10 Ways to Give Constructive Criticism
If I only preached on what I’d mastered, I’d never preach again. Sometimes, I’ve even had to preach on topics that I’d barely begun to understand or do. That’s the territory I’m in today with this blog post. I’d say that offering constructive criticism is probably one of my weakest areas, even worse that my ability to receive it! So, take this very much as “Here’s where I’d like to go,” or “Here’s what I’ve learned about constructive criticism from a lifetime of giving destructive criticism.”
1. It’s preceded by praise
I don’t believe in “the sandwich principle” that says you must put a slice of praise before and after every criticism. That often devalues the praise and deceives the person. However, I do believe that for criticism to have any hope of accomplishing anything, it should be set in the wider context of praise. There should be praise in the bank, before we start drawing down with any criticisms.
2. It’s infrequent
On the basis of #1, some people think that a little bit of praise sprinkled here and there permits them to launch frequent nuclear missiles at their unfortunate targets. In Practicing Affirmation, Sam Crabtree suggests a praise/criticism ratio of at least 3:1 and preferably closer to 5:1. But he also says that “relationships are healthy when so much affirmation is being spread around that no one is keeping track of either affirmation or correction.”
3. It’s limited
Criticism should be more like a sniper’s bullet than buckshot. It aims at one specific target and refuses to take potshots at anything else. “And while we’re at it, let me tell you…” Please don’t.
4. It majors on majors
If you’re going to criticize every fault and failing of everyone around you, you’re going to be very busy…and lonely. We live in a sinful world. The best of us are flaw-full. We simply must learn to overlook minor faults in others – not talk about them to others and, if possible, not even think about them. Save your critical energy for major targets. That way you’ll help yourself and others.
5. It’s supported by evidence
First, make sure you are criticizing what God criticizes, that you’re not basing everything simply on your own preferences or prejudices. Second, can you prove it? Can you point to evidence to support your criticism? Is “I think…” and “I feel…” and “I suspect…” the best you’ve got? Then let it go.
6. It’s aim is building not demolition
All criticism involves some element of demolition: wrong conduct to be torn down, wrong beliefs to be razed. But the ultimate aim is to build something better, even beautiful, in its place. If our motive is to leave a person’s life in smoldering ruins, then we are doing the devil’s work. But if our aim is a better person, a stronger person, a more mature person, then we are in the profitable business of constructive criticism.
7. It’s prayerfully considered
It’s so easy to spout out an ill-considered or nil-considered criticism in response to an immediate event or conversation. That rarely accomplishes anything beneficial, and usually results in a shouting (or crying) match. No matter how tempting, it is almost always advisable to take 24 hours at least and to pray over it. That should help purify the motive, identify the best target, and dampen the emotions. Which brings us to…
8. It’s dispassionate
This is probably my greatest weakness of many others in this area. I find it so hard to be calm and cool about certain things. My red face, tense voice, and shaky hands start people’s alarm bells ringing, and, unsurprisingly, their defenses go up, as does their temperature. Not a recipe for building anything good.
9. It comes from the right person
The Bible is very clear about the need to respect our elders. Usually that will mean we will rarely offer criticism to our superiors, or if we do, it will be with strict qualifications (1 Tim. 5:1-2, 19). I’ve sometimes been asked by a boss or an older Christian to say if I notice anything in their character or conduct that is wrong. I find that almost impossible to do. And I think that’s OK. Our superiors should normally look to their superiors for correction. And let’s focus on those whom the Lord has committed to our responsibility, not on those we have no relationship with and no authority over.
10. It’s humble
Have you ever changed as a result of an arrogant person pointing out your faults? No, neither have I. In fact, I’ve probably determined to do what was critiqued even more. But when a person humbly comes alongside me, confesses his own faults, admits his own struggles, maybe even in that particular area, then my ears are open and so is my heart.
David Murray is a professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. More resources by him are available at www.headhearthand.org.