Friday, July 06, 2007

Today Scott Adams made me cry!

I read the Dilbert blog every day. According to Scott Adams, this means I am open-minded, intelligent and possessed of a good sense of humour. Thanks, Scott!

Usually Scott's posts make me laugh. I don't always agree with his views (or the views he portrays - it's never 100% clear with professional jokers whether the views they are expressing are their own or a means to a funny end), but that's not the point. When someone lampoons the dearest principles of my heart, even I can laugh if it's well done, and in the case of the Dilbert blog, it almost always is.

But today, I didn't laugh. Today I cried. He describes his experience on the first day of a Dale Carnegie course in public speaking (the emphasis is mine):

One woman stood frozen in front of the group, unable to generate an intelligible word. Beads of sweat literally dripped off her chin. It was horrible to watch. She choked out a few words and returned to her seat, defeated. Our instructor came to the front of the room and said, “Wow. That was really brave.”

And it was. We all knew it was true. This woman had put her head in the lion’s mouth. Suddenly we all realized we had witnessed something important. We applauded. And it changed her. Each week, she managed a little bit more. And each week the instructor and the class recognized her achievement.
By the end of the course, apparently, this woman was a skilled public speaker, as was everyone else in the group. I love stories like this. Stories of triumph against the odds. Stories where the underdog pulls it together.

So often we focus on areas of where improvement is needed. We forget to applaud what people did right. We do it with our children, with our students, with our employees. Sometimes all it takes is a word of encouragement, and you see a person stand a little taller, walk a little prouder, believe a little more.

Years ago, I was asked to lead a worship band in our church in Cape Town. I was terrified. I have always sung - at one stage even semi-professionally - and I had been a part of the band for about 5 years, but I had never led before. The minister sat in the front row, gesticulating madly at me, trying to lead by proxy and it made a frightening situation even worse. After the meeting, he gave me a list of areas for improvement. A long list. I was a wreck. The next week, I was even more terrified than before, and the list of suggested improvements was even longer. After a few days, as an experienced trainer, I realised that I needed some positive input, so I proactively sought it. I phoned him and asked if there had been anything I had done that was right. His answer? "Well, your main problem is..." Needless to say, I stepped down forthwith. I returned to the comfort zone of vocalist for another leader, and there I stayed for years.

When we moved to the UK, I didn't push myself forward as a vocalist, but the minister of our current church heard me singing during one of our meetings and steered me in the direction of the worship leader. I happily slipped back into the comfortable role of vocalist. I am a skilled follower. I watch the leader like a hawk and have learnt to read body language to the point that I am a safe pair of hands backing up a leader who wants to try something new and creative on the spur of the moment.

Then, about a year ago, the leader asked me to take my turn leading a few meetings. My insides churned and I refused. I told him my tale of woe. He let it go, but not for long. Gently but firmly, he pushed me to challenge my beliefs about myself. Eventually I agreed to lead just to shut him up. Once he had seen me at it, he would let it go. In stark terror, I stood up on that Sunday morning while he, on the lead instrument, smiled encouragingly at me. The meeting passed in a blur. Afterwards he came to me and told that I was please to lead once a month from then on and so it has turned out. I still get really nervous before the meetings when I am leading, but once the music starts, all the nerves disappear and I can focus my attention on what it is that I am there to do. Never once has the current leader criticised me. Sometimes he will suggest that I do something a bit differently from the way I have planned. Sometimes he lets me figure out for myself that it isn't going to work. Sometimes I surprise everyone by making something work that shouldn't. I have become quite daring and experimental and often get the congregation doing things outside of their comfort zone.

And all because someone said he believed I could.

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