Criticism: An Invitation for Self-Reflection
I hate it when people criticize me.
Yet being criticized is to be expected when you are an influencer or a leader. Even the best parents routinely get criticized by their children, bosses by their employees, coaches by their players, athletes and artists by their fans, teachers by their students, and pastors by their congregants. If we are unable to handle criticism, we may want to consider doing something different with our lives.
Over the years, I have gotten better about receiving criticism from the people around me. When the criticism is fair, it actually helps me see my blind spots, address my weaknesses, and improve my efforts at loving and leading those around me. However, when the criticism is not fair, I can sometimes react in a negative and defensive way. And, honestly, I sometimes react that way when the criticism is fair.
Recently, a man who was traveling through Nashville and had visited our church sent me a public criticism on Twitter, telling me all the things that, in his “humble opinion,” were wrong about my sermon. Feeling defensive and irritated, I foolishly retaliated with a criticism of my own, along with a Bible verse to justify my response. The man then sent five more messages on Twitter, piling on more criticism, taking my words out of context, and putting words in my mouth. I then responded a second time, again in a way that was not helpful.
My friend and unofficial big brother, Pastor Scotty Smith, saw the exchange between the church visitor and me and swiftly sent me a text message that said, “Scott, dear brother, you forgot that you’re not supposed to wrestle with pigs.”
Scotty’s text was not intended as an insult to the man on Twitter. Rather, he was reminding me of a phrase that he and I had picked up from an article by leadership expert Carey Nieuwhof about healthy leadership. “Don’t wrestle with pigs” is another way of saying that when people try to pick a fight with you or when they seem bent on criticizing you no matter what you say or do, it’s usually best simply not to engage them. Why? Because when leaders “wrestle with pigs,” we both get dirty—but it’s only the pig who enjoys it. We also run the risk of ourselves becoming pigheaded in the process.
There is another disadvantage to “wrestling with pigs.” When we fight back—instead of seeking to defuse the situation by not responding or by answering gently—we condition ourselves to reject all criticism, even the kind that is fair. We do this to our own peril.