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Responding to Criticism – Part 3

Part three of a series on criticism based on a sign outside of a sandwich shop which read, “Come in and try the worst meatball sandwich that one guy on Yelp ever had in his life.”

My wife, a former pre-school and current grade school educator, is fond of the iceberg metaphor. You’ve probably heard it. Approximately 10% of an iceberg is visible, meaning 90% of it is hidden beneath the surface of the water. The same is true for people. We only see what they choose to present. There is much more going on underneath.

One question our sandwich shop owner does not address is one we, as associate pastors, must: “What’s up with the guy on Yelp?”

When a member of our congregation comes to me all worked up over an issue for which there ought not be an emotional attachment, like a meatball sandwich, I wonder what else is going on in their lives. What made them react this way?

When we hear a critique, our anxiety rises. Natural instinct puts us into fight-or-flight mode. We could flee – avoid the situation, take the sandwich off the menu, hide in our offices, lie about never receiving the voicemail, etc. We could also fight – take a defensive posture, get snarky with the complainer, tell everyone else what a goof this person is, get in a shouting match, etc. There is a third option. We could, as one of my mentors is fond of suggesting, move toward the roar.

Moving toward the roar is calmly and rationally going to the guy on Yelp and addressing his complaint. We begin by asking about the meatball sandwich. We want to hear the complaint completely. Our goal is to listen, without defense. We need to ask questions about their experience – what they saw, what they felt, and how the experience could have been better. We might learn something. While we might not agree with anything the other is saying, now is not the time to address those issues. We are not trying to fix the meatball sandwich in this exchange, we are working to repair a relationship.

Heed this warning, moving toward the roar takes thick skin. You may hear a series of hurtful barbs you need to quietly absorb for this encounter to be productive. You may find you unknowingly hurt someone. Despite those potential painful pitfall, moving toward the roar is worth it. I promise.

When you move toward the roar some will refuse to meet with you to talk about their critique. My guess is they realize in the time between the complaint and your response that the issue wasn’t that big of a deal. Maybe they are self-aware enough to realize they were responding to something beneath the surface. Others are so surprised by our willingness to talk about their complaint, they go into their own fight-or-flight mode and flee what they perceive as a potential confrontation.

Times I have moved toward the roar and the other agrees to have the conversation, I have seen some of the 90% below the surface. I have heard of family members who are ill, issues the other appeared to be handling with grace but were actually eating them up inside, unresolved conflicts with other members of the staff, job issues, feelings of displacement in the church, pain in other relationships, and the like. Most times I cannot do anything about those issues, but they help me understand why someone would get so worked up over a meatball sandwich. They also allow me to be pastoral to that person, walking alongside them in the midst of their struggle, even when they perceive their struggle is with me.

The pastoral response to that user review is to find out what’s up with that guy on Yelp that he would get so upset over a meatball sandwich.

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