Years ago (I often hold sensitive topics that involve other people for months or even years before writing publicly on them because I always want to guard confidentiality), I received what can only be described as an extremely critical email from a stranger. For whatever reason, she felt quite confident in not only her own abilities and insights, but also in the appropriateness of her sharing those insights with me.
This was not a conversation or even an invitation to a conversation—the was all one-directional:
“Tara. I have observed this about you and I’m going to tell you a whole bunch of things about you now—all things that are weaknesses about you.”
And then BAM! She let me have it.
How effective do you think this sort of out-of-the-blue negative assessment/criticism really was? Well. In my case, it wasn’t very effective at all. And that troubled me at first, because I really want to be a humble and teachable person. I KNOW I have huge blindspots and areas in need of growth, so I genuinely try to actively look for good/helpful parts of criticism, even graceless criticism. But there was so much of her tone and word choices that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand straight-up! Ah, adrenaline. Our fight or flight response. What a blessing when you need to RUN AWAY from a bear or KILL a bear (actually, you NEVER run from a bear, but that’s another post).
Adrenaline is great in life or death situations, but it sure can fritz out our theology and our love when we are in relational conflict / when we feel attacked. And I was definitely feeling attacked by her “observations” / “feedback” / call it what you want to try to soften it, but it was criticism, straight up. And I wondered why it wasn’t coming across as all that helpful to me. And then God gave me such a grace when Thom Ranier put this wonderful blog post up:
As I read Mr. Ranier’s list, I saw with beautiful clarity why this criticism was so ineffective. When describing someone who was an effective critic in his life, Mr. Ranier wrote:
1. He had no pattern of having a critical spirit. Some people are perpetually critical. Their negativity is known and often avoided. Such people have little credibility. Even if they have something worthy to say, it is often ignored because of their patterns in the past. That was not the case with this man. He was not known as a negative person. He did not speak or write in a critical way on an ongoing basis. Because of this pattern, I was inclined to listen to him.
2. He prayed before he criticized. In fact, this man prayed every day for two weeks before he ever approached me. He asked God to stop him if his mission was not meant to be. He did not take the moment lightly. To the contrary, he treated it with utmost seriousness.
3. He communicated concern without anger. This critic did not once raise his voice. His body language did not communicate anger. He was passionate in his position while maintaining his composure.
4. He avoided any ad hominem attacks. My critic wanted to be certain that I knew he was not attacking me personally. He affirmed me in many ways. He voiced respect for my character. But he did not waver in his expressed concern. Never once did I feel like I was under attack personally.
5. He asked for my perspective. Frankly, most of my critics through the years have not expressed any desire to hear my side of the story. They are so intent to communicate their position that they leave no room for me to speak. Such was not the case with this critic. He asked a surprising question early in the conversation: “Thom, why did you make this decision? I really want to hear your thoughts straight from you.”
6. He listened to me. Undoubtedly you’ve been in those conversations where the other person really does not indicate any desire to listen to you. Even while you are speaking, it is evident that he or she is formulating the next response rather than hearing your words. This critic not only asked for my perspective, he really listened as I spoke. The only time he interjected was to ask clarifying questions.
7. He was humble. One of the primary reasons we get defensive when we are criticized is the attitude of the critic. They often seem to have an all-knowing and condescending spirit. To the contrary, my critic was genuinely humble. He was not a know-it-all. He did not act like the smartest man in the room. Frankly his humility was humbling to me.
In my situation, this criticism was a real shock. It came from out of the blue. There was no pattern to our relationship because this person had no relationship with me. I don’t know if she prayed before contacting me—let’s assume charitably that she did. Great. But I sure did not experience the fruit of the Spirit (gentleness, kindness) in her interaction with me. She had her list. She told me her list without ever inviting me into any level of conversation or engagement. She did not listen to me. She did not even introduce herself to me. She just said, “I have these observations for you to ‘help’ you” (her word). Actually, I’d have to go back and re-read her email, but I think she may have even described her words as “loving help.” Interesting, eh?
To quote Judy Dabler,
“If you have to tell someone that what you are doing or saying is loving, it probably isn’t.”
Mr. Ranier’s last point (on humility) really described what I believe was the reason this woman’s criticism was so ineffective. There was just no evidence of humility in her words or tone. She communicated not “thoughts” or “ideas for consideration”—but “facts.” Her facts. Her observations that she was absolutely sure about and she felt no reservation telling me about. I find that amazing! Maybe she’s right and every single substantive observation she made is spot-on. But her certainty regarding her own judgments and the rightness of her telling me all of her judgments frighteningly reminded me of ME in my 20’s.
Oh! How many times did I spew words out without really thinking through how I was coming across? “Suggestions.” “Observations.” “Helps.” Oh man. How often I felt so confident in my assessments and the appropriateness of proclaiming my assessments. Without considering relationship! Without any sense of my own inadequacies (humility)! Every time I think about a conversation in my 20’s wherein I was explaining how people should do things more like me, I just cringe. I rightfully cringe.
It is an important thing we do when we sharpen one another and confront one another. We ought to do this. Real love requires us to do this.Buthow we do this matters.
Oh, friends! Please be careful. May we all be careful (!) when we go to criticize another person. May we be prayerful and invite the person into genuine conversation and may we listen well. Before we proclaim, let us be careful lest we crush a bruised reed! Even as uncomfortable as the conversation may be, let us do everything we can to be SO clear that we are right there with them, in the muck and muddle of life. Yes, we are talking about something hard in their life right now—and that is hard, but appropriate. And next Tuesday, we will probably be talking about something hard in my life (and that will be likewise hard, but appropriate). We are in this together. Level ground. A team. Yes, there is judgment—an evaluation of something and a strong conviction that we need to talk about it. But no, there is no judgment—judgment that condemns you to a place of “other” and puts me above you in a place of “better than.”
With that, I’ll sign off with a genuine hope that we will all be encouraged to be careful and charitable whenever we feel the strong urge to “lovingly” criticize someone. Mr. Ranier’s list might be a helpful tool to review before we go.
Your friend in the battle,
Thinking about all of this reminded me of some notes I wrote years ago when was feeling overwhelmed by the chaos and mess of my home. I thought about developing it into an actual blog post, but never got around to it. Apparently it was a busy, chaotic time for me. 🙂 Here are the raw notes:
Look at your (desk / purse / office / home). What a mess! You have emails from 2002 in your Inbox? Did they even have email back then? These knives don’t go with these spatulas. Why are your kids’ toys all mixed in together with their socks? Don’t you know anything about being a GOOD STEWARD? God wants you to TAKE DOMINION. Make things perfect. Here. Check out this really helpful site (the “P” word!). You need this (book, system, iPhone app). It will change your world. Get this filing system. Schedule everything. Do it. Do better. Be better.
(What’s that you say? You’re actually a very organized person? But you’ve been taking care of a chronically ill child for years while trying to support your husband who is pouring himself out for his work and ministry; all while trying to help your other children process the suffering of their beloved sister and her slow, but seems-to-be imminent death? Maybe “getting THINGS done” has taken a backseat to, you know, life and love and suffering and death?)
Yes, we are to strive for excellence.
Those of us who struggle in relationships are to take steps to grow and change and mature.
Organizers? We get to serve and help others when they trust us and when they want us to help them with their chaos.
Idolatrous gluttony and sloth? Of course we are called to repent and change and grow.
But real life is complex.
Authors blow it.
Speakers are imperfect.
Pastors are human.
Mothers are human.
Life is messy.
We do our best and then we have to let it go–or else we’ll be eaten up with self-doubt and self-judgment and we’ll become graceless, critical people who go around pointing out the weaknesses in others. All the time. To fix them. To “help” them.
But where is the love?
Where is the relationship?
I am so tired, so very tired, of the “together people” — especially the mothers of young children who make it all look SOOOOO easy —giving me unsolicited observations on my failures and suggestions for my improvements. Is this what Christian love is really supposed to look like? Feel like? How do all of these lists for being a better Christian, a better wise, a better mother, acknowledge at all that I am a human being with frailties and wounds that are not easily known? Why do people feel so confident in judging my heart and my intentions by my outward appearance? What is it that keeps them from doing the hard work of getting to know me and learning about me in the context of the real me? The complex me. Why don’t they allow me the honor of knowing them—the real them?
Sometimes, I think people think I am a strong person and I can just take it. And some days I am and I can. But some days, I am lamenting a pain they do not know. I am battling depression they cannot see. My life of serving others does not readily show how lonely, desperately lonely, I really am.
Cut me and I bleed. Kick me and I hurt. You can tell me a hundred times not to take it personally, but by the time you’re telling someone not to take it personally, they probably already are.