Critics: Stay Away or Draw Close to Them?

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As we seek to lead as Jesus led, it’s important that we surround ourselves with truth-tellers, rather than friends alone.

Criticism hurts, especially the non-constructive kind. We tend to stay away from such critics. But is that the wisest choice? Should we draw close to them instead of pulling away from them? 

Murray Bowen, the father of family systems, coined the phrase “non-anxious presence.” He used this term to describe a personal quality that when a leader exhibits it, can keep a family or a group’s overall emotional reactivity and anxiety down. He and others suggest that leaders should not cut off their critics, but should actually stay connected to them in a calm way. 

What does a non-anxious leader look like? 

  • can truly listen to another, even if he or she is bearing bad news or criticism
  • can hold his emotions in check when in the hot seat
  • seldom gets defensive
  • can acknowledge the emotions of his critic
  • will calmly and courageously respond instead of reacting

Just after the arrival of the Holy Spirit in Acts, chapter 2, people were declaring that everyone was out of their mind or drunk. Peter confronted the crowd with strong words and invited the crowd to “listen carefully to what I say.” This is the same Peter who just a few days earlier was ready to pack up his disciple role and return to fishing. Jesus had been arrested, crucified and buried. Yet, here, we find him calmly and clearly making the greatest assessment of what had happened in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit had truly gotten hold of him and provided him with a non-anxious presence! 

Ernest Shackleton, one of the greatest explorers ever, modeled this non-anxious presence with his Antarctica expedition crew as they were marooned for over a year in 1915-1916 after their ship was crushed by the ice. His calm presence and his drawing to difficult crew members allowed him to lead them all to safety. Not one man perished. Here’s what he did.

  • His photographer, Frank Hurley, would feel slighted if the crew didn’t pay attention to him and would become difficult to work with. Instead of isolating him, Shackleton gave him a place in his tent and often conferred with him.
  • His physicist, Reginald Jamer, was an introverted academic. Shackleton feared that his personality might invite ridicule that in turn could escalate into a serious issue. He made him a bunkmate as well.
  • When Shackleton selected a crew to take a lifeboat to sail from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island to assemble a rescue party for the entire crew, he selected the carpenter, McNeish. He chose him not only for his skills but also because he was concerned that McNeish could create discontentment with the men who were left.
  • Finally, Shackleton specifically picked two other crewmen because he felt they might cause trouble in his absence. In total, more than half of the group he chose were potential troublemakers. 

The greatest counsel on this matter comes from Proverbs 19:20 which says, “Listen to advice and accept discipline, and at the end you will be counted among the wise.” Critics can be beneficial to us because they offer a different perspective.

As we seek to lead as Jesus led, it’s important that we surround ourselves with truth-tellers rather than friends alone. Sometimes critics are able to share truth without risking friendship. Proverbs 27:6 reminds us that Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.

So, how can we present a non-anxious presence to those who are our critics or to those with whom our personalities rub? I suggest these ideas: 

  1. When criticized, truly try to understand the critic’s perspective. Ask questions. Really listen.
  2. When someone criticizes, thank them for sharing it.
  3. Spend some social time with the critic so he can get to know you. Share some of your personal life story.
  4. Pray for a strengthening of the relationship between you and your critic and for trust to be built.
  5. Do something thoughtful for your critic, something that he or she would not expect from you.

As counter-intuitive as this may seem, staying calmly connected to your critics can help you grow as a leader and move your church or organization forward. As we seek to maintain positive, God-honoring relationships, let’s pray: 

Father, thank you for the blessing of being a part of Your work for Your glory. Help me to stay calmly connected to my critics and be an encouragement to them and a reflection of You. Guide me as I seek to build others up rather than tear them down. In Jesus’ name I pray, Amen. 

Written by Charles Stone

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