I am not an expert on giving criticism. Actually, I am probably worse at it than anyone. I think I usually give it when I should not, and I withhold it when I should speak up.
But the fact remains, we all give criticism all the time. Even people who say, "You shouldn't criticize me!" are offering a type of criticism: criticism of the people who criticized them.
Since we criticize, often unconsciously, all the time, I think it is worth examining the phenomenon so that we can recognize it and make strides towards improving how we handle it.
Here is a list of 5 questions to ask yourself when you think you feel compelled to give criticism:
(1) Why do I feel compelled to confront this issue?
Is it because I am annoyed? If so, I would be wise to slow down, think it through, pray about it, and perhaps not say anything. Personal annoyance is rarely a credible reason for confronting someone.
Is it because I fear that the person will do himself harm? If so, there may be cause to confront. But be honest! Often we hide our personal pride in quasi-concern for others. Perhaps we fear how something our spouse or our children do will reflect on us.
Is it because I fear for the welfare of a third party, or third parties? If so, there may be good reason to take action, but the best action might not be the first one that comes to mind. People whose behaviors affect others are often the most angry and defensive because they feel publicly humiliated. Keep in mind, too, that you may not know the whole story and might be prone to misinterpret. Be careful!!
Is it because I am suffering hurt? We must be aware that the line between annoyance and hurt is very thin. We must take the utmost care to avoid being selfish. Sometimes we feel that an issue drives a wedge in the relationship we have with someone. If so, we must carefully consider whether our method of confronting the issue will help to remove the wedge, or whether it will drive the wedge deeper. It often requires great wisdom to discern the difference.
(2) Have I taken the log out of my own eye? (Matthew 7:3)
Often the things that bother us most in others are the things we fail at most ourselves. We must make sure that we are not being hypocrites by condemning in others the very faults with which we ourselves are beset.
At the same time (if we are honest and humble) if we do suffer from the same failures and temptations, it provides an opportunity to confront with sympathy rather than condemnation. We can share stories of personal failures that later turned into triumphs, and perhaps encourage someone more than we had ever imagined. This requires transparency and vulnerability, and the ability to talk openly about our own past shortcomings.
(3) Am I the right person to address this?
Sometimes we see something happen, something we perceive as a wrong, and we rush in to "right" it... where angels fear to tread, as the saying goes.
Sometimes it would be better left for someone else to handle.
One way to figure out whether you are the right person to address an issue: Assess your relationship with the other party. Has God put you in a position of authority over this person? Do you share a fairly close, trusting relationship? If not, is there someone else who is in authority or who does have a close relationship, whose life also overlaps into this issue?
If you have no authority, and you are not particularly close to someone, and if others exist who meet these criteria, then often it is best to wait and pray. Let God move the heart of His chosen instrument. On the other hand, if you are the only person around to confront something, sometimes you have to do it, whether you want to or not. Ask God for clear leading.
Ironically, often the more you desire to confront an issue, the more likely it is that you probably should not. And the more you dread confronting, the more likely it is that you actually ought to. Often. Not always.
(4) Can I do this in love?
We are supposed to speak the truth in love, with a loving motivation for the other person's best interest. It's all about restoration, about helping another person get back on the right path, back into a healthy relationship. It's not about humiliating or punishing someone.
We need to ask ourselves, in brutal honesty, Bibles open and hearts lifted to God in prayer, whether we are motivated by love or revenge.
If you can't do it in love, filled with compassion and hoping for a good result, then you probably ought not do it at all.
But if you can approach the person in love, honesty, transparency and (very important) privacy... God may use your words in a powerful way for good.
(5) Is there a point to confronting this?
The Bible is full of warnings against reproving a scoffer and casting your pearls before swine.
If there is little to no chance of a favorable outcome, you should probably save your breath. Apply your energy in a more productive direction.
Pointing out the error of someone's ways is not something you do to prove that you are a wise, discerning person with a burning need to exhibit your finely developed sense of justice. You do it to save a brother or sister (Galatians 6:1-2, James 5:19-20). Unless you have hope that your words can effect a positive outcome, you should not speak them.
If people only ever criticized while believing that there is great hope for good, it might drastically change how people receive criticism. Put yourself in the position of the person being criticized: how would you feel when someone criticized you if you knew that he was only confronting you because he had faith in your potential? What if being criticized meant that someone was confident that you could receive correction and benefit from it? It's an interesting thing to ponder, and makes one think of Hebrews 12:5-11.
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes,
but a wise man listens to advice.