Wednesday, June 18, 2008

On being an encourager

Some years ago, when my husband and I had been identified as having leadership potential in our local church, we attended a 'school of eldership', where the characteristics of church leadership were explored. The course leader mentioned one thing that has stuck with me to this day.

He spoke of making sure that your life contained a healthy balance of people who played the respective roles of Paul, Barnabus and Timothy. Paul, of course was the one who mentored so many leaders. Having got off to a shaky start, we went on to become one of the most prominent figures of church history, responsible for writing much of the new testament. Timothy was a young man, placed into a position of leadership, but desperately inexperienced and unsure of himself. He needed mentoring and guidance. But it is on Barnabus that I would like to focus today. This is a man whose name is synonymous with encouragement.

Since we moved to the UK, my life has been desperately short of Barnabuses (in the flesh, at any rate) and it has been this lack that has made me realise how vital this often overlooked role is. We have become so accustomed to a society that complains (but usually does little to change things) that we see accusations and complaints where none are intended. Shortly after we moved into our current house (I can't keep calling it 'new' - we've been here since March!), we were standing in the front garden, chatting to our wonderful neighbour - a redoubtable man in his 70s. He has a son who is a musician who tours with a band, so he had noted with interest the arrival of several guitars and amps among our effects. As our elder son came up to join the conversation, Bill said to him, "So - have you been keeping up with your guitar practice then?" My son - not the persecution complex type, but a teenager nonetheless - read a veiled criticism into this and pointed out defensively, "I haven't even been here. I've been staying in Milton Keynes." We had to explain that Bill genuinely wanted to know how the guitar playing was coming along and meant nothing more by the question. To his credit, my son apologised and an enthusiastic conversation ensued.

We live in a culture in which we have become accustomed to criticism. It is so easy to criticise - especially when we can use the hyperbolic words like 'too' (too much, too long, too loud), 'always' and 'never'. On the other hand, it takes thought and insight to be able to offer genuine encouragement. And genuine encouragement needs to be specific, not some vague statement of general postivity. I learnt this from all the child-rearing books I read in the early years of parenting. Telling a child "You are so clever/handsome/wonderful," is all well and good, but genuine encouragement attaches itself to a specific action.

  • "Wow! You climbed all the way to the top. Well done!"
  • "You sang that whole song so beautifully and remembered all the words. That was very clever of you."
  • "You solved 14 of these problems correctly. You're really getting much better at this. You have obviously been working very hard. Well done."
Recently, as we were driving somewhere, my husband got the mutters. We had passed one those illuminated street signs that flash a reminder at you when you exceed the speed limit. Usually, these switch off when you have dropped below the limit. Some of them even give you a smiley face. This one did neither. It flashed the reminder at my husband, even though he was already travelling below the limit. He is a self-assured man in his late forties, but he wanted his smiley face... or, at the very least, not to be 'told off'. He wanted acknowledgement that he was doing the right thing, not just some blanket admonition that didn't even apply to him.

In a classroom situation (end even with our colleagues), we can take the trouble (a) to offer praise and (b) to personalise it. But it doesn't have to stop there. Even though we are not present when users are using an online learning resource, we have the technology available to us to provide tailored messages of encouragement. There is an episode of Friends where Joey is trying to learn to speak French using a tape. He is delighted that the person on the tape says he is doing very well and, being Joey, he takes the praise to heart. The section I'm referring to can be seen from about 02:56 to 03:56 in this clip.

Few of our users are as undiscerning as Joey. They will want encouraging progress markers, but they will expect them to be relevant. So let's give some thought as to how we could build in some positive feedback.

For me, the first thing is to have some sort of initial assessment that identifies what a user already knows, and to affirm that: "Based on your assessment, you seem to be pretty clued up on x, y and z. If you prefer, you can omit these sections, although you might like to review them out of interest."

You might also choose to include knowledge check questions in the material, which afford you the opportunity to build in some notes of encouragement.

The same approach can be taken if there is to be a final assessment on the learning materials.

Of course, the most individual and sincere form of encouragement still comes from a person-with-skin-on (the online tutor, the line manager, a local champion etc.) but we can make an effort and make a start.

Any other ideas from budding Barnabuses out there?


Jackie Cameron said...

Hi Karyn - this is my first time on your blog and I read this post first. It resonated with me. I like to think of myself as an "encourager" - I truly aim to be. (I think the words "constructive criticism" are an oxymoron and have happily entered into discussion on that matter!)

When I do encourage I am often met with surprise and sometimes even a wee bit of scepticism. But that soon turns to pleasure. There is nothing more valuable - to both encourager and encouragee.

But it must be appropriate, specific and relevant encouragement. I train in public speaking. Part of our programme is learning how to give feedback - and words like "nice" and "quite" are discouraged ( I would ban them ..)Apart from learning how to speak up participants also explore - out loud - how to give good feedback. As a large amount of the work I do is with young people in school maybe we have a whole load of budding encouragers out there!

Anonymous said...

@jackie Hi and welcome. Glad to have caught your eye.

Interestingly enough, I have done a fair amount of public speaking coaching myself. I also used to adjudicate speech and drama eistedfodds at schools. One of my regular contracts was the third year of a beauty school, where the girls had to prepare to deliver presentations. It was great fun, but very daunting to be surrounded by all these flawless complexions and specimens of perfect grooming!

Please, please don't let anyone pressure you into losing that encourager mentality. It is in seriously short supply! Hopefully you will encounter a good few encouragers yourself along the way, or it could become wearing. But I trust that you evoke a likemindedness in those who encounter you.

Anonymous said...

Hey! I love you for this. You are brilliant. Thanks for this post. Today I got some time asthere was a lot of work and this was worth every minute of my attention. Know what? I have a headache still this was a lovely read. Hugs and blessings to 'the rock'.

Anonymous said...

@rina Thanks for taking the time to be my encourager today.