Article

Can anyone tell you when you’re wrong?

Helpful tips for receiving and giving critical feedback

December 09, 2019

When is the last time you were rebuked? That’s a jarring question. And maybe it would be better to phrase it differently, like: when is the last time someone told you something he or she knew you didn’t want to hear? I bring this up because of an exchange I noticed online recently between some friends. In a conversation about creating room for critical feedback, one of them asked the other, “How do you build in space on your teams for negative feedback when needed without giving a foothold to negativity?”

Receiving critical feedback has literally changed the trajectory of my life more than once. Maybe the clearest example is a hard conversation I had with two of my best friends about 10 years ago that helped me move past some immature behaviors and eventually led to my engagement. And in the years since, I’ve had quite a bit of practice with this, both giving and (probably much more) receiving. 

Based on that experience, I’ve put together a few tips for giving and receiving critical feedback.  

How to hear hard things

1. Realize that you control 90% of this process

In my experience, whether or not people receive critical (but crucial) feedback has everything to do with their posture toward those around them. Some people can bulldoze their way through any barrier for self-protection you might put up, but most people can’t and likely won’t even try. 

If you want critical feedback but you rarely, if ever, receive it, it is probably because the people around you think you don’t actually want it. Correcting this takes at least three things:

2. Set up a signal

All of us are sinners. We hurt people, and we fall short every day. And when we pause to think about it, we all know this about ourselves. But the truth is that most of us like ourselves enough that we’re not looking to be criticized. Despite having established these kinds of feedback loops, when I’m being confronted about something negative, my first instinct is still to defend myself from whatever the charge is—even if it is really minor or insignificant.

 If you can’t remember the last time someone other than your spouse tried to nudge you in a better direction, it’s probably time to ask yourself why. 

One of the things that can help you overcome this natural defensive posture is to set up a signal with the people that bring you negative feedback. Think of this as setting yourself up for success. I know it sounds overly simplistic, but my wife and I simply come to the other person and say: “I need to talk you about something.” Of course there is a tone and a sense of timing that goes along with this. We don’t drop that phrase when we have company over or are about to head out on a date. But when one of us comes to the other and says that phrase, that means the subject is serious, and the other needs to prepare themselves to listen.

To give an example from the workplace, my boss is pretty great about this too. Our signal is different, but equally simple. When I need to raise an issue with him, I ask if I can shut the door. When the two of us are meeting or discussing something, and I feel like it rises to the level of needing real privacy, he defaults to a posture of listening intently. This doesn’t happen often, but when it does it usually leads to really honest, productive, and helpful conversations.

3. Take the good

The people in your life are also fallible. Sometimes they will bring critical feedback based on (unintentionally) faulty assumptions or partial information (especially if it is coming from a subordinate who might have access to less information). Yet, realize that most people don’t enjoy bringing bad news or criticism to the ones they care about. 

Be willing to listen carefully. Don’t rush to defend yourself or explain away their concerns. Take it seriously, and know that their coming to you is an incredible act of love (Prov. 27:6). For most people, most of the time, it is easier to stay silent and let the person go on doing what he or she is doing. So, listen first. Ask questions. Feel free to offer explanations or seek clarity. But don’t be combative. And realize that even if a “rebuke” wasn’t really in order, critical feedback is almost always valuable. Do something good with it.

How to say hard things

1. Remember that constructive feedback rarely ever comes when emotions are running high

This can be demonstrated in so many ways, but I’ll use my marriage again as an example. When my wife and I are in the midst of a disagreement, we strive to limit the disagreement to the issue at hand. This means we don’t use words like “always” or “never” (e.g., you always do this, or you never do this). And we don’t make the issue bigger than it is while we are emotional. It’s not that there isn’t a connection between the issue we’re discussing and larger patterns of behavior, but we’ve agreed that when a larger pattern needs to be corrected (e.g., I’ve not been a good listener lately), we do that at a separate time. 

The temptation is to think, if we don’t talk about it now, we never will. But that doesn’t have to be the case. In fact, bringing things up intentionally rather than in the heat of the moment will normally lead to a much better outcome. Establishing these kinds of feedback loops can help make sure you address what is important in a way that makes a difference.

2. Be really aware

I’ve had people come to me before with negative feedback that I really struggled with, not because I couldn’t believe that I had done something wrong (I know I’m a huge sinner!), but because the feedback didn’t seem to correspond with the facts at all. You shouldn’t offer critical feedback to someone unless you have a solid grasp of the situation or behavior and you have the kind of relationship with them that would legitimate your coming to them with criticism.

Giving someone critical feedback isn’t an opportunity to attack him or her. In fact, if you actually want it to be helpful, you need to be for the person. The person needs to know you care and that you are only trying to help and serve him or her. So make sure you are on solid ground before you speak up, both with your feedback and with your approach. You need personal credibility and command of the facts before bringing up this kind of focused critique.

3. Pick your criticism carefully

Critical feedback about something fleeting is usually a waste of relational capital or needlessly discouraging. No one wants constant criticism. Telling someone something they really need to hear can be life-changing. Constantly criticizing someone is, at best, counterproductive.

To say it as clearly as possible, all of us are sinners, and we all need correction and reproof (at least occasionally). If you can’t remember the last time someone other than your spouse tried to nudge you in a better direction, it’s probably time to ask yourself why. 

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester serves as the Director of Strategic Initiatives in the Office of the President at the ERLC. He is also pursuing a Th.M. in Public Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Josh is married to McCaffity, and they have two children. Read More by this Author