Tuesday, August 2, 2011

What Kind of Critic Are You?

One of the things I do in my job is oversee music in church. Church people tend to be, for the most part, very opinionated. And that makes sense, because church is connected to spirituality and tradition, both of which resonate very deeply within all of us. I'm guessing if you asked anyone who attends church regularly what they think of the music at their church, they'd have an opinion. Not many folks just shrug their shoulders and say "I don't care" when it comes to church music.

Because of that, I get a lot of feedback from people about what's good/bad/distracting/cheesy when it comes to how I plan services. And I believe that feedback is essential to designing worship for a community - so I welcome it. I love hearing what people think - I must hear what people think if I want to stay connected to the hearts of our people.

I also read a lot about what works other places, what other leaders are doing. So I hear feedback there as well. What I'm saying is that critical feedback is extremely important, and as leaders we have to be able to receive it (without it draining our sense of personal worth) if we hope to continue developing.

But there are loads of types of criticism. And this applies way beyond the bounds of church music. Maybe you've got to give an employee a performance review, or you need to confront your roommate or spouse on an issue. How we deliver criticism has a profound effect on how that particular message is heard.

How do you give criticism to others? Here are some questions to think about:

1. Is your feedback constructive? When people give feedback from a place of pain or insecurity, it is almost always destructive. Because when we're hurt, we generally want to drag someone else down with us. So if you're someone whose needs aren't being met in a certain area, try really hard to separate your critique from your own personal issues. Both of those areas are very important and worthy of being addressed; but too often people bury their own hurt in other issues, like volume of music, song selection, what people wear on stage, etc. If you're hurting while you deliver your criticism, chances are it won't be constructive, and therefore it won't be very effective.

2. Are you coming from a place of humility? We're proud people. And we're polarized people. That's dangerous. But when we start talking about being proud of being polarized, we're really in deep waters. As people, we tend to weld our preferences to our identity. "I like this because it's who I am!" Our pets don't do this. Your dog doesn't feel threatened in his dogness if you change from Alpo to Purina. But we're people, not dogs, and when change comes our way we feel like a part of us is dying. So we carry around our opinions like banners, staking our territory. Does it feel like that when you give feedback to someone? Do you assume that your opinion is better, or right, because it's yours? Or do you enter the discussion realizing it may be you who needs to change? I guess what I'm getting at is this: do you criticize with closed ears or open ears?

3. Is your criticism being directed at the right person/people? Criticism should affect change - or at least aim to. It follows, then, that constructive, purposeful criticism would have an intentional direction. If you don't like a decision, you should start by talking to the person who made that decision. With the emergence of the tweetosphere, many well-meaning critics have decided to sidestep the difficulty of face-to-face confrontations and air their grievances for everyone in the world to see. The results of such a thoughtless regurgitation of opinion is twofold: it will rally like-minded people around your personal viewpoint, and it will alienate those who disagree. Put succinctly, it polarizes people and is anything but constructive. So stop criticizing everybody to nobody using your blog! (I'm hoping you see the irony of this point).

4. Do you have the voice of an "insider" or an "outsider"? The people whose voices make the biggest difference are people who are willing to associate with a group, even if that group isn't perfect. There are tons of people with amazing ideas who get extremely frustrated by the problems and dysfunctions in a given culture. But often that frustration keeps them from assimilating into that culture, so what we get are these rogue idealists who have great advice that no one hears. No group, no church, no organization, no culture is perfect. But your voice will always be more impactful from within a culture than from outside. So take a risk and join that church.

5. What does your criticism usually produce? Probably the greatest litmus test of how well you deliver criticism is to examine your own experiences. When you speak up, do people tend to change or get angry? Or offended? Or hurt? Do you even speak up? Your opinion has the potential to help people grow and to help organizations change for the better. But the way you communicate can change everything.


  1. Great stuff man - actually wrote about this a few months ago myself. I've never thought of questioning intent behind the critique before, thanks for introducing that.

    Glad to see you blogging again too - your perspective is worth sharing.

  2. Great post! I love different kinds of worship, but when it gets too LOUD I just want to run for the door. I don't think it is just my old age 'cuz' I have been this way for over 25 years.

  3. Hey Deb, thanks for posting. Volume in church will be an issue until Jesus comes back - and I should probably write about it at some point. But too often we link it to age, and I don't think that's fair.

    A good, professional mix is what everyone would want in any musical venue. Problem is, that takes a critical ear and training from the person mixing. And churches use well-meaning volunteers who do the best they can, often with no training at all. The best way to compensate for a bad mix is to turn it up - that way it sounds "full."

    Every good sound man will tell you that the best mix is easy on your ears, loud enough to fill the room, but not so loud that you can't hear anyone around you.

    The challenge is that there's way more people who can identify and critique a bad mix than there are people who can create a good one.

  4. I agree - it's good to see you posting on here again!