How to Receive Criticism: 2 Types of Critics Who Can Teach You

The fact is, being a leader attracts criticism—if you want everyone to like you, go sell ice cream.

It’s a hard balance—you want to receive criticism, but not from every single person. The fact is, being a leader attracts criticism—if you want everyone to like you, go sell ice cream.

However, I’d encourage you to consider receiving criticism not just from people who like you but also from those who don’t. In other words, you can receive criticism from unfriendly and friendly critics.

Since it’s harder, I’ll start with learning from those who are not friendly. In many cases, they don’t talk to you, just about you. Either way, God can use criticisms from unfriendly people for you.

Unfriendly Critics

Unfriendly critics have taught me lessons by what they say, even if they don’t say it to me. For example, in speaking of making sure people understand the Bible, early in my ministry I would say, “We need to make the Bible relevant.”

And actually, I think that’s a true statement that can sometimes be misleading. At the encouragement of a person who most people would consider to be an unfriendly critic, I changed the terminology from, “We need to make the Bible relevant,” to “The Bible is already relevant—it’s relevant in every time and every culture—but we have to make people understand how it’s relevant.”

The difference is subtle, but it helped me to reframe the conversation, and I learned from an unfriendly critic (who, today, I consider a friend). But when I heard of his criticism, I thought on it and said, “He’s right. I’m wrong.” And though my pride worked against it, I made the change.

I can think of about a dozen other examples (and I am sure there are hundreds more) where someone who did not like something I said, did or believed helped to make me communicate more clearly, correct a wrong or just think more deeply on something I said.

Friendly Critics

Friendly critics are the easiest to learn from because they have your best interests at heart. A biblical example would be Apollos, learning from Priscilla and Aquila in Acts 18:26: “He (Apollos) began to speak boldly in the synagogue. After Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him home and explained the way of God to him more accurately.”

Now, don’t miss that. We don’t know all the details, but here is what we know—an articulate and powerful speaker came to the synagogue and then was instructed by a trusted married couple who, from what we know, were not “speaker types.”

I wonder how many of us would receive criticism and instruction from someone in the church who thought we needed to be more clear on a subject? But that’s the kind of person we should strive to be—radically open to those whom we know have our best interests at heart.

Having critics like Priscilla and Aquila, who love and care for us enough to take us aside and tell us we aren’t articulating something correctly or that we are somehow misunderstanding, is helpful and can be honoring to God.

Friendly or Unfriendly: Do They Have a Point?

The key when listening to unfriendly and friendly critics is to ask if they have a point. If you continually ask that question, you’ll turn your critics into your teachers.

If the answer is, very clearly, “No, they have just ridiculously missed the issue,” then it’s not necessary to consider much further. But if you think EVERYONE is just foolish and misses the point, they might not be the problem—it might be you!

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Ed Stetzer
Ed Stetzer is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. He has trained pastors and church planters on five continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN.