1. The trap
One of the good things I like about old age is that I have accumulated a lot of experiences, both good and bad. Sometimes, bad experiences may be more vividly remembered, and I can use these as examples for life lessons. I remember quite clearly a young resident doctor coming into my office, and declaring that he wanted “the truth” about his performance, that I should be totally candid with him, and tell him the entire truth. He insisted he could take any negatives, “so go ahead and tell me.” So, I proceeded to do so.
As usual, in my approach with students, I would try to phrase my critique comments using a sensible balance of good and bad, since I knew of course that there were always positive and negative things about anyone’s performance, and I should try to be fair about my assessment. Thinking in this way, I began my assessment. I finished a series of comments (4 or 5, definitely less than 9) about his good performance, during which time he kept nodding his head in agreement, obviously pleased that I recognized his strengths. This dialogue seemed to be going well.
Then I started on my first sentence, rather mildly, about something negative. He did not even allow me to finish my sentence, but jumped in abruptly, and became louder and louder, “you see, you see, I knew that you all do not like me, and do not give me a chance!” I was thrown totally off balance, when I realized the “trap,” likely unintended, he had set for me.
I have learned since then, after several somewhat similar encounters, that many people may need more than 9 (!) compliments, before they would even listen to one negative comment! Didn’t Jesus even say we have to forgive a brother 70 times 7 times, and not just 7 times? Implying 490 negative events occurred that needed overlooking, and not condemning! Those are dramatic numbers! And truly it is very difficult to say anything negative to anyone who is truly sensitive.
2. Criticisms and sensitivities
In all frankness, most people are sensitive, whenever they feel they are being criticized “unfairly” (which could be quite often, depending on prickliness), and you can feel the atmosphere tensing up immediately, when you turn from (especially “less than 9”) positives, to negatives. Especially if you begin to say, “But….” It even happens when the criticism is about someone else close to them, like a family member, when they might feel personally attacked. Maybe the problem is the word “but,” which is like a warning signal, so I have been trying to stay away from that threatening word!
Frankly, many people are just too sensitive! People may be offended by even the slightest negative comment, even if there are many other good comments. Sort of a kind of “selective hearing” of only the “one” negative point.
3. Criticisms from gossip
Selective hearing is one good practical reason why we should not gossip, because gossip always involves (our) selective use of information. Nearly always, we only choose part of the story, the part we like, or remember most vividly. So, say, of 10 phrases in a story, we “hear” and thus transmit, really only one or 2 of the “more juicy” phrases, which may not actually comport with the entire 10 phrases. Indeed, “context is everything.” And when we selectively use a phrase or 2, totally out of context, we can literally make up a whole new story. Basically, we are ignoring the other 9 or 8 phrases, with little chance for “accuracy in gossip.”
When I hear someone say negative things about another person, behind their back, I commonly try to either stop the discussion or deflect the discussion to other topics when possible. Ever since I was quite young I have been taught to try hard to think about the good in other people. A very old encouragement I re-discovered just recently buried in my childhood autograph book, makes just such a quote (see Photo), a refreshing find.
Unconsciously, I think this quotation has helped me through many decades of interacting with others. Deep down, we all know that in life nothing is simple, and even when we see or hear something negative, we never know exactly what the circumstances are for each person, their past pains and trials, and how all those experiences affected them.
By our basic (sinful) nature, we tend to like to gossip, and like to think negative things about others. Remember the teaching about “the splinter in someone else’s eyes.” It’s much easier to find fault with others, and we just love to do that! Especially, through gossip.
It’s much better to take a positive attitude, emphasizing the biblical concept of encouraging all people. It really doesn’t help to dwell on the negatives of any story, anyway, let alone a gossiped one. Believing the best in others also makes our own lives more pleasant! Some people might think that this attitude is “Pollyannaish,” but my thought is, so what, there is much less harm that way anyway.
4. Criticisms that encourage
Since I am basically a teacher, what about the teacher’s key role in teaching and often needing to criticize his students? How do we do that in the best way without generating angry sensitive reactions? When I was very active in academic medicine, I was not happy about the level of academic lecturing that I saw in many young faculty. But, I had discovered that criticizing someone about his lecture skills can be a sensitive issue.
So, I teamed up with one of the best teachers on the faculty, Doctor B, and we came up with a novel idea. Each year, for 24 years without stop, we organized a national meeting of senior fellows in training, or junior faculty, to meet at a secluded place in very pleasant surroundings, to teach them how to give excellent talks. As far as we knew, this was the only systematic national academic pediatric teaching program then (late 1970s) in the country.
Every year, 2 dozen participants would come. At the introduction to the meeting, we clearly told them that they were going to be criticized after their talks. I often made the opening remarks, warning them, cheerfully, that the critiques would be something like, “I don’t like your science, nor your presentation, nor your style, but I like you! So, take the comments with a good attitude, so that you can learn.” Since everybody was duly forewarned, criticized roundly, and even had a chance to criticize other presentations, there seemed to be some “fairness,” and the young doctors took it all in good spirit. There was no obvious attempt to do anything close to a 9:1 approach! And it worked! Why?
I think the good response might have been related to the fact that the attendees realized the faculty had volunteered to do this teaching essentially out of the “goodness of their hearts,” at a significant sacrifice of their time and energy, for a group of people that were mostly unknown before to them, reflecting their “love of teaching,” or even their “love of students.” In spite of relatively harsh critiques, many participants admitted to us, that it was the best criticisms and assessments that they ever received about how to give a talk, given in a candid honest way.
That training indeed should have helped them for the rest of their lives, as professors in major Universities of the country. I think that, personally speaking, that was one of the best things we ever did for academic teaching, and every year, presentations at these training meetings got better and better, as these “graduates” in turn returned home and likely taught by example the next generation of teachers themselves! The value of willing acceptance of candid criticisms, without the overt need to be layered in compliments first, can be so helpful after all!
5. Greatest is love
No matter if we use the 9 to one ratio, or any approach, what is really the most important in teaching probably, is the “greatest is love” concept, expressed in the historic book “Letter to the Corinthians,” 2,000 years ago. Students can sense the love deep down in the teacher’s heart, and that love can overcome discomfort and sensitivities. Especially the concept that “love is patient,” which helps drive the good teacher to look patiently for the good in his/her students. Love is definitely more powerful than criticism, and doesn’t really need a number.