Written by Andrew Laird, Australia
None of us like being criticised, and it’s easy to become defensive whenever we receive any feedback that’s remotely negative. Instead of hearing the other person out, our instinct may be to immediately respond with our reason for doing things a certain way.
The heart of the problem may be a heart problem—how we see ourselves in relation to our work.
When we define our worth based on our accomplishments, the success or failure of our work becomes the gauge for our success or failure as a person.
This naturally makes us resistant to criticism, which then comes across as a personal attack.
To avoid this, here are two things to keep in mind so we can receive feedback well:
1. Remember our true identity
Our identity is what God the Father says of God the Son and all those who are in Him—that we are loved and accepted children, irrespective of our works (Matthew 3:17; Colossians 3:1, 3, 12).
This is an identity that is independent of our achievements and failures, because it is simply given to us—an identity we receive through faith.
It’s helpful to pause and remind ourselves of this truth every day, especially when we’re about to be subject to some review or critique of our work. Internalising this truth helps us remember that whatever others say, good or bad, will not define who we are. This enables us to openly receive feedback without feeling attacked.
2. Remember the outcome—growth!
Remembering the potential outcome of growth can soften our hearts to hear tough, but helpful words from others, especially those who speak out of love or concern for us (Proverbs 27:6; 27:9, 17).
This doesn’t mean we have to automatically agree with every critique we’re given; rather, we learn to graciously and humbly listen for any truths in them to see how we might improve and grow.
What about when it’s our turn to offer a critique or feedback to someone?
Again, our identity in Christ helps us. Recognising that our worth is something given to us humbles us. We don’t have anything to boast in.
Remembering that we are sinners saved by grace moves us to show grace to others and approach this task with a humble posture.
Here are three steps to giving humble, grace-filled feedback:
1. Ask, don’t presume
We might be certain that someone has made genuine mistakes or has a weakness or blind spot that needs to be addressed. However, a grace-filled posture will mean that we lead with a question, rather than an accusation, e.g. “I believe this might be the case, but what do you think?”
This is helpful for several reasons. Firstly, it demonstrates humility—we recognise that there’s a chance our critique or feedback could be wrong! Secondly, it allows the person to slowly come to realise their error or weakness, so they don’t feel ambushed.
In learning to ask gently, we act like God does in His correction of us—patiently. God is so kind and gentle in disciplining us, His children, sometimes taking years to change us by His Spirit (Romans 2:4; 1 Timothy 1:16; 2 Peter 3:9, 15).
If our perfect Father is so gracious in correcting us, how much more we, as flawed human beings, need to take this approach in giving feedback.
2. Listen and respond accordingly
Having started with a question, we need to then listen to the person’s reply and respond accordingly (Proverbs 10:19, 18:2; James 1:19).
One way to show that you’re listening is to repeat back to them what you heard them say in your own words—this ensures you have understood correctly.
If the person admits it is something they are aware of, you likely don’t need to say more to highlight the mistake and can instead offer some constructive ways forward.
Or if it’s something they had no idea they needed to hear, you might need to flesh out the issue a little more. Give them the opportunity to ask questions and clarify, and even disagree with you—after all, you may not have the whole picture.
If after everything, they simply dismiss the critique, it’s okay. Remember that it’s not your job to forcefully push them to accept the critique. That is not a humble, grace-filled approach.
Instead, be satisfied that you have raised your concern and made your critique. The response lies in their hands.
3. Give time for change to happen
We often hope that our feedback or critique will lead to an instant change of heart or behaviour, but oftentimes, change is slow and gradual. How often have you received feedback and dismissed it in the moment, only to recognise the truth in it after reflecting on what was said? The same applies here—who knows what conclusions the person will arrive at in the hours, days, or weeks to come.
Above all, we surrender the results because we trust in a sovereign God. We can leave the outcome in God’s hands, knowing we have fulfilled our responsibility of humbly offering grace-filled feedback.
Whether we’re on the receiving end of a feedback, or we’re the ones handing it out, there’s no denying in how challenging (and maybe uncomfortable) it can be. But when we remind ourselves that our identity is first and foremost in Christ, learning to give and receive feedback well enables us to grow in Christlikeness, in grace and humility.
Andrew works in Australia for City Bible Forum and is the National Manager of their Life@Work program which aims to help Christians connect their faith with their daily work. He is the author of two books about work, including Under Pressure: How the Gospel Helps Us Handle the Pressures of Work. He is the former Dean of Ridley College’s Marketplace Institute, and he also has a background in radio journalism. He lives in Melbourne, is married to Carly and has three young children.