How to be heard

April 10, 2015 § 1 Comment

When something is wrong, it is our nature to complain.

And, really, there is something positive about that: noticing what’s not quite right is what allows us to make continuous improvements.

Trying to suppress complaining, in fact, feels unnecessarily restrictive. Should I not notice when something is wrong? Should I not try to set it right? Should I be satisfied with my lot, even when there is something that could be done to set matters straight?

Of course not.

To the contrary: in the right circumstances, the act of complaining can be a very positive thing to do. It is what allows us to make things better.

But not all kinds of complaining are helpful. What doesn’t help? It’s the kind of complaining that focuses on tearing down rather than building up; the kind of complaining that creates a self-defeating cycle of negativity; the kind of complaining that reinforces a doom-and-gloom view of the world. We can’t do that. It won’t work. That’s a terrible idea. No one will come. And so on.

So, if you find that you’re stuck with a group that likes to focus on the negative, what can you do to counteract it?

Happily, there are three steps that you can take.

First: any time a person says something negative, add something positive. It doesn’t matter whether the negative came from your mouth or someone else’s – a negative comment should be paired with a positive comment. Just one positive comment is enough to break the cycle.

For example, a negative comment like ‘this soup is too cold’ might be paired with the positive observation, ‘its broth is very tasty.’ You don’t have to pretend that the soup is warm – rather, you are finding what is both true and positive in this situation.

Actually, it just takes one positive to break the cycle. You can be a force for good within your cycle of friends and family if you just focus on saying something positive. You would be surprised at how transformative that small shift in behavior can be.

In fact, there’s a trick that really effective managers use when they need to give constructive criticism. They do so as part of a ‘feedback sandwich.’ A feedback sandwich is when you sandwich a negative comment between two positive comments.

So, let’s go back to our soup example. Let’s say that you are in charge and you want to let the person who made the soup know that changes are needed with regard to the temperature of the soup. You could go to that person and say, ‘the soup is too cold.’ But that is not the most effective management strategy. It would be better to say, ‘This is really good food. The soup is too cold, but the broth is very tasty.’

People hate to be scolded, so it really helps to acknowledge the positives along with the negative. Hearing a balanced view makes it easier to respond without getting defensive or angry. Instead of hearing ‘you’re an absolute failure at soup-making,’ the soup-maker hears, ‘you made a good soup, but there’s a problem with the temperature.’

Which brings us to the second step: when making these kinds of comments, your audience matters quite a bit. Are you speaking to the person who is directly responsible for managing this particular state of affairs? Or are you merely stating the negatives to anyone who happens to be nearby?

In the first case, you are helping improve the situation. In the second case, you are actually part of the problem.

The only way that improvements can be made is if the powers that be know what needs to be done. So, don’t complain to anyone who will listen; instead, go through the chain of command.

In the congregational setting, for example, the best persons to seek out if you have a comment or complaint are the committee chairs or the congregational president. Complaining to other members, to your friends, or to visitors will not help; that is merely gossip.

Third, make sure that your timing is appropriate. Complaining to someone when they are in the midst of their business is unhelpful. It makes them less effective in their work. Let them finish what they are doing and then talk to them.

If you want to be heard, think about when is the best time to speak.

It’s difficult to get these things right, of course. If, in a moment of self-reflection, you may realize that you’ve been a part of the problem. If that’s the case, take heart: Even Moses struggles with this issue.

Let me give you an example, drawn directly from this week’s Torah portion: Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu make a grave mistake in the handling of the fire pans for the tabernacle and they are themselves consumed by fire. It is a terrible accident and it leaves Aaron grieving for his sons.

In response, Moses speaks at some length to the remaining priests about the proper procedures to follow.

Shortly thereafter, Moses discovers another breach of protocol with regard to the sacrificial service and he takes Aaron’s remaining sons to task. This time, he really lays into them, yelling at them as they are in the midst of the offering.

The first time around, Aaron had been silent in response to Moses’ critique. This time, however, Aaron responds to Moses, arguing with him, suggesting to him that now is not the time to be bringing up such things.

That is to say, Moses was right to bring up his critique, but he should have done three things differently.

First, he should have included positive words alongside his negative comments. He should have said something like ‘I see that you are handling the fire-pans correctly, but we are still having a problem with the timing of the offering. I really appreciate that you took my earlier words to heart, so I am sure we can get this worked out.’

Second, he should have brought the matter to Aaron, rather than laying into the two sons just as they were in the midst of the offering. Aaron is responsible for the actions of the priests. That’s why he’s the one to respond to Moses. As a matter of respect, Aaron should not have heard about it second-hand.

Third, Moses should have waited to speak about the timing of the offering until after Aaron had time to grieve. It really wasn’t that urgent.

Moses is a mensch, of course, and he realizes that he is in the wrong. As the text states: “And when Moses heard this, he approved.”

This narrative is an excellent example of Moses’ humility, for it demonstrates that he will admit when he is wrong and set the matter straight. It’s okay to make a mistake if you apologize and learn from it.

And we can all learn from Moses’ mistake. If you have a comment or complaint, be sure to follow these three steps: (1) say something positive along with the negative; (2) go through the chain of command; and (3) find an appropriate time to speak.

And, if you discover that you have engaged in improper critique, then what? Do as Moses does: go back and apologize. In my experience, the healthiest, happiest relationships are built on humility, honesty, and praise.

§ One Response to How to be heard

  • Stephen Cahill says:

    I was reminded of the Middah of patience’ phrase “every person has his hour and every thing its place”. Complain to the right person at the correct time. This take patience. what do you think?

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