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Hurtless Criticism


Nothing silences me more quickly and more permanently than thoughts about the subject I am going to address in this article. The topic has to do with the tendency for us, as leaders, to use our position, our knowledge, our influence, or some other ability to hurt the people we are leading. I will explain how thoughts of this topic silence me, later in this article.

I could have called this "Painless Criticism", but that would not have been correct, for criticism is almost always painful for the person receiving it. No one really likes to be criticised, although we can train ourselves to focus on the benefits that can be derived from accepting criticism and thus ease the pain that it brings to our pride.

However, the fact that criticism may, of necessity, be painful to the recipient, does not mean that it needs to be hurtful. And nine times out of ten, hurtful criticism is totally useless, if not downright harmful.

What I mean by hurtful criticism is criticism which is being spurred on by the anger and frustration of the person expressing it. This anger and frustration will cause us to want to make the other person hurt, in order to "teach them a lesson" or to "wake them up" to how bad they are.

I know from deep personal experience that such concepts are much more easily taught than they are practised. And yet, unless we aim at such a goal, we will never have a hope of improving. Justifying hurtful criticism is probably the biggest barrier to ending it.

The Bible says that "the wrath of man does not accomplish the will of God". (James 1:20) In other words, when we are angry, we are not in a right state of mind to build the kingdom of heaven. All of our attempts to "help" are only going to "hurt".

If we really want to help, then we must find out whether people really want our help. The difference between a discussion and an argument is that in a discussion someone is listening. In an argument, it is easy to see that the other person is not listening, but it's not so easy to see that, if they aren't listening, then you are wasting your time in trying to talk.

The first rule for any speaker is to determine first whether there is someone listening. If you don't do this, then you too are not listening, because you have ignored the evidence that the other person is not listening.

When we have established that the other person is not listening to our criticism, we usually turn up the volume. But does it work?

There have been times that we have been able to get through to people and convince them of the seriousness of their error, and they have thanked us for it afterwards. However, even in those circumstances, I cannot help but wonder whether the person may have benefited more by us using less volume, and thus forcing them to turn up their hearing instead. People can so easily become accustomed to others shouting to help them, that they gradually cease to take responsibility for their own lives.

The Bible says that when God speaks, he uses "a still, small voice". It's true that God does roar like a lion at times. But when it reaches that point, it is hardly ever for the purpose of getting your attention. In fact, it's usually too late for you to listen by then. He is meting out his judgment, and there is nothing that will stop him.

The Battle of Armageddon, for example, is not going to be an attempt to get the world to listen. It will be God's final judgment on a world that stopped, a long time ago, listening to its own conscience... that still small voice of the spirit. But in the meantime, God continues to wait. He continues to be patient. And that is what we need to do as well.

So what do you do as a leader when you discover that one of your followers is doing something wrong, and they have not responded to your efforts to correct them?

For starters, you may need to have another look at the correction that you used. Was the initial correction done hurtfully? If so, you need to examine your own heart and get it right before you can hope to get the attention of your follower. Until you really feel for them in their present situation, you won't be able to inspire them to change. Do you think there is any sincerity at all in them? If so, then work on that. Encourage them, rather than discouraging them. Talk to them like a friend. Talk about how they can achieve the goals that they have set for themselves.

If you have done that, and they still don't respond, then there isn't much more that you can do (and still stay in the spirit) except wait. After all, isn't waiting what patience is all about? Look at God. Isn't that what he does? He keeps waiting for us to respond, rather than slapping us about to hurry us up.

Now I'll tell how this concept shuts me up. I keep coming up with strategies in my mind, which I hope will speed the process up, and cause someone to change. But then, when I imagine myself trying them on someone who is out of the spirit, I can see how every imaginable strategy will fail unless and until they really want to learn. Such strategies are just manifestations of my own impatience with the fact that the person has turned their receiver off.

Just knowing that they have turned their receiver off can make us leaders angry; but it won't help anyone for us to express that anger. It's part of the freedom that God gives to everyone. Their decision not to listen may or may not be a permanent decision, but screaming into a deaf ear won't hurry things up.

There is another little truism that says, "If you can't say something positive, don't say anything at all." Bear in mind that, when someone is not listening, even trying to say something positive may not accomplish much.

But at the same time, just "saying nothing" should not be done in a hurtful way either. Otherwise, it too becomes a self-destructive strategy. The bottom line is that, whether you do nothing, or whether you do something, it needs to be done in love.

For me, I have found that my natural tendency is to want to act, to try this, that, and the other. But when I think it through, I realise that nothing will work until the other person is ready to listen. And all of my efforts will only be misinterpreted.

Something practical that can help is to turn your attention to other things, and especially to other people. When someone insults you while you are out distributing tracts, the best thing to do is to turn right away from them and offer the tracts to someone else (not to hurt them, mind you, but more to keep you from hurting them by getting into a slinging match).

Don't dwell on the people who insult you; instead, savour the friendly smiles, the thank-you's, the kind donations, and other encouraging signs that you receive during the day. When you do this, you will see that the insults represent a very tiny portion of your day.

If you are a leader, and a follower is not responding in a particular area, consider areas where he or she is making progress, and console yourself with the fact that he or she is still moving in the right overall direction, even if the movement is not as fast as you would like it to be. Think about how much better off you are with having an imperfect follower than you would be with no follower.

If there is no noticeable progress, and if the person is becoming overly disruptive, then you may need to take action to have him or her kicked out or dealt with in some other way. But even that can be done without wanting to hurt the person involved.

If we could learn to feel the loss with them, to feel the pain that they feel when they are criticised or disciplined, then maybe we would have better fruit coming from our discipline.

There are many things leaders can say and do which will hurt followers. Even doing nothing can hurt them. But when hurting is our motivation in doing it, we hurt ourselves if no one else. We will get the best results when we try not to hurt people, at the same time that we carry out our duty in correcting them.

Remember that the person who is out of the spirit is more or less on the other side of an impenetrable barrier. Their growth depends on their attitudes. My attitudes and actions have little to do with it. I could have a bad spirit, but a good follower will still grow spiritually despite it, because he or she will accept the truth in what I say and reject what is false. At the same time, my growth will depend on my attitudes. Even if it appears to "work" when I blow up at someone, it will do nothing positive for me spiritually. All the credit goes to the person who was gracious enough to learn in spite of my bad attitude.

Of course there is some influence that creeps between that otherwise impenetrable barrier, so that as our attitude improves, it should result in a slight improvement in the attitude of the people who follow us as well. But we cannot let that be our guide. We need to be loving and sympathetic in every situation, whether it works or not. Only God and we ourselves will know just how genuine our love is; so take plenty of time for honest introspection.

Let us each do our best to pull out every root of bitterness, so that even our criticisms will be done in genuine and deep love.

Amen?

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