Propel Sophia   

The Difference between Feedback and Criticism

by Jenny McGill


Sophia is the Greek word for Wisdom, and Propel Sophia seeks out the voices of truly wise women and asks them to share worked examples of how they express faith in daily life. Pull up a chair at Sophia’s table, won’t you? There’s plenty of space. Learn more here.


The moment I stepped into her office, she completely bit my head off. Her eyes were wild with fire, her tone dripping with judgment. I could tell she was upset—and upset with me—but “the why” was unclear. I felt attacked: there had been no warning. Have you ever been completely caught off guard by someone’s outburst?

What do we do when someone seems to be unfairly criticizing us?

For me, I took a step back and considered the situation. How long had we known each other? How did we normally interact? What else could be going on here? I often return to my training on social conditioning and families of origin. How had she learned to react?

Confrontation can be a healthy form of communication, but most families usually teach one of two models of conflict: avoidance or rage. If those are the models we’ve learned, any feedback we receive can feel like criticism. A third way, one that my dad taught me, is an earnest, reasoned discussion to explore what could might need to be changed or corrected. She was definitely giving me some heated feedback: the question was, how would I respond?

In one of those rare moments where I kept a level head, I asked her to sit down and tell me more. The first outburst I thought was more about her journey in learning how to handle conflict. One of her family’s core values was to shun any sign of dispute or disruption. I realized that my friend was trying to do the opposite and voice what had unsettled her.  Not all confrontation is conflict (as she’d been taught her to believe), and not all correction is criticism. I obviously had upset her in some way, and even though her delivery was disruptive, I did want to discover the truth she was trying to tell.

As it turned out, she had felt unprotected. In an earlier staff meeting, I had made a comment which she felt put her in a negative light. I was able to explain why I said what I did, which made sense to her, and we were able to reason out the situation. I had not spoken out of turn in the meeting, but I had missed catching how the course of conversation was increasingly unsettling her. Given our work relationship, I should have been more attentive. While her feedback could have been delivered more appropriately, I valued her reminder of my area of weakness. I need to improve my ability to read contextual cues, especially given my professional position of leadership.

In discerning feedback from others, whether to absorb it or chuck it, here are the questions I ask myself.

In what spirit is the feedback offered?

How well do I know this person? Are they having a bad day? If I know this person well and normally trust them as a friend, is something else going on here that may be disrupting the message communicated?

2) Does this person have the right to speak into my life?

Have I placed myself into a relationship with this person that involves accountability (e.g., my discipler, family member, spouse, church leader, supervisor, etc.) Judgmentalism—what we most often do, wrongly—is different from making an appropriate judgment. Because of our sincere love for another, we speak into each other’s lives for our common good. They might be speaking out of genuine care for mine.

Is my assessment of the situation more about my past hurt with this person, my own resentment, hypocrisy, or self-deception?

I think of how the older brother behaved in the parable in Luke 15:11-32. He had so much going on in his own heart to deal with first that he was not free to see his brother’s situation clearly. Have I done the hard work of excavating my own heart (Matthew 7:3-5)? If so, then where do I think the other person is coming from?

4) What grain of truth can I glean from this encounter, despite its packaging?

Does this person have a point? Perhaps concealed by layers of their own brokenness, is there a truth in their feedback that I need to face about myself?


I remain grateful to my friend for acknowledging that something was wrong. Learning to discern what’s really going on beneath a heated critique takes practice, and discerning truth is how we grow.

Jenny McGill

Jenny McGill (PhD, King’s College London) works in higher education as a dean at Indiana Wesleyan University and an adjunct professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. Also a pastor’s wife, her most important work is discipling women. Her writing has been featured in various journals and magazines, and her books include Walk with Me: Learning to Love and Follow Jesus. Connect with her at and @drjennymcgill.