The sergeant sat in my office, crumpled under the criticism of the ranking supervisor who had rated her poor in every significant area of her annual feedback — management, job knowledge, and personal discipline.

Fighting back the tears, she told me that in her twenty years in the Air Force no one had ever given her ‘feedback’ like this. Then she asked her question, “What do you think, chaplain?”

The question gave me pause because after thirty years of ministry, I know there are two sides to every story. I know that the moment I become overly sympathetic and say, “You poor, poor thing,” another side of the counselee emerges, like a history of DUIs. Yup, two sides to every story, always, at least.

Both sides are expressed in Marshall Shelly’s book Well-Intentioned Dragons. With a sympathetic tone Shelly says that criticism can be like “a wrecking ball … the immediate effect is noise, rubble, and a large hole in your self-esteem.” But he also pitches the other side in his chapter called, ‘When the Dragon May be Right,’ Shelly says we must balance the criticism with what we know about ourselves and what others have observed in us.

The author takes the tone of Proverbs 17:10: “Criticism to an intelligent person has more effect than a hundred lashes on a fool.” Or in the words of a much earthier saying: “If one man calls you an ass, ignore him. If two men call you an ass, start looking for tracks. If three men call you an ass, put on a harness.”

Shelly says that with a “tough hide and a sensitive heart” you can wisely asses your critic. For instance, is your critic truly well-intentioned? Is she a person of integrity? Is your critic self-aware enough to understand the issue and accept his share of the responsibility or blame? If the answer is yes, then he or she must be taken more seriously.

Since my counselee answered a definitive “no” to these questions, I tried to stay within the bounds of her request, “What do you think, Chaplain?”

First, I advised her to remember her calling and her duty to protect and serve the people under her. It’s easy to crumble under criticism, but it’s not so easy when you know that your fall may crush your subordinates.

Take a hit if you have to, I told her, but avoid collateral damage.

Second, when someone criticizes your weakness, you tend to forget about your strengths. I knew the sergeant had something going for her by her six stripes. When I asked her how she got them, she gave me a blank stare.

I told her that it was the use of her best strengths that got her this far and she could count on those qualities to get her past this.

Third, I asked the 30-something sergeant if she’d heard of Telly Savalas who played the 1970’s television detective, Kojack. This time I deserved her blank stare. I explained that Kojack popularized the question, “Who loves you, Baby?”

Kojack’s point was that at the end of the day, all that really matters is the opinion of those who love you and want the best for you.

That’s not to say, Kojack’s question gives us an excuse to be rude to strangers or to blow off objective criticism, but the question can be a way of refocusing the devastating criticism that comes our way from unfeeling and even toxic people.

If you have a critique for me that doesn’t involve my need for a harness, please email me at my new address,
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of No Small Miracles. He also serves as an Air National Guard chaplain and is board certified in the Association of Professional Chaplains. You can call him at (321) 549-2500, E-mail him at, visit his website at or write him at P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759.