Accept criticism gratefully but test it critically.
“If a writer is so cautious that he never writes anything that cannot be criticized, he will never write anything that can be read. If you want to help other people you have got to make up your mind to write things that some men will condemn.” (Thomas Merton – from New Seeds of Contemplation)
My guess is that most of us do not like to receive criticism. Constructive or not, criticism can sting, especially when it lands close to the truth. When it is received in the right way, however, it can be one of the greatest gifts that another can give us. Criticism, when given in love, can help us to see ourselves as we are and open the door to growth.
As a pastor of a large parish, I often receive criticism for things that I should not have said or done as well as things parishioners believe I should have said or done. It is easy to quickly take a defensive stance upon reading a critical letter or email, but I continue to find that when I take the time to listen to what is being expressed and address it, more often than not there is a positive outcome. Sometimes what is being expressed is true and this gives me the opportunity to apologize or correct a situation or both. Recently I received a phone call from a parishioner who was very angry with me for not returning a phone call in the time frame she deemed acceptable. I could not change the situation that kept me from returning the call the same day, and I couldn’t change the fact that the person was angry. All I could do was to apologize. In our short conversation, she was able to let me know in a healthy way that she was upset, and I was able to offer contrition. That is how a Christian community is supposed to operate. We are called to speak the truth in love.
There are also occasions when I receive criticism that I do not believe is warranted. Even in these situations I have found there is value to listening to the one who is giving criticism. Everyone wants to know that they are important enough to be heard and respected and that even when opinions are not shared ones, they are received. I find that most of the time when meeting with parishioners who voice a complaint, that the most important thing is to have a conversation. Even when we leave the meeting still in disagreement, the fact that we have taken the time to come together and listen to one another strengthens our relationship.
Criticism is not something most of us actively seek. That being said, I have no doubt in its ability to assist us in our growth as Christians. None of us are perfect, yet we can help one another to seek perfection by both giving and receiving criticism with love.