Should You Cut Off or Get Closer to Your Critics?

Physically and emotionally cutting off your critics is a critical mistake.

What’s happening in this picture? I used this in a recent talk and asked the church audience to give me their answers. Their responses included … two people are angry, they are upset, they aren’t talking, they disagree about something. One lady came up to me afterward and said, “I think it means that she was right and he was wrong.” I chuckled at that one. In a phrase, this is what I see: Two people, for whatever reasons, have cut themselves off from each other, both physical and emotionally. Leaders do that sometimes to their critics and naysayers. Here’s why that’s not a good idea and how we can stay closer to our critics.

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One of the greatest survival stories ever began in August 1914 when the famous explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton sailed with 27 men on his ship, the Endurance. He planned to lead the first expedition across the Antarctic continent. However, his ship got stuck in heavy sea ice, which eventually crushed it off the coast of Antarctica. Stuck on four feet of ice over mile-deep water, Shackleton and his crew survived 635 days and nights with poor shelter and limited rations in some of the harshest conditions known. Amazingly, on foot and by small boat he eventually got to safety and then rescued his entire crew. You can read the full story in the great book Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.

What was the key to this amazing story of survival? It was a quality of Shackleton’s leadership presence. The ship’s surgeon, Alexander Macklin, captured one of the most important characteristics Shackleton embodied that contributed to the men’s survival. He wrote in his diary, “Shackleton at this time showed one of his sparks of real greatness. He did not rage at all, or show outwardly the slightest sign of disappointment; he told us simply and calmly (my emphasis) that we must winter in the Pack, explained its dangers and possibilities; he never lost his optimism.”[1]

Shackleton illustrates a quality I believe leaders need: to maintain a calm presence with their critics, dissidents and naysayers. In his time of crisis, he calmly connected to his men, especially the dissidents and potential troublemakers. It made the difference between life and death.

It’s a counterintuitive approach. Staying reasonably and calmly connected is the better way to lower the relational tension and personal anxiety we feel toward our critics. It can improve those relationships, and it doesn’t mean that we become their best friends or that we let them run over us.

So, who in your ministry is your biggest detractor today?

An old-timer who has been in the church 40 years?

A board member who seems to always take a contrarian view?

A staff person who isn’t performing?

A volunteer who doesn’t like you?

Or?

Shackleton’s secret was that instead of pushing away his detractors he actually drew closer to those men. He made two of his troublmakers his bunkmates in his tent. And when he left on a lifeboat to assemble a rescue party, he took three men whom he felt might cause trouble with the men who were left.

Here’s what I suggest to maintain a calm presence with such people.

1. Recognize the power of emotional and relational force fields.

Just as magnets have force fields around them, leaders carry emotional force fields as well. Our demeanor, words and vocal tone all carry power. We can draw people to us or push them away (like the same poles on a magnet do). Great leaders monitor and control their emotional force fields because others will sense our tone. It’s a social neuroscience concept theory of mind that states that we can somewhat intuit the emotions, intentions and thoughts of another. Although it’s not mind reading and we often misread other’s intentions, it is what some call our sixth sense. Great leaders recognize this and create welcoming rather than repelling emotional force fields, especially toward their critics.

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Charles Stone
Charles Stone is the pastor of West Park Church in Canada. Charles is passionate about the intersection of cognitive neuroscience and Biblical truth. Charles is the author of numerous articles and a handful of books, including Holy Noticing. He and his wife have three adult children and two grandchildren.