Jump directly to the Content Jump directly to the Content

How to Find Truth in Harsh Feedback

What to do when feedback is off base, unfair, and poorly delivered

I have a bad track record for receiving feedback well—at least negative feedback.

Like when my husband told me I was a little harsh when I reminded him he forgot to run the dishwasher. I wasn’t being harsh! I was just being honest!

Or when our realtor commented on the “very bright” paint color in our bedroom that “wasn’t her style.” No, I’m just not afraid of color—like you.

Or when a friend couldn’t believe an old picture was really of me. Lay off me! I’m 15 years older with a kid!

It’s easy to see myself only in the best light. Sure I have flaws, but I’m convinced they’re tiny little things that don’t bother anyone.

It turns out I’m not alone in this thinking. As Sheila Heen writes in Thanks for the Feedback, we see ourselves as the heroes in our stories—we’re always “Dorothy, the Princess, or Rudolph, not the Wicked Witch, the Pea, or any of the other reindeer.” This makes receiving negative feedback difficult.

But we all have blind spots. Though they’re invisible to us, they’re often glaringly obvious to the people we live and work with. As church leaders, we need to care about this. We need to actively work on receiving feedback well so we can grow and better minister to the people in our care. But receiving feedback isn’t always pretty.

Harsh Words

One of my worst experiences with feedback occurred years ago when my pastor at the time recommended me for giving sermons during weekend worship services. I was elated. I love speaking and teaching, and it was the thing I missed most from my previous job on staff at another church. The process involved delivering a previously prepared message to a group of church leaders who would give verbal and written feedback to help me develop my speaking skills. Though I was a bit nervous about this formal evaluation, I felt fairly confident in my gifting, and I genuinely wanted to have the opportunity to improve my skills.

My actual experience, though, left me stunned, heartbroken, and angry. One leader criticized my word choice, even though I didn’t control what the prepared sermon said. Another shared that he couldn’t believe I’d ever spoken in public before because my skill level was so low. A third evaluator explained that I needed to work on my “feminine voice.” A fourth made clear that though I was an easy going person, I couldn’t be easy going on stage. The evaluation went on for over ten minutes without a single positive comment.

I was crushed. I didn’t make it out of the sanctuary before tears started streaming down my face. I felt that the feedback had been rude, sexist, and—at least a few times—just plain incorrect. I couldn’t focus on anything else for weeks. I had felt humbly confident walking in, but I left feeling bullied, ungifted, unsure of my strengths, and useless to the church. I took it hard, and I let my emotions run wild. I let it get the best of me.

My desire to learn and grow was overwhelmed by the crushing sense that I wasn’t seen, understood, or appreciated. I couldn’t see past the harsh words to what might have been a nugget of truth that could improve my skills.

The Tension of Feedback

Sheila Heen talked about this struggle at the 2015 Global Leadership Summit. We feel conflicted when we get feedback because we have two competing desires: to learn and grow, and to be loved and respected. On top of that, there’s a lot at play when it comes to receiving feedback. In fact, according to Heen’s research, our brains are set up to find the negative in feedback. As we listen, we think: “They’re wrong,” “I don’t trust them,” or “They have no right to say this to me.” More often than not, we’re looking for the loophole because we believe we’re good, hardworking people who may need a little work, but by and large, we’re doing well.

What I so appreciated about Heen’s presentation at the Summit, though, was how she talked about being able to receive feedback and do something positive with it—even if the feedback is all wrong, delivered in the wrong way, and said by the wrong person. This is a critical skill for church leaders. We’re constantly receiving feedback, and so much of it seems completely unhelpful. But the fact is that we have blindspots, and we need others in our lives to speak into them.

To get anything out of my speaking evaluation, I had to see past all the wrong to search for the truth that I could apply. To be honest, it’s taken me years to be able to do that. Looking back, I realize that the comments about being easy going on stage were about my energy level. It’s true. I stayed mostly still on the stage while I spoke, walking a little from side to side, and my voice didn’t vary a ton. In my first trimester of pregnancy, I felt incredibly sick and tired that morning. I hadn’t slept well, and I hadn’t eaten for fear that it might come back up at an inopportune time. Plus, all I wanted to do was go take a nap. My excitement at the time prevented me from considering that it may not have been the best time for me to take on this evaluation. I was too eager about the opportunity to take an honest look at my life situation.

I also realize that I didn’t take the time to clarify what was expected from me that day. I hadn’t done the work to know exactly what the evaluators were looking for. I had assumed that they’d be looking for the same things my previous church had appreciated—like standing still at a podium. That was a wrong assumption. If I had asked more questions, I would have been able to better prepare.

Looking for the truth in a sea of poor feedback doesn’t excuse the feedback givers—they didn’t give feedback well. But it does give me back my power in the situation. Rather than sulk, doubt my worth, and allow anger to rule my life, I have the power to sort through the feedback. I can take each comment on its own and evaluate it: The comments about my voice being too feminine got thrown out—that’s simply not true of who God says I am. The comments about the importance of energy while speaking got to stay—that really is important for engaging speaking. And at the end, I could pull out that morsel of truth to grow—ask more questions, clarify, and honestly consider what I can handle in the season I’m in.

This sorting process also reminds me that my worth isn’t on the table, no matter what. Nothing that they said or could have said could diminish my worth in God’s eyes.

Receiving feedback well is a skill I continue to develop and hone, and Heen’s talk at the Leadership Summit taught me so much. Her book on the same topic, Thanks for the Feedback, goes more in depth on the triggers that keep us from finding truth in feedback, how to see our blindspots, and even how to navigate feedback conversations so we can learn something from them.

The truth is that most of the feedback we receive will be at least a little off. But if we’re committed to spiritual growth, if we’re committed to growing in our gifts and skills, if we’re committed to serving our people better, we have to develop the skill of receiving feedback well.

—Amy Jackson is an introvert committed to living life in community. She leads small groups in her church and is managing editor of GiftedforLeadership.com, SmallGroups.com, and ChristianBibleStudies.com.

Recent Posts

When Your Calling Is Challenged
As hardships come, you have 1 of 3 options.
What Is Calling?
Defining this “super-spiritual” word
Cultivate Your Calling in Each Stage of Life
Angie Ward discusses cultivating leadership amid ever-changing responsibilities.
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
How to know whether to leave or stay in your ministry context.

Follow us


free newsletters: