Can anyone tell you when you’re wrong?

Helpful tips for receiving and giving critical feedback

December 9, 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 is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24