There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing. Proverbs 12:18
It’s very easy to indicate the faults of someone (or something) in a disapproving way. It’s easy to criticize. Sometimes, criticizing words are spoken, and sometimes they are written. Neither are fun, especially the written ones when received by mail – wow, that’s no fun at all.
Remember the last time you got a missive (especially long letter) in the mail, or by email?
Maybe it is different in your business, but I get interesting letters from time to time. I still remember the first one I received over thirty years ago. It was hand-written on legal size yellow pad paper and was fourteen pages…front and back. It was a show stopper. My emotional energy disappeared for the rest of the day and, as you can imagine, the letter was an issue on-and-off for several weeks.
What are we to do with such criticizing words?
Letters such as these can represent a lot of things:
- I did something stupid and deserve it.
- I missed a situation I “should” not have missed.
- Someone felt it their responsibility to point out problems they see in my life.
- Perhaps the writer has struggles, hurts, or issues on in his/her life.
- Perhaps the letter reflects unrealistic expectations.
- Maybe it’s the “squeaky wheel.”
- Maybe the person is a nut.
- Maybe it is a power and control thing.
The list could probably keep going, but those are eight possibilities to get us started.
Mail Bombs & 6 Considerations
I have also been privy to others who get these “mail bombs.” Sometimes it is a pastor, ministry friend, or elder who gets one and calls me dying in a pile. So, I may have a little perspective that might encourage you next time the “Unabomber” writes you such a communique.
When you receive Criticizing Letters & Messages:
- Consider the source. Obvious, but easily forgotten when you are gut-shot. Know that the person may be hurting, angry, under stress, and you are an easy target. The poor soul may have real problems. One of my friends offered, “I wonder what’s going on in his/her life?” Stuff below the waterline can motivate people to erupt on others.
- Learn the history. I have never received one of these where there was not a history of a person reacting to others in similar fashion. This person may be a chronically “unhappy camper.” This person likely went through other people before they came after you. It makes it a tad easier not to take it personally. I bite my tongue when I meet a first time guest to our church and how quickly they complain about all the churches they have attended and cannot find a good one… I have the greatest urge to say, “I hope you enjoyed your first and last visit to our church!”
- Understand your position. You may be the grounding rod for the lightening strikes. If you are the head of the organization (real or perceived) you are going to be the one to “get it.” It comes with the territory. Not that any of us is above criticism, but you are the target, the complaint window and consumer relations department. If you are in leadership, you will be criticized.
- Ignore it or not? I have friends who respond to every correspondence they get. I have others that ignore anything critical. After a few years of this, I have gained a sense of what I can / cannot ignore. Unfortunately email is an instantaneous medium to criticism anyone. The sheer volume of email becomes impossible to handle. People fire off emails before cooling down. I try to respond to most email, but when the tone of the letter is fever pitched I may no respond. If I’m equivocating, I run it by a trusted friend. Occasionally I have write a short reply, “your note contained a number of issues and I am not sure what, precisely, you are asking me. I am willing to respond but please help me clarify what you are asking.” Or, “your note contained so many issues I honestly do not have the time to address all of them. The main one seems to be….” Or, “I received your note and am sorry you feel… but I think this in an area we are going to see differently.” Sometimes, these kinds of responses end the dialogue. Sometimes, I write, “email is not the best medium to discuss these issues, I’d be glad to meet face-to-face and discuss.” Now you’re running a risk here – and it may get complicated – but more times than not, people are unwilling or afraid to talk face-to-face and will email a mea culpa.
- It is probably a small faction. One time I heard families were “meeting to discuss what was wrong with the church.” Naively, I called and asked if I could meet with them. I ended up meeting with several different couples. While they all had complaints, each family had different issues. One couple took the initiative and came to my office to distance themselves from the group. Afterwards, we had elders meetings (in a smaller church, this stuff spreads widely) and we spent a lot of time trying to address these complaints. At the third meeting, it struck me that we (pastors and elders) were no longer leading that church, but our time was being controlled by a small number of people who had different agendas for the church. At that point, I recommended we simply let these folks know that we heard their concerns, that they obviously had different expectations and were unhappy and encouraged them to become involved in our church in constructive ways or find a church where they think they will be better served. Two families left and it was over.
- Some people, no matter what you do, will be unhappy. One of my seminary professors used to say, “if you gave everyone you met a one hundred dollar bill, some would be unhappy about they way you handed it to them.” I would love to give some people truth serum and ask, “Tell me about a time in your life when you were happy?” Tragically, many critics are never going to be happy no matter what you do or how much time you spend with them.
We are all sinners. We all fail. The issue is how to handle it.
When the arrows come, check your heart, admit your errors when you have been wrong, and when you have done all you can biblically, in love and the criticism still prevails, don’t be afraid to lead.
“If I tried to read, much less answer, all the criticisms made of me, and all the attacks leveled against me, this office would have to be closed for all other business. I do the best I know how, the very best I can. And I mean to keep on doing this, down to the very end. If the end brings me out wrong, then ten angels swearing I had been right would make no difference. If the end brings me out all right, then what is said against me now will not amount to anything.” —Abraham Lincoln