goals. At the same time, don’t doggedly and rigidly insist on your own way. You do have to fine-tune the direction and plans based on the feedback you get. People have to be following you if you are going to lead. Don’t get too far ahead.

But leaders never get anywhere important without experiencing some resistance. Here’s what’s needed: be as clear as possible about your own perspective, communicate that as clearly as you can, and don’t get emotionally hooked by the pushback. It’s not personal! When you know your own vulnerabilities, it’s a bit easer to be neutral about the criticism. At the best of times, you’ll find yourself caught, but over time, it can become easier to get off the hook quicker.

I have always found criticism challenging. Early in my ministry I wanted to keep everyone happy. I moved more slowly than necessary sometimes. But as I toughened up, I found it easier to tolerate criticism, and even laugh it off (at least internally). In fact, I found that having critics was a gift: it helped me grow up. It’s a fairy tale world where everything goes smoothly and we get everything we want. When I learned to be tougher, and didn’t feel so hurt by criticism, I was a better leader, and enjoyed leadership more.

What would it be like to take your worst critic to lunch? You don’t even have to talk about church. This time is best spent with those who have some ability to learn and grow and adapt their behavior. These critics can be seen as the “loyal opposition,” and have the potential to become significant allies, if you treat them with respect. Just because someone disagrees with you doesn’t mean they are an enemy. You rarely need to go head to head with them, and you may learn to appreciate their abilities and perspective.

Whom will you call this week?

3 replies on “What Happens When People Criticize You?

  • Margaret Marcuson

    Transitions are often opportunities for dormant seeds to sprout (in us and others), if we can stay loose about it. Defining self and how we see it as we leave, as you did, Kit (rather than trying to whip people into shape) gives room for people to make those choices.

    Regarding taking things personally, I have been thinking of the image of “elephant hide” as a valuable asset in ministry. Some people have it as a birthright, others have to develop it.

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  • IGalindo

    I’ve seen several instances lately of people “taking things personally,” needlessly. It’s a sure sign of reactivity and/or immaturity. The immature part seems to include an inability to grasp one’s boundaries—just because something is an issue with someone else does not mean it has anything to do with you. Also, when one feels powerless there is some satisfaction to be had from railing against the injustices of the universe, I suppose.

    Personally, I seem to have had two advantages related to “taking criticism” (if they are indeed advantages): (1) I’m an Enneagram 5, which means I’m arrogant enough to not really care what you think; and (2) I grew up in NYC, which means my initial response is not to wither from a criticism but to respond, “Yeah? Criticize THIS!” I’ve learned that second response tends not to be helpful in the “genteel” Southern culture in which I work, so I’ve learned to practice restraint—but you can bet I’m thinking it.

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  • kit ketcham

    I had a terrific experience with a small Unitarian congregation I have been serving and am getting ready to leave. Last Sunday was “Visions for _____” sermon day and I knew I needed to say some hard things to them about their sense of mission to the community. They have been meeting only twice a month for years, though I have been encouraging them for the four years of my service to them to offer services every week. So I hit it pretty hard during the sermon, though trying to be fair and recognize the fears that hold them back. Much to my surprise, during the after-church sermon reflection time, a spontaneous effort arose to begin weekly services starting in September! Seeds may sprout belatedly, but they do sprout!

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