Respond to Conflict Without Being Controlled

Criticism is inevitable. How we respond to it makes a huge difference.

After I preached one Sunday evening on a difficult Bible doctrine, a man commented to me, "Most people here tonight are more confused now than they were when you started." A concerned woman dropped a jewel on my wife: "If Coye had visited that family sooner, they probably wouldn't have left the church."

Criticism is inevitable. How we respond to it makes a huge difference. A seasoned pastor wisely observed: "If your critics control you, you're defeated." How might they control you? Do they agitate you with anger? Paralize you with paranoia? Intimidate you into inactivity? Dunk you in despair?

Here are five ways to respond to a critic with out letting them control you:

Respond in your time, not the critic's (Prov. 19:11)

A Christian businessman prudently applied James 1:19. At the beginning of every meeting he wrote these initials at the top of his notepad: "QTL" (quick to listen), "STS" (slow to speak), "STA" (slow to anger).

How can we apply QTL, STS, STA to fielding criticism?

  • Does the critic run your response clock? He shouldn't. It is almost always your prerogative to choose not to respond definitively in a given exchange.
  • Maintain composure. You display wisdom in holding your tongue. "It is to a man's honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel" (Proverbs 20:3, NIV).
  • You may buy yourself important time by saying, "I'd like you to clarify for me your concern, and then I want to put some thought into it."
  • Don't obligate yourself to respond at a later time unless you think its imperative to do so. You may not need to respond at all.

Let the decision be yours to respond on the spot, later, or not at all. Don't hand the wheel to the critic.

Respond positively (Prov. 15:1)

Affirm the critic's valid concerns (usually some valid concern exists) and state positively your own concerns. It's not necessary to validate the criticism itself. Here are two responses, one mine and one from my wife.

A woman once criticized me for being "too direct" in witnessing to her husband in the ICU. She said it increased his stress and made him less open to the Lord. I acknowledged her concern for her husband's well-being and suggested that we pray together for the Lord to lead both of us in our witnessing to him. I prayed for the man's salvation and for both his wife and me to be wise, courageous, and sensitive in sharing the gospel.

When my wife heard the criticism from others of how I had handled a family departing from our church, she wisely chose to respond as follows: "Coye and I hurt with you over their leaving. In fact, Coye has been in touch with them a few times in recent weeks. It might be helpful for you to talk to him directly." My wife's response ended the exchange with the critic.

    To speak positively is not to shrink back from confrontation or the need to rebuke the critic.

    Take it to the Lord (1 Peter 5:7)

    Anxiety often follows quickly on heels of criticism. An effective means of "taking it to the Lord" is to ponder the promises of the Bible to the believer.

    • In regard to criticism, ponder particularly the promises of Psalm 46:10; Isaiah 41:10; John 16:33; and Romans 8:31-3.
    • Are your critics maliciously lying about you? Make Psalm 62 your close companion, a prayer daily upon your lips.
    • Do you fear forced resignation? Remember that "To man belong the plans of the heart, but from the Lord comes the reply of the tongue" (Proverbs 16:1, NIV).
    • Critics are not in control of your tenure. "The Lord knows those who are his" (2 Timothy 2:19, NIV). If dismissal does take place, how does God intend to glorify Himself through you?

    Consider it with wise counselors (Prov. 19:25)

    Sometimes a criticism contains a needed rebuke. We prove ourselves discerning, prudent, and wise when we learn and grow from it. "Rebuke a wise man and he will love you. Instruct a wise man and he will be wiser still" (Proverbs 9:8-9, NIV).

    Counselors, such as respected colleagues, trusted friends, a discerning spouse, godly parents, will help us know when and how to respond to criticism (Prov. 15:22). When sharing with our trusted counselors we should:

    1. Describe the situation and ask what else they need to know to understand it.
    2. Ask what we should learn from the criticism.
    3. Ask what action we should take, if any, in responding to the criticism.

    Even if we don't agree with the counsel we receive, the Lord will use the process of thinking through the situation with brothers and sisters.

    Take initiative in friendly interaction (Rom. 12:18)

    I have a friend who knows how to take the initiative in relating warmly to everyone, especially opponents and critics. My friend invariably walks into a room with a broad smile on his face. He politely greets everyone he meets while making his way quickly to the person with whom he knows he has some difference. He engages the person in friendly conversation about family, work, and other such things.

    My friend achieves some important things by using this strategy.

    1. He puts the potentially uncomfortable conversations first so that he can move on with ease.
    2. He protects himself from any charge of avoidance of a critic.
    3. He shows himself free from spite or bitterness over previous interaction.
    4. He communicates that his desire is for friendly personal relations regardless of the differences.

    Of course, it's not always right to continue cordial relationships (see 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Timothy 1:20).

    If criticism casts us into bitterness or despair, we've been criticized and controlled. There is a better way! We can't be exempt from criticism. We can be criticized, but not controlled!