Receiving Feedback

present with people May 27, 2024
10 Steps on How to Respond to Criticism




"Be vulnerable," they said.

"Personal stories connect best," they said.

"People want someone on stage who is human," they said. 

I listened to that advice early in my career as a public speaker, and it backfired on me. 

As a church staff member, I had the opportunity to fill in while the lead pastor was out of town. During my prep for delivering the message, a story came to mind that illustrated the point I was making. It was a vulnerable story that did not leave me looking good. However, I was going to challenge the audience to take a big step at the end of the message, so I wanted to create space for that challenge by sharing the way I had done this very thing imperfectly myself. 

So, on that day, I got up and shared the story. The shock in people's eyes as I told the story told me it was a vulnerable thing to share. I also felt a vulnerability hangover later that day, so I knew I had gone there. But, the response I heard after the service was over encouraged me so much and confirmed that the message was a compelling talk with the power to help the audience make real change. 

I felt like I was in the clear until I opened my email inbox the following day. A key volunteer in our church had written me an email, which was not pretty. "I was so gratified to hear the story you shared yesterday."


The story included my failure and someone pointing out a big blind spot in my leadership. I was not expecting to read that first sentence, but it got worse. "I was so grateful that someone pointed that out to you because I, too, have seen that on many occasions." The person piled on the condemnation and accusation for two or three more paragraphs with little grace or room for change. 

As I sat at my desk, I felt shell-shocked.

It felt like someone had stabbed me in the heart and wounded me deeply. I had admitted that I had a blind spot in sharing this story publicly, but this volunteer took the opportunity to make me feel ashamed for having a blind spot. 

Sadly, this wasn't the first time I had received an email like that, and it wouldn't be the last. I work in a public setting as a pastor, speaker, and author. Therefore, I succeed in public and make mistakes in public, too. Often, I learn about those mistakes when someone sends me an email, calls me on the phone, or asks for a meeting. 

I've only sometimes received that kind of feedback well. On many occasions, I've bristled and even resisted what people have wanted to share with me. 

How about you?

How do you receive unexpected and negative feedback from people around you?

Many hard conversations in life and leadership are not scheduled in advance on our calendar. We step into intense moments with little to no warning. What we do in response to someone giving us feedback determines if we ever get honest feedback again. Gaining or losing trust is often a result of our ability to manage our emotions and guard our tongues. 

The most successful leaders and communicators are not "born-ready." Great leaders are not born, and incredible communicators do not instantly master this craft. The best way to reach peak performance is through experimentation, failure, reflection, learning, and continued practice. I love how Robert Allen describes this process. He said, "There is no failure. Only feedback."




I'll tell you how I responded to that email at the end of this article, but in the meantime, I want to help you prepare to receive a message or have a conversation like that. Over many years of failing in those moments or making a complicated conversation even worse, I've developed a ten-step process to respond to critical feedback. 

  1. Pause and take a deep breath. 

When you read an email like I received, you can move into reactionary mode immediately. Feedback can be harsh. It can feel unfair. But I love what Viktor Frankl said: "Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." Fill that space with a deep breath and prayer, and allow that pause to remind you that you will be okay. 

  1. Look in the mirror before you look out the window.

Dale Burke once wrote that the best leaders study problems by looking in the mirror first and looking out the window second. Questions like, "Am I open to learning? Why am I defensive? How did I contribute to this?" can help clarify if we're willing to accept a difficult assessment.

  1. Remember the 24-hour rule.

A former coworker taught me the 24-hour rule. When you get a "nasty gram," he told me to wait 24 hours before responding. King Solomon once wrote that "anger resides in the lap of fools." Our initial reactions are often unhelpful. If possible, sleep on your response. Wake up and review the message again when you're in a better spot.

  1. Weigh the feedback.

Not all criticism is created equal. When it comes to the person sharing feedback, what's their relationship with you? Are they an acquaintance, friend, or some random person? After identifying their level of commitment and access to us, we can better weigh the feedback. The closer their access and the deeper the commitment, the more the input weighs. Let's be clear - this doesn't mean we should only listen to our friends, but people who are far away and who aren't committed to you cannot be the final judges of our worth or wisdom.

  1. Dig into the context.

A man once walked out of a service in which I was teaching. His nasty follow-up email the next day was intense! Gratefully, I didn't respond immediately, but I worked to understand where he was coming from. (See the 24-hour rule in #2) Once we sat down over coffee a few days later, his comments made more sense. While the content of his remarks was frustrating, the context around it helped me understand that the email was more about a desire to connect than a disdain for our ministry philosophy.

  1. Bring in some trusted friends.

Pick a couple of wise, even-keeled friends and invite their input. At one point, I showed the critical email to a coworker. I was so grateful I did because she had recently conversed with this person about a related subject. We determined some reasons for the criticism and prepared my response together. One caution to consider – don't shop the criticism around. If you bring in too many people, you'll start looking for people to affirm your preferred reaction.

  1. Lean into your critics. 

This is #7 in order of action, but it is near the top in terms of priority and philosophy. My friend and former pastor, Jason Whalen, regularly challenged me with this principle. Multiple experiences taught him that critics are often our best teachers. If we cultivate an openness in our hearts, our critics' feedback can often be more instructive than our fans'.

  1. Honor feedback because you want more of it.

When someone risks rejection to be honest with us, we owe it to them to express genuine gratitude. A simple "thank you" affirms someone genuinely trying to help and shocks someone looking for a fight.

  1. Move important conversations offline.

If the conversation goes poorly and the fallout is detrimental, move it offline as soon as possible. As a pastor, I've seen far too many electronic conversations end poorly. Nuance, context, and non-verbal cues are nearly impossible to convey over email, texting, and social media. 

  1. Ignore the haters.

Haters and trolls intentionally stir up drama online by starting arguments or deliberately provoking others. They poke at others to get a reaction or prove a point, not advance a cause or make a difference. Our approach to haters must be simple – ignore and do not engage. 

In case you're wondering, I followed my advice with that nasty email about my vulnerable story.

I eventually sat down and talked with the man who sent it. He didn't apologize for his note, and despite my best attempts to share how it felt to be on the receiving end, he never expressed regret. I could hear more about why he wrote it and how he'd experienced me. 

It was an uncomfortable conversation. It didn't work out the way I wanted. I walked out disappointed, to be honest. But the discomfort and disappointment of criticism often distract us from its great value. Criticism can help us identify weaknesses and take giant leaps forward.

If you want to grow, take my word for it. Don't miss out on the gift hidden within criticism.

By Scott Savage - Freelance Writer

Scott is a pastor, author, and speaker who loves to help people turn difficult circumstances into places where they can thrive. You can get a one-page printable copy of his criticism checklist by visiting his website today.