Gentle Words

There is a very famous Proverb (26:4), “a soft answer turns away wrath,” applicable to many communication situations. Surprisingly, many leaders do not learn this lesson early enough in their leadership careers. When they give quick sharp answers to others, they instantly run into problems they have thoughtlessly created for themselves. By nature, my instinctive responses in my younger days tended also to be quick and sharp, so I too had to learn this practical wisdom, step by step.

During my academic leadership of a pediatric division at the hospital, I quickly learned this, and then I nudged my senior staff also, to stop issuing commands, or command-like memos, since they often provoked unnecessary tension. This was especially since we were managing a group of very energetic and “feisty” neonatologists. Neonatologists are doctors for sick newborn infants, who often act like “aggressive surgeons,” since we also often deal with emergencies, to respond quickly and precisely to save a very small baby’s life. This kind of temperament easily translates into difficulties at work, because we act quickly, and respond sharply, and often might be hypersensitive to provocations, especially words that seem not so soft, especially from an “official” figure! However, I have often learned that it’s definitely not just neonatologists, everyone can have similar “prickliness.”

Photo 1: Drafts and drafts are an implicit expression of “soft answer” and “humility” that we need to work on issues step by step, and not edicts. An example of a developing decision at church, framing draft with bible verse concepts.

Rather unconsciously, I fell into a rather unusual habit of writing my communications to my division, as “Reggiegrams,” a term given affectionately by my staff. Reggiegrams are my personal invention, I suppose, where I did not type out formal bureaucratic-like “memos,” and I certainly did not allow my secretary to send them on my behalf, which would be even worse. I wrote out my quasi-memos by hand, often without commas and periods, short and brief, line by line “thoughts,” more like “poetry,” as someone graciously said to me. There was no formal clean typed up official look. We simply xerox-copied them for circulation, before the era of emails, if you can imagine.。

My Reggiegrams were informal and chatty, as if we were engaging in some sort of chat. They certainly were far from the look of edicts or commands, even though they might have similar intention, ultimately. But it gave the understanding that there was always room for negotiation, or dialogue, if necessary, which is nearly always true anyway, even for edicts. The only downside sometimes was the message could seem a bit “poetically” cryptic. Sort of more like today’s young people’s “messaging” style, which it was kind of a forerunner! You see, dialogue is always more chatty, and “informal,” since there is an implication, or humility, that there is always room to improve. The impression of thoughts not totally developed, t’s not exactly all crossed, and i’s not all dotted, more likely fits the concept and implications of the “soft answer.”

While somewhat informal, clearly it was my signal and message of respect to the recipients, not to issue a “command from above.” To even further indicate good will, I often included a touch of humor, which definitely reduced tension. Icons of smiley faces were not invented then, but the intention was similar. Indeed, we were in reality all colleagues and partners in service together, no one being the King! The only slight problem, which could even be comical, was that a colleague might come up to the secretary to try to decipher what my “doctor’s writing” was, or whether there was another meaning to my relatively cryptic note! Which was no problem, since the next Reggiegram gave me a chance to clarify this, again implying openness to dialogue.

Let’s think through this. Why are we sending out the communication in the first place? The usual reason for sending out some sort of a memo, or even edicts, is to effect some change in behavior we think is needed. We do not really mean to issue a command as if we were “the Law.” It’s certainly not meant to deliberately create a negative reaction or anger! A soft answer allows people to think through the issue in a peaceful way, without anger or other negative emotions, so that they can more logically process the communication. “Non-memo communications,” including Reggiegrams, invite true dialogue and not reactive anger. Again, the value of a “soft answer.”

My only caveat is that, in a non-western, authoritarian environment, this might be confusing to some people more used to “edicts,” so the response might be awkward. And they might need some getting used to this style, being rather new to them. I think I offended someone that way, in an Asian setting when I was the Executive Director of the medical mission I co-founded. This person, a surgeon, interpreted my informality as being disrespectful of the position I was in. In a sense he was correct, that I really had less regard for official hierarchies! There is little need for that in most circumstances anyway, if we do our job well.

In any committee meeting that I chaired, or was the general secretary (the best job of the committee, by far), I would always try to summarize the discussion of the committee, in a positive, thoughtful and soft manner, to send around to attendees and other persons who needed to know. Further, I would always clearly label any major decision initially as “DRAFT.” This key word “DRAFT” was a practically magical way of being a softer answer. It meant that the conclusions in the minutes were not ironclad, like a command, but that it was being formed and crafted with lots of input, and that every committee member still had the opportunity of helping in its final formulation. Or to correct any misinterpretation of comments made during the heat of discussions.

No one felt insulted, and everyone’s input was appreciated. Afterwards, many drafts later, then the document could be made “final.” Except I even avoided the word, “final.” I often felt, instinctively, that there are really no final, final documents, so I often just left it always simply as a date identified document, still in fact like a draft, that in theory and in practice, could always be improved at a later time! The word “final” really sounds “not soft.”

Similarly, in a church setting, leaders often innocently give edicts or command-like memos, which they think are effective ways to communicate with church members, but which could instantly provoke reactions difficult to predict or manage. In perspective, it’s good to remember that kings and historical patriarchs loved to give edicts, in totally different eras, and maybe those are not our best role models.

Even if a committee of good intentioned people got together to make some sort of a decision, the resulting decision and announcement memo can often really sound like some sort of a harsh command or edict. This is especially so if the decision is primarily directed towards a small group of people, or even one person, in which case the memo could even, in the worst case, read like a “prosecution document from a tribunal.” Like the colloquial “ganging up on someone.” All these are of course very far from “a soft answer turns away wrath,” and I believe should be avoided. So, crafting the decision statement in as soft a manner as possible, not as an edict, but more as a tentative decision, expressed in a sincerely humble, sort of even a Reggiegram style, will work wonders.

Photo 2: Courts of law still issue edicts…especially the Supremes. But even then, there are later changes. They are not God.

I kind of think that, in contrast to biblical commands, such as the 10 Commandments, or direct commands of Jesus, there are very few immutable commands or edicts from man, that really last, or that are that good. Even from the Pope! Even if a major decision is made today, circumstances could significantly change next year, and decisions may have to change! Even if it is the Supreme Court. It is too easy for us to naively assume that our decisions are the best decisions ever made. Really?

Actually, part of the practical secret of the soft answer is to try not to hurry decisions and conclusions along too much, since that instantly makes it less soft! Let the issue percolate, give it time for ideas to soak in, give time for others to have input, and to understand the usually complex factors involved, all of which are components of the soft answer. You will then be amazed how decisions are much better accepted, and therefore executed best.

The first draft provides a framework, a starting point, a way of focusing ideas, but in the subsequent drafts, the input, molding and acceptance of good ideas, can create a document with softness, and not harshness. Give each word in the drafts careful thought, and if possible, even add a deliberate “soft touch,” so even if the final message is a relatively “tough” one, acceptance is built into it. Expressed with love, especially God’s love.

Church decisions obviously should all be decided in accordance with Bible references and principles, and the drafts should include these references. See Reggietales.org, “URS Decisions, decisions, decisions.” However, we still might misinterpret bible references, so our communications are always tentative, even if laced with bible principles. All the wonderful Bible verses are actually there to remind us, that there really is a true lasting reference manual, of true commands and edicts. But, get this, where the “greatest is love” is the greatest edict that overwhelms all other commands. And love is caring, especially in communicating to a church that God loves immensely.

Photo 3: Now that is truly an edict. That never changes.

Finally, when church committees, ministers, or elders communicate to others in a “spirit of humility,” which really is the key point, the underlying implication of “a soft answer,” people sense immediately that the communication is not meant to demonstrate superiority or power, but a sincere desire to do our best through God’s wisdom. Together. A soft answer turns away wrath.

URS 柔和的话语  (Dixia翻译)

有一句耳熟能详的箴言, “回答柔和,使怒消退”(箴言15章1节),可应用在各种场合的沟通。令人惊讶的是,不少身居领导位置的人在职业早期并没学到这功课。他们惯于迅速尖锐地应答,于是因着这些不经大脑的话,他们就给自己制造了麻烦。我年轻的时候也是如此,慢慢地我学到了这智慧。

我在医院儿科负责学术的时候,我很快就学到,也提醒我的高级职员不要发号施令或写带命令性质的备忘录,因为这些会引起一些不必要的矛盾。当时我们管理的是一群精力旺盛,桀骜不驯的新生儿科专家们。他们负责给新生儿看病,常常攻势凌厉,因为他们面对的是急诊,必须迅速反应以抢救小小婴儿垂危的生命。这种环境常常使得我们似乎很难合作,因为我们必须迅速地直奔主题,而视领导层的某些硬梆梆的用词为挑衅,因而会有过激反应。后来我发现这并不只局限于新生儿科医生,其实每个人都有。

照片一: 一稿接一稿,隐含着这是一个柔和的回答,也代表着谦卑。也就是说,我们在这些问题上需要一步一步的来解决,而不是就给一个命令,这是一个例子:在教会里是如何做决定的,从圣经的经句原则当中来打这个框架。

无意识中,我养成了一个习惯,就是手写给我整个部门的通知或备忘录,我的同事们很喜欢并称之为“曾式语记”(Reggiegram)。这是我个人的发明,我不是通过打字发出官僚式的部门通知,也不会让我的秘书代我发出,而是手写我的想法,常常没有标点符号,一行行短小简练,有人曾很客气地说更像是诗。没有一般打字的官方格式,那会儿还没有电子邮件,我们只是复印一下我的手写稿就分发给大家。

我的曾式语记随意,如同在聊天,完全没有官样通告的那种正儿八经,虽然要传达的信息是一样的,但给人感觉有余地讨论协商。唯一不足之处就是有时我要传达的信息看起来有点诗意不那么直接。犹如现在年轻人传的简讯,我的曾式语记算是先例。对话式的沟通总是随意不那么正式,隐含着谦卑,让人觉得不是一言堂,可以有余地改进。这样的简讯看起来并不一定是完全成熟已经有定论的,而更像是分享一种思路,回答柔和。

虽然并不像官方通告,但很显然这些信息是出于我对收信者的尊重,用以代替“上级通知”。有时我会融合一点幽默更显善意,一点小幽默常常就能或多或少化解一些紧张气氛,当年还没有发明电子笑脸,但用意差不多。我们都是同事,有共同使命的合作伙伴,没有高高在上的王。有点小小的戏剧性的问题,就是有时同事会跑来问我的秘书我的“医生体写作”某句话到底是什么意思,或者问我的半谜语式的话是不是隐含了另一层意思。这都不是问题,因为我在下一期曾式语记中会解释清楚,这样就有了开放的对话互动。

我们来想一想,我们为啥发这些信息?一般是为了影响我们认为必要的一些行为上的改变。通常我们并不想像立法那样正儿八经地公布新条规,那样常常会引起反感甚至愤怒。柔和的回答会让人心平气和地思考所面对的问题,没有愤怒,没有负面情绪,因此可以理性地来消化所收到的信息。像曾式语记 Reggiegrams这样的“非备忘录式的沟通”能促进真正的对话而不是引起愤怒。这凸显了回答柔和的重要性。

要切记的是在非西方文化,威权的环境当中,这对有些人可能有点不好理解,因为他们习惯于听指令,所以这样的答复可能会让他们觉得有点模凌两可。因为这对他们来说是新事物,需要时间来适应。我想我就犯过这样的错误,当时在亚洲,我是一个医疗事工的执行主任,我也是发起人之一。对方是一个外科医生,他把我这种比较随性的沟通方式理解成为我对我的职位不尊重。从某个角度来讲,他是对的,因为我对于这个职权不是那么在乎。假如我们大家都把自己的事情干好,那在大多数情况下职权不职权不重要。

每次我主持一个委员会会议或任大会秘书长(这是我最喜欢做的职位),我都会经过仔细斟酌,用正面积极,柔和的措辞,把委员会讨论的内容总结一下,发给与会者和其他需要通知到的人。我总会把任何委员会的决定,一开始就标明是草案。草案这个词,其实就是一个很柔和的回答。它意味着会议记录里的这些决定不是铁板钉钉,不能改变了,不是一道指令,而是说,我们经过考虑初步达成了一个方案,但每一个成员还有机会可以来影响最后的决议。草案也可以用来纠正在热烈讨论过程当中有可能被误解了的一些意见。

这样,没有人会感到不被尊重。每一个人都可以各抒己见。经过很多轮这样的草案,“最终”方案就形成了,但是一般我都避免使用“最终”这个词。我本能地认为实际上真的没有最终方案这么一说,我一般只是简单地用一个日期来标注这份文件,实际上还是像一个草案一样。无论理论上还是实际上,总是有可以改进的余地。并且“最终”这个词,让人觉得不那么柔和。

同样在教会里,领导者一般都会无意中就给了方案或者指令式的备忘录。他们认为这样可以非常有效地和教会会友沟通。但有时候这样会马上激起某些难以预测,并且难以掌控的反应。回过头来看。在历史上任何时期,国王或者大人物们都喜欢下诏,发号司令。但是他们不见得是我们最好的榜样。

即使是一群有良好意愿的人在一起做出一个决定,一般来说,他们的决定以及后来公布的方式,让人听起来就好像是在发号施令,尤其是如果这个决定是针对一小部分人或是针对某一个人。有时候甚至糟糕至极,如同法庭宣判,或群起攻之。这些当然是远离了“柔和的言语,使人消怒”。所以我认为这种情况应该避免,所以在起草一个决定的时候言语应该尽量柔和,而不是好像是写一道圣旨。表达成是一个暂时的决定,然后用特别真诚,谦卑的方式去沟通,这样往往会产生奇效。

照片二: 法庭还是会给予决定的,尤其是最高法院。但是最高法院的决议也会有后来的更改。他们不是上帝。

有时候我想,与圣经里的十诫以及耶稣的直接命令截然不同的是:从人的角度来讲,几乎没有什么不可更改的命令或决议能够长久。哪怕天主教教皇颁布的亦是如此。今天做一个特别重要的决定,但是情况或许在下一年就变了,那这个决定就得更改,甚至于是最高法院的决议也是一样。有时候我们很容易异想天开,很幼稚地认为我们的决定是永久性的。真是这样吗?

实际上,柔和的言语的一个实用的秘诀,就是不要匆匆忙忙下决定或者得出结论,因而避免语言不柔和。让这些事情慢慢地沉淀消化,让这些想法慢慢地进入每个人的思维,让大家有时间来给予反馈,来理解复杂的相关因素。这些组成了柔和的回答。你会很惊讶,这种方式,往往使人们更容易接受,并且更好地执行决定。

第一轮往往提供一个框架,作为讨论的一个基点,用以征集大家的意见。然后随着大家的反馈,讨论,一些好主意渐渐成形,用柔和而不是僵硬的言语产生一个文件。经过字斟句酌,如果可能的话,特意加一点柔和的言语,即使最后这个方案比较强硬,接受起来也会容易一些。用爱来表达,尤其是上帝的爱。

教会的决定很显然要按照圣经的真理和原则,草案当中就应该明确参照。参考我的网站www.reggietales.org上“决策,决策,决策”那篇文章。但是我们还是有可能会误解引用的圣经原则,所以我们所沟通的往往还是暂时的,哪怕我们参照了很多圣经的原则。所有圣经里这些奇妙的诗句实际上是要提醒我们,有一个真正永存的参考指南,其中有真正的命令。但是“最大的是爱”这一条就是最大的命令,它超越了其他一切指令。爱就是关心,尤其是在向教会的会众沟通的时候,因为上帝非常爱教会。

照片三: 这是一个真正的命令永不改变

最后,当教会的一些委员会,传道人,或者长执会,要以谦卑的灵来与会众沟通。这一点至关重要,它蕴含在柔和的回答当中。人们马上就能感受到这个沟通,并不意味着发号施令,而是真诚的想以属天的智慧竭尽全力。合力。柔和的言语,就能使怒消退。

Sources

https://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2005/10/images/20051003_d-0143-515h.html
https://www.flickr.com/groups/the_phillip_medhurst_collection_of_bible_prints/pool/phillip_medhurst_bible_pictures

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