If I only preached on what I’d mastered, I’d never preach again. Sometimes, I’ve even had to preach on topics that I’d barely begun to understand or do. That’s the territory I’m in today with this blog post. I’d say that offering constructive criticism is probably one of my weakest areas, even worse that my ability to receive it! So, take this very much as “Here’s where I’d like to go,” or “Here’s what I’ve learned about constructive criticism from a lifetime of giving destructive criticism.”

1. It’s preceded by praise
I don’t believe in “the sandwich principle” that says you must put a slice of praise before and after every criticism. That often devalues the praise and deceives the person. However, I do believe that for criticism to have any hope of accomplishing anything, it should be set in the wider context of praise. There should be praise in the bank, before we start drawing down with any criticisms.

2. It’s infrequent
On the basis of #1, some people think that a little bit of praise sprinkled here and there permits them to launch frequent nuclear missiles at their unfortunate targets. In Practicing Affirmation, Sam Crabtree suggests a praise/criticism ratio of at least 3:1 and preferably closer to 5:1. But he also says that “relationships are healthy when so much affirmation is being spread around that no one is keeping track of either affirmation or correction.”

3. It’s limited
Criticism should be more like a sniper’s bullet than buckshot. It aims at one specific target and refuses to take potshots at anything else. “And while we’re at it, let me tell you…” Please don’t.

4. It majors on majors
If you’re going to criticize every fault and failing of everyone around you, you’re going to be very busy…and lonely. We live in a sinful world. The best of us are flaw-full. We simply must learn to overlook minor faults in others – not talk about them to others and, if possible, not even think about them. Save your critical energy for major targets. That way you’ll help yourself and others.

5. It’s supported by evidence
First, make sure you are criticizing what God criticizes, that you’re not basing everything simply on your own preferences or prejudices. Second, can you prove it? Can you point to evidence to support your criticism? Is “I think…” and “I feel…” and “I suspect…” the best you’ve got? Then let it go.

6. It’s aim is building not demolition
All criticism involves some element of demolition: wrong conduct to be torn down,  wrong beliefs to be razed. But the ultimate aim is to build something better, even beautiful, in its place. If our motive is to leave a person’s life in smoldering ruins, then we are doing the devil’s work. But if our aim is a better person, a stronger person, a more mature person, then we are in the profitable business of constructive criticism.

7. It’s prayerfully considered
It’s so easy to spout out an ill-considered or nil-considered criticism in response to an immediate event or conversation. That rarely accomplishes anything beneficial, and usually results in a shouting (or crying) match. No matter how tempting, it is almost always advisable to take 24 hours at least and to pray over it. That should help purify the motive, identify the best target, and dampen the emotions. Which brings us to…

8. It’s dispassionate
This is probably my greatest weakness of many others in this area. I find it so hard to be calm and cool about certain things. My red face, tense voice, and shaky hands start people’s alarm bells ringing, and, unsurprisingly, their defenses go up, as does their temperature. Not a recipe for building anything good.

9. It comes from the right person
The Bible is very clear about the need to respect our elders. Usually that will mean we will rarely offer criticism to our superiors, or if we do, it will be with strict qualifications (1 Tim. 5:1-2, 19). I’ve sometimes been asked by a boss or an older Christian to say if I notice anything in their character or conduct that is wrong. I find that almost impossible to do. And I think that’s OK. Our superiors should normally look to their superiors for correction. And let’s focus on those whom the Lord has committed to our responsibility, not on those we have no relationship with and no authority over.

10. It’s humble
Have you ever changed as a result of an arrogant person pointing out your faults? No, neither have I. In fact, I’ve probably determined to do what was critiqued even more. But when a person humbly comes alongside me, confesses his own faults, admits his own struggles, maybe even in that particular area, then my ears are open and so is my heart.

  • Al

    So giving criticism to a sermon right after it is preached is never a good idea!

  • http://sayable.net Lore Ferguson

    This is excellent David, thank you. Very encouraging for me.

  • Dogen

    Praise sandwich: Nice piece in many ways. I especially like 2-6. I don’t remember where but when I first heard of the praise-to-criticism ratio it was in the context of spousal relations and it was said that it had to be at least 7:1. Whatever, I love this quote: “relationships are healthy when so much affirmation is being spread around that no one is keeping track of either affirmation or correction.”

    Constructive Criticism: I think it #9 misguided. In particular, it sounds like the author would not be open to any constructive criticism from someone younger or in an inferior position (org-chart inferior position, not a value judgement).

    My experience is that when we are in leadership positions we set examples that others will follow consciously and unconsciously. People observe us keenly, and develop insights about us that a “superior” would never have the chance to.

    So I’ve always found it important to find ways for those people to feel safe giving me constructive criticism, and I’ve always tried to be open about it. For example, I once asked my management team (7 people who reported to me) to meet without me and come to consensus on 3 things I could do better and report it to me as a group, in the context of at least a couple of positive things. I believe I was able to be a much more effective manager as a result of improving on at least a couple of those things they raised.

    So I would remove your #9 entirely, moving up your #10.

    My #10 would be to do my best to set an example of being open to constructive criticism, no matter how it’s been delivered. Often people are so scared of delivering criticism that they wait until they are so frustrated and angry that it comes out in a way that is very hard to take. It may be couched in lots of irrelevant bits. Still, always look for something useful from a message, even if the messenger and/or the delivery was not ideal.

    Praise sandwich: Thanks for a thought-provoking piece.

    • Foppe VanderZwaag

      Thanks, David, for a much needed and well written blog.

      I just have a question about 1 Timothy 5. Paul doesn’t seem to exclude the rebuke or accusation, only to be cautious in doing so. I would therefore agree with Dogen to be able to critique superiors or elders, and of course, to be open for criticism. I do want my wife, our children and my fellow congregation, young & old, to feel free to come to me if they see or hear something that I need to hear.

      I too don’t receive criticism easily, but will eventually, if God’s Word & my conscience won’t let me alone. Yes, it does help if it’s presented to me in a ‘sandwiched’ way. However, even if it’s not, I still won’t shoot the messenger because I don’t like the message. He will have to deal with the manner of his criticism; I with the matter.

      But, your post deals with how to give criticism. Do you plan to write one now on how to receive it? I guess that will be one in which it’s more blessed to receive than to give… :)

      • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

        I think Dr Beeke’s written and spoken quite a lot on how to receive criticism, Foppe. If you click on this link you’ll also find some things I’ve previously written about receiving criticism: http://headhearthand.org/blog/tag/criticism/
        See my response to Dogen for further qualification to what I wrote.

    • Debbi Garren

      Thanks so much for your comments – you took my thoughts and put them into words!

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      Thanks Dogen. Very helpful “edits.” I also invite critique from those who are officially “inferior.” But I think that’s different to inferiors chucking regfular doses of uninvited critique our way. Notice I did say, “Usually that will mean we will rarely offer criticism to our superiors, or if we do, it will be with strict qualifications (1 Tim. 5:1-2, 19).” I suppose I’m reacting against what seems to be like “open season on church leaders” from every Tom, Dick and Harriet!

  • http://www.housewifetheologian.com Aimee Byrd

    Great piece. I know people are different, but the whole praise ratio always makes me feel more like I am being manipulated and flattered than valued and respected. I always appreciate a straight shooter. But in order to be a good straight shooter, you should have a relationship that is already full of encouragement. That way I don’t feel like I’m getting a marshmallow with a thumb tack in it.
    Thanks for sharing this wise advice.

    • http://headhearthand.org/blog/ David Murray

      Yes, manipulation, is the right word. Maybe not intended, but that’s often how it feels. Love the marshmallow image!

    • Heatblizzard

      I strongly disagree. I have had better results doing the sandwich technique after being yelled at when direct.

      I am more likely to get a friendly nod at least or otherwise I will get eggs thrown in my face if I am direct so I am learning to either shut my trap up or do the 5:1 ratio.

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  • Rick Gomez

    Thank you David for the info….now I know there is a “good” way to criticize someone. . all for the goodness of their ways…I’ve nevee understood the difference between both..now I can go on w/out feeling 100% criticized in a bad way now its half&half..bad and helpful! !

  • Heatblizzard

    I personally have been led by The Lord to believe that the timing of you’re birth will determine the probability of having outside connections which can help or hinder careers.

    For example it has recently dawned on me that perhaps why so many people on the internet has a lot of outside connections such as on fanfiction where a badly written story has 18 chapters with 300+ reviews may be because they were born during one of the baby boomer eras.

    Dad and I were both born at the end of baby boomer eras so we are left over with the scraps and have very few outside connections while others before Dad’s birth were born during the baby boomer era which most of our family got into sinfull life styles but don’t feel much of the consequences.

    Dad is very good at history and especially bible history having a really neat timeline that took him a long time to make with a lot of interesting results showing archeology stuff that proves bible stories do have a reality to them from being called on by The Lord.

    I will refrain from saying anymore because it takes too long to get into on here and chances are you are likely not to even read this far unless God is willing*

  • https://www.facebook.com/stephen.j.quirke Stephen Quirke

    On Monday I took an angry broadside from a brother for ignoring him and his wife when they arrived at church on Sunday. I have reflected on the how to approach them this Sunday.

    First of all I have been praying that Christ would enable me to forgive the hurt and reflect on what I can learn from the message he delivered with such vehemence.

    Then, Jesus said we must take the plank out of our own eye before we seek to remove the splinter from another’s. On Sunday I was in a state of emotional exhaustion from a week of highs and lows and I would have loved him to have asked me how I was and what could have lead to the behaviour. And so in spirit of planks and splinters I will try to acknowledge how hurt they felt and try to make this right first.

    And then I will try to look out for those who may be equally low and just say “Hi” and “How are you doing?”

    Our Father gave me just such an opportunity when I was leaving the supermarket this afternoon when I met a woman from our congregation. Instead of waving as I walked past I asked her how she was. And when I asked her again she told me she had taken her mother to an old age home. Her mother was hating it and this poor woman was feeling distraught. Her circumstances meant she had no choice in the matter. So I was able to just be with her for that short time in the sunshine and say “Sterkte sister”.

    Thanks for this note David – I think if we all tried to apply these points there would be very little giving of advice and criticism. Which would be lovely I think.

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