When you need to confront, especially as one Christian to another, or as a leader to someone you supervise, here are tips I’ve learned from 40-plus years in vocational ministry.
1. Know the conditions for giving criticism. When is it necessary?
*Is the person’s attitude or behavior dishonoring God, or in direct defiance of biblical commands/principles?
*It is damaging my relationship with this person?
*Is it hurting the offender?
*Is it exerting a negative impact on the ministry or work environment?
2. Criticize in private.
Do it face to face if at all possible, not through a text or email. Use the phone only when distance prohibits a private meeting. Dignify the person by not confronting in front of other staff members. I had the same policy as a parent: “Criticize in private. Praise in public.”
3. Base the criticism on objective evidence, not rumors.
If you are hearing rumors of a person’s inappropriate behavior, perhaps it’s necessary to engage the person in a conversation. Ask if he’s aware of what is being said about him. Let him talk. But don’t assume those rumors are true.
4. Criticize specific behavior, not one’s character in general.
Employing words such as “You always…” or “You never…” usually inflames the conversation and typically amounts to overstatement.
5. Don’t attack or make hasty conclusions about a person’s motives.
Keep the focus on the behavior that needs to change. I cannot see another person’s heart.
Many years ago, a senior pastor with whom I served accused me of “going behind his back” to get a program change approved through the Christian Education board. He said in a harsh tone, “You knew I’d be opposed to this idea, and that’s why you broached it when you knew I couldn’t attend the meeting!”
The fact is that the board was going to discuss a new program idea, but not vote on it that evening. And I did not know that he was adamantly opposed to it. My inexperience with church bureaucracy showed in not discussing the agenda with him in advance, but his harsh accusation concerning my motive was way off base.
6. If strong emotions are involved, write out in advance what you plan to say.
This is especially helpful if you feel you’ve been slandered or disrespected by the person you’re confronting.
I don’t give the person a letter to substitute for a face to face meeting. But over a several day period, I can rewrite and edit my letter until it says precisely what I want and need to say.
It’s a way of preparing for a difficult meeting, of solidifying in my mind what I need to say, and how I need to say it. Without such preparation, the relational tension during the meeting may keep me from voicing what I had planned to say. I usually hand the person the letter at the end of the meeting, adding, “In case I haven’t been clear or said all that I intended, I know this letter expresses my thoughts clearly.” (And I keep a copy of the letter.)
7. Strive for tact by posing questions that increase your understanding of the person’s behavior.
Rather than launch directly into my perceptions of the person’s wrongdoing, I ask, “Help me understand why…?” Why did you….?” “What were you thinking when….”
My questions imply that there’s negative behavior I’m addressing, but this is a more tactful approach that allows the individual to explain the rationale for what happened. The questions lessen the probability of his or her becoming too defensive.
8. Ask yourself: have I earned the right to be heard? Is this person convinced that I care about him, that I’m committed to him?
Sometimes the confrontation is unavoidable for a leader, even when you don’t have a long history together. But the person is more likely to be receptive if he or she can answer “Yes” to those questions.
No doubt you’ve learned things about giving criticism not on my list. What would you add?
I want to thank Ken Sande for insights in his book, The Peacemaker. As I reflected on my experience with this topic, his book informed my thinking.
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Dr. Terry Powell
Author and Professor
Terry is Faculty Emeritus at Columbia International University, in S. C., where he is now an Adjunct Professor in Church Ministries. Terry has a bride of 49 years, two grown sons, one daughter-in-law, and 9-year old grandson. He writes a blog on faith and depression: penetratingthedarkness.com. His latest book is Oh God, I’m Dying! How God Redeems Pain for Our Good and for His Glory, scheduled for release in the fall of 2020. The book tells the story of Dr. Mark Smith (co-author), an effective Christian university president despite suffering daily pain from a near-fatal car accident in 1996. The book illustrates the means of God’s grace that have sustained Mark and his wife Debbie.