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Friday, March 7, 2014

On the Receiving End of Feedback

I have started reading my copy of Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well, by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen.  Stone and Heen are two of the authors of Difficult Conversations and both lecture on negotiation at the Harvard Law School.  I got my Kindle copy today, and it's a very fine read indeed.  You can see more information at

Giving feedback is a source of concern in businesses and other organizations.  It is of particular interest, I believe, for pastors and other church leaders.  We in the preacher tribe are not generally all that adept at giving helpful feedback.  And we are even worse (perhaps I can only speak for myself...) at receiving critical and negative feedback.

Stone and Heen suggest that the real key in this interaction is not the giver of the feedback.  Rather they emphasize the role of the receiver.  "And we came to see," they write, "how this could transform not just how we handle performance reviews on the job, but how we lead, and behave in our professional lives and in our personal lives" (page 3).

Two things strike me early in my reading of the book.  The first is what the authors describe as "the tension between learning and being accepted."  This grabbed me because one of my strongest strengths is that of "learner."  And yet, when it comes to learning about myself, I am less than excited--especially when the feedback describes my shortcomings.  Stone and Heen note that such feedback can feel less like a "gift of learning" and far more like a colonoscopy.

I resemble that remark.  The good news is that receiving feedback is, at least in part, a set of skills to be learned and practiced.  It is also dependent on one's mental and spiritual condition at the feedback moment (and I can do something about that as well!).  So, immediately, I am reminding myself today that feedback is first of all information.  I like to learn, so I need to reframe as best I can the feedback that I receive from others.

The second thing that caught my attention is the role of leaders in forming a feedback culture in an organization.  This is not primarily about learning as a leader to give more effective feedback (although that is a very useful thing to do).  Instead, the most powerful way to foster a feedback culture depends on how the leader or leaders receive feedback from others and especially from those with less power in the organization.

"Nothing affects the learning culture of an organization more than the skill with which its executive team receives feedback," write Stone and Heen (page 10).  The higher up we get in an organization, the less accurate feedback we get.  So this will take work.  But the authors note that working to get that feedback "creates a culture of learning, problem solving, and adaptive high performance."

I, for one, desire to pay more attention to how I receive feedback in my ministry.  We know that other members will observe and imitate the behavior of the visible public leaders. I can therefore impact the ways in which others accept feedback by how I model that acceptance myself.

Now we come to the hard part.  This means that as a leader I need to seek out greater amounts of accurately critical feedback.  I need to do that for two reasons.  First, I can model helpful responses to such feedback.  Second, this is where the real learning and growth are.

If only my feelings didn't get hurt so easily.  Know what I mean?

Thursday, March 6, 2014

God Talk at the Oscars

I have been following the conversation about Matthew Mcconaughey's Oscar acceptance speech.  He had the temerity or courage (depending on your religio-political persuasion) first of all to thank God for creating the opportunity to succeed in this way.

The speech left some commentators scratching their heads.  Time.com, or example, found it necessary to "explain" the "confounding" speech.  The site proceeded to repeat the actor's main points almost verbatim with little or no commentary.  Sounds like good work if you can get it, but journalism it is not.

Pundits with a conservative religio-political persuasion cheered the speech.  They also chuckled over what they perceived to be the discomfort of the audience during the speech.  This was deemed to demonstrate the shallow atheism of the crowd, and some of these commentators found the discomfiture quite amusing.  So much for loving one's enemies and praying for those who persecute you--but then, the Sermon on the Mount wasn't really intended as a serious behavioral program for disciples, was it?

I am struck by how desperate cultural Christianity is for any positive public recognition, no matter how muddled and heterodox.  Conservative evangelicalism has indeed positioned itself as the new cultural Christianity.  Certainly the goal of this perspective is triumphalistic--what Neibuhr called "Christ above Culture."  Cultural Christianity seeks this stance even while professing the "Christ against Culture" position.  It is quite a clever strategy.

In truth, Mr. Mcconaughey's remarks were vaguely deistic, but hardly Christian in any orthodox sense. The sort of triumphal, narcissistic self-congratulation that he displayed has little or nothing to do with "coming to serve rather than to be served."  His description of his deceased father's current status and experience is amusing and touching, but it is not Christian in any recognizable New Testament sense. The new life is not merely the best moments of this life to the infinite power--no matter how much I hope that a good gumbo is part of the New Creation.

Read N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope for an account of the resurrection that has real substance and power.  We have far more to anticipate in the new life than supper, dancing and Miller Lite.  But that is precisely what certain commentators have celebrated.  So Cultural Christianity is left with a narcissistic, gnostic, crypto-deist as the latest poster boy for their cause.  I follow Jesus.  I don't wish to be identified with Mr. Mcconaughey's theological tribe.

The mirror response of the new atheists is equally instructive.  There was an outbreak of apoplectic angst from some writers in that neighborhood.  To such folks, it would seem that any deistic reference by a public figure is cause for existential concern.  The so-called humanists seem to have almost no trust in the ability of humans to discern and dismiss the "god delusion."  So they must aggressively attack all such expressions.

I believe they can rest at ease.  The Oscar speech was so theologically muddled that it is far more likely to help the new atheist agenda than to harm it.  If one can screen out the allergic response to the mention of "god" (I found no real mention of the God and Father of Jesus Christ in the speech), then the speech simply described the value of gratitude, the importance of optimism, and the power of positive self-talk for an attractive and modestly talented American male.

That hardly seems like a formula for undermining the philosophical foundations of secular America.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Fear is Information

Fear is information.  That may not have occurred to you, but it is true.  It is information from our bodies, sent to our brains, warning us of possible danger.  That information may provoke an immediate reaction.  Or it may lead to a considered response.  Psychologists sometimes refer to the reaction as the neurological "low road."  They sometimes refer to the response as the neurological "high road."

These labels are not really value attributions.  Instead, these labels describe the different paths that fear as information may take through our brains.  The "low road" is the direct route from the external stimulus directly to the reactive centers in the brain (sometimes referred to broadly as the limbic system).  The low road takes the short path to action, not bothering with the slower and more reflective neocortex. Thus the low road is reactive rather than reflective.

The low road is the path to take if I am on the African savannah and am surprised by a lion.  Taking the time to consciously process that experience is a fine formula for ending up as lion lunch.  There are moments when the low road is the best road.

Those moments are rare in most of our lives.  But the low road still exists and can take us over if we're not paying attention.  This is the "amygdala hijack" which is described in some conflict resolution literature.  A fear-induced reaction in the midst of interpersonal conflict will usually make things worse rather than better.  When two limbic systems lock horns in a reactive cycle, the outcome is usually quite bad.

The high road moves the fear-based information into our higher reasoning and processing centers.  The low road may produce a rough and ready reaction in milliseconds.  The high road may require several seconds for processing.  But, as I suggest strongly in my parenting classes, the high road is almost always the best road.  This is true because good behavior is usually recognized and rewarded in the long run.  This is also true because a reflective response is far more likely to be heard and appreciated than is a heated reaction.

How do we choose the best path?  We can practice stepping backward in order to move forward. When your granny told you to count to ten before responding to a negative comment, she was right. Stop and wait.  Take a deep breath and exhale.  Take another deep breath and exhale again.  Use your breathing to engage your vagus nerve--to slow your heart rate and respiration, to decrease your blood pressure and slow down the production of adrenaline and cortisol.

And then think.  This is not an encouragement to deny your emotions.  It is an encouragement to treat emotions for what they are--thoughts with particular energy valences.  Fear is information.  It can produce anger, which is a secondary and reactive emotion.  Or it can produce curiosity, which is a secondary and responsive emotion.

So be brave.  Courage is not the absence of fear.  That is simply foolishness.  Courage is the management of fear for the sake of some greater goal.  That management may equip you to take a risk for the sake of another.  That management may equip you to speak out in the face of injustice.  That management may equip you to be calm enough to ask additional questions before coming to a conclusion or taking action.

And practice being brave.  This is a skill that can be cultivated, at least in small ways.  Step back to move forward.  Breathe deeply and exhale fully.  Try to imagine the situation from the point of view of the other person.  If nothing else comes to mind, simply say, "You may have a point."  And then ask further reflective questions.

If fear is information, then the way out of fear will be more and better information...unless, of course, you are running from a lion!