3 Ways Not to Respond to Criticism


Criticism is almost unavoidable for leaders, says Maxie Dunnam. What is key is knowing how to handle it appropriately.

An old saying was right, “Criticism is something you can avoid easily — by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.” For leaders, criticism is inevitable. How we handle it determines whether it becomes a “little fox that spoils the vines.”

John Wesley talked about pride in terms of not seeing someone we seriously disagree with as having something to teach us. Perhaps more than any others, those persons may teach us that we don’t know what we don’t know.

1. Don’t ignore criticism

Many leaders respond to criticism by not responding; they disregard it. There may be occasions when that is the right response, but we need to be sure. We must be careful that we don’t allow our pride to diminish the value of others’ assessment of us. If the criticism is of a nature that we know most people will disregard, then we can do the same. But be careful: it’s true that many people will believe anything. It is also true that many people especially relish seeing fault in people who are thought to have no fault. Note the news media response to public leaders, especially religious leaders, who have moral failures.

However we choose to handle it, criticism is not to be ignored; it must be reckoned with. The beginning point of reckoning with it is self-examination. Is the criticism directed to you as a person, or is it the position of leadership that is being questioned? Be honest. Does the criticism reflect some weakness or failure that you need to own and respond to, whether through changes you need to make or by dealing with the source of the criticism or both?

2. Don’t become defensive

Sometimes we may need to defend ourselves, especially if truth is an issue. Truth telling and truth revealing are critical. If the criticism we receive has to do with style of leadership, we need to examine it carefully and determine if there are changes that we need to make in order to be more effective.

Sometimes people are critical of us because of the “kind of person” we are — our personalities. Most of this does not call for defense. Sometimes, however, the person being critical needs to be confronted by our acknowledging to him or her: “Yes, this is who I am; I don’t know if and how I need to change … but what ideas do you have, so that together we can get on with kingdom work?”

3. Don’t play the victim

Our worst response, and least effective response, to the “little fox” of criticism is to hunker down and assume the role of victim. Those who oppose and criticize us often have something to teach us. So, in response to criticism, we need to ask ourselves some questions: Is this something I need to hear though I don’t want to hear it? Is this criticism accurate, reflecting something for which I need to take responsibility? This kind of transparent honesty and deep listening will be refreshingly disarming to our critics and our most redemptive response.

This material is excerpted from Christian Leadership: Speaking to God for the People, Speaking to the People for God (Abingdon Press, 2019) by Maxie Dunnam. Used by Permission. The book is available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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About Author

Maxie D. Dunnam served as president of Asbury Theological Seminary from 1994 to 2004. Previously he served as world editor of the Upper Room Fellowship and created the Upper Room Cursillo that later became the Walk to Emmaus.

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