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Emotionally Intelligent Responses to Critics

Emotionally Intelligent Responses to Critics
  • Name
    Carey Nieuwhof
So you signed up for leadership, but you didn’t really sign up for all the criticism that came with it, did you? And yet here you are. Criticism is an almost daily staple for most leaders. You get everything from side comments, to direct challenges, to people who walk out the door, to anonymous notes sent to you by people with no courage. You dread it. I dread it. Who doesn’t? In fact, it can completely derail your day, your week and your work. So what do you do when it comes your way?

The Best Way to Avoid Criticism

One way to handle critics is to dream of working in a place where no one criticizes anyone. And, as a result, more than a few leaders have left a place of employment or ministry to find greener pastures where there won’t be as much opposition, only to be disappointed that criticism just seems to come with the territory wherever you go. Don’t get me wrong, there are some toxic workplaces and there are definitely some toxic people (here are six early warning signs you’re dealing with a toxic person). And there are healthy workplaces and healthy people. But even in a healthy environment, criticism is inevitable. The best way to avoid critics is to do nothing significant. Clearly, that’s not you. So how do you deal with it?

5 Way to Handle Criticism Like an Emotionally Intelligent Leader

The problem for me with criticism is that it makes me want to respond like a toddler would. Criticism naturally makes me defend, deny, and if I’m having a bad day, it also makes me want to retaliate. None of that is good. And if you study leaders who don’t do well in the long run, they almost always tend to respond to critics with immaturity. This is where emotional intelligence can be a leader’s best friend. And the good news is, emotional intelligence can be learned (here, for example, are five EI hacks that can help you grow as a leader).
Here are five learnable hacks that, when I follow them, have helped me handle criticism like an emotionally intelligent leader would.

1. Don’t Respond for 24 Hours. Just Don’t.

Every time you get a critical email, a critical comment, a critical text or phone call, something happens inside you, doesn’t it? Your heart starts beating faster. You feel hurt, even crushed depending on what they said. And sometimes you get angry. And usually when that happens, your emotions derail your brain. At least they derail mine. I learned years ago almost nothing good happens when I’m upset. In an attempt to address the situation, I almost always make it worse. Even if I convince myself I’ll make it better, I usually don’t. Not when I’m upset. So years ago, I made a rule.  When you feel an emotional reaction to criticism, don’t respond for 24 hours. That’s easy in the case of an email, a text or written complaint. Just sleep on it. But even when there’s a verbal exchange, just bite your tongue. Thank them. Say little or nothing. Don’t respond. After 24 hours elapse, something amazing usually happens. You get your brain back. A day later, you can respond reasonably and rationally to something that you once could only respond to emotionally. You’ve slept on it. Hopefully you’ve prayed about it. And maybe you’ve even talked to a few wise friends about how to respond with grace and integrity. You’ve lost nothing. And you’ve gained so much. So wait. Just wait.

2. Ask Yourself: Is There Any Truth in This?

During those 24 hours, you can start asking sensible questions, the chief of which is “Is there any truth in this?” Sometimes there’s not. But often there is. If you’re not sure, ask a friend or colleague. They may see what your critic sees. Even if there’s just a nugget of truth, that nugget can help you grow into a better person and better leader. Self-awareness is the key to emotional intelligence, and our critics help us become more self-aware. Even if there’s zero truth in what the critic is saying, at least you searched. And by asking, you lost nothing.

3. Own What You Can

Own whatever part of the issue you can. Preachers, if someone says your message was useless, try to understand why someone walked out of the room feeling that way. Don’t just look to your fans to make you feel better. Try to understand how someone could have invested an hour of their life but left confused or upset. If someone was offended by what you said, try to understand why. Own that piece, even if their reaction to what you did was a terrible overreaction. Great leaders assume responsibility. Weak leaders blame. So become a great leader, especially when it comes to criticism.

4. Reply Relationally

Just because they shot off an email in the dark of night doesn’t mean you should. Just because they came to the microphone in a meeting and sounded off doesn’t mean you should return the favor. I learned this strategy from Andy Stanley and have followed it ever since. Take your response to criticism up one level from how they corresponded with you. Reply in a way that’s more relationally connected than how they initiated things with you. Example:
  • If they emailed you, call them. You’ll not only shock them, but you’ll quickly diffuse the situation. People are bolder on email than they ever are in a conversation. Nothing good regarding conflict ever happens on email.
  • If they stopped you in the hall and blasted you, take them out for coffee. Call them and tell them you would like to learn from them and address the issue in person.
  • If they got mad at a meeting, go for lunch after.
Nine times out of 10, you will take the air out of the conflict balloon. And if they’re healthy, and you own whatever you can, you’ll be surprised at how it resolves the situation.

5. Discard the Crud

Even if you find some truth in what they said, own what you can and reply graciously and relationally, sometimes there’s still crud in the mix. Discard it. Sometimes I think 95 percent of the conflict in the church has nothing to do with the church. Your critic might have just had a huge fight with his daughter before he sat down at the keyboard to blast you. Your critic might simply be an angry person who has issues stapled to her issues. And you got an unfair shot. Or he may be someone who’s simply angry at the world. We can’t make the assumption that all our critics are crazy, frustrated or need counseling. That’s an easy crutch too many leaders lean on. But sometimes good people say and do bad things. And sometimes the blast comes with zero basis in reality. When that happens, you need to let the crud go. You’ve owned as much as you can of it, so let the rest fall away. Pray about it. Talk to friends about it. Grieve the hurt (seriously…do this) and then let it go. Don’t carry today’s baggage into tomorrow.

Don’t Let the Critics Win

Criticsm not only kills a lot of leaders, it kills a lot of church growth. Leader get frustrated because conversations about the future go nowhere. No one wants to deal with the real issues, and every time you discuss something that could really help your church reach more people, someone shoots it down. How do you handle that? Is it possible to have emotionally intelligent leadership conversations that will actually move your church forward in its mission? The answer is yes. If you want help, I designed an easy-to-navigate online resource that will help you and your church address the seven biggest issues that are keeping churches today from growing—regardless of your church size or location. The course is a companion to my best-selling book, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow. You can get the Lasting Impact video series for you and your church team today. Click here to get instant access.

How Have You Learned to Let Criticism Sting Less?

I’ve found that by following these steps, criticism stings less AND I grow as a leader. I’d love to hear what you’re learning in this. How do you grow from your critics? How do you make sure the criticism stings less? Leave a comment! This article originally appeared here.