Be an Encourager

Our brain is like Velcro for the bad and Teflon for the good.

This year, I started a new practice. At the end of each week, I have written a summary of that week. And what comes to my mind immediately when I start writing? The bad. I have to look back at my calendar and think harder to remember the good things. The good thing about forcing myself to do this is that by the end of the exercise I usually feel much better about the week!

The bad things tend to stick; the good things fade away.

The same is true with people. We notice the things in people that bother us. We think about them . . . over and over again. But the good things about them? Often not a passing thought.

Then, we either say the negative things or distance from people based on our negative views. Our relationship deteriorates. When we need to talk about something important, there is only a negative context for the discussion. Then, we blame the other person for not listening!

The result is a crazy cycle of negative reaction and counter-reaction where we never really get anywhere.

Is there a better way? I believe that God wants us to reverse this tendency. He wants us to focus on the good and put much less emphasis on the bad. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Eph. 4:29).

Be an encourager.

What is encouragement? Encouragement is saying something that will help build people up and take the next steps in their journey.

How do we encourage people? Let me suggest five ways.

1. Help people see how much God loves and cares for them. It’s easy to see God as distant and uncaring about what we do, but He loves us more than we can imagine (Eph. 3:14–19).

2. Help people see that God’s power is available. He is able and willing to do more than we could ask or imagine (Eph. 3:20–21).

3. Help people see that suffering is part of life. Suffering can lead us to give up. Stories wisely and gently told about our own suffering can remind people that suffering is part of life and not completely bad. Suffering provides opportunity for growth.

4. Help people see the good that is in them. If you see something good in someone, tell them. Period. There’s simply no downside to doing so.

5. Help people see the resource they already have. We have brains, skills, and people in our lives that can help us take those next steps. Blindness to our resources inhibits forward movement in our journey.

I enjoy hiking. I have hiked all 5 trails that ascend to Mount LeConte. To hike up and back from Mount LeConte is a minimum of 10 miles and a 1-3,000 foot ascent.

On two of my hikes, I have taken some of my children with me.

Before those hikes, none of my children had hiked that far. They would often want to quit hiking after walking a mile, yet they chose to take the bold step of hiking 12-14 miles (variation based on the trail).

They chose to try it, and they succeeded.

Now, whenever I look at the Southern horizon in our county, I can point to Mount LeConte and say, as I often do. “There’s Mount LeConte. Do you remember how you climbed it? You have a lot more in you than you think you do.”

And what happens when we become encouragers? We help other people. The wisdom of God says, “Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones” (Prov. 16:24). We have the power to heal with our words.

But what also help ourselves. If we are encouragers, then what happens when we need to talk about difficult or important issues? The way opens. When people know we are for them, they are much better prepared to listen to any concern we bring up.

So, be an encourager.

How to Talk About Anything at Any Time to Anyone

When the stakes are high, why is it so difficult to have good conversations?

One thing that keeps us from having a conversation is failing to see that a conversation has two parts. There is the content of the conversation, but there is also a context for the conversation.

The content is the thing that we want to talk about. The context is how we feel about the conversation and the people involved in it.

If someone feels disrespected or threatened (context), it is virtually impossible to discuss what we want to discuss (content).

Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler in their book Crucial Conversations use the metaphor of a pool to explain a conversation. As long as people feel free to put into the pool any of their thoughts, facts, or feelings, the conversation will keep going well. However, as soon as safety and respect break down, people don’t feel like they can freely put their thoughts and feelings into the pool, and the conversation collapses. Once this happens, you have to restore safety and respect in order to resume the conversation.

When you read the Bible, you will find that the Bible encourages us to speak openly about the difficult issues of relationships, morality, and religion. However, it always cautions us to do this with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15, cf. Gal. 6:1, 2 Tim. 2:24–25 and 4:2). This is the same idea.

So, how do we convey safety and respect in our conversations? Patterson et al. provide a lot of practical wisdom on how to establish safety and respect. Here are a few of their ideas:

  1. Use contrasting to avoid misunderstanding. For example, you could say to your wife: “When are you getting a haircut?” She could easily take this as a criticism of her hair. You can use contrasting to avoid this: “I’m not saying you need to get a haircut, but I remember you saying that you wanted to. I’d like to know what day you plan to do that so I can make sure the car is available for you.”
  2. Be tentative. Try to state how you see things in a way that invites people to talk about the issue. Let’s say you’re dealing with theft in a business. You can talk to the employee that you suspect of stealing by saying, “I’ve looked in the books, and it seems like there is $10,000 missing. Have you noticed that? Do you have any sense of why it might appear that way?” You don’t accuse. You start with the facts and invite someone to give you their understanding of the facts and their interpretation. That’s being tentative in a way that invites conversation on a difficult matter.
  3. Apologize. If you say something in a way that does not communicate safety and respect, apologize. If you show by your facial expressions or words that you don’t respect someone, just say you’re sorry.
  4. Establish mutual purpose. I remember hearing about a couple discussing where they wanted to move. One wanted to move to Kentucky and another to Vermont. Seems like two very diverse goals. However, as they talked about it, they realized that the real reason why the one wanted to move to Vermont was to live in the country and the reason why the other wanted to move to Kentucky was to be near their family. Once they realized that, they could establish a mutual goal of living in the country and near relatives. Our goals are often closer or more compatible than we realize. Step back a little bit, and you may find more mutual purpose than you thought possible

For me, this all means that I need to think not only about what I want to say but how I say it. I need to think about what’s the best way to say what I want to say and not merely the content of what I want to say. Giving attention to the context of a conversation enables me to talk about anything at any time to anyone.

Note: I’ve written a fuller explanation of these same principles in an article that you can read here.

How to Talk About Anything at Any Time to Anyone (Full Version)

Americans struggle with having difficult conversations. Americans talk to each other about other people, but they don’t talk to the person with whom they disagree very often (see the statistics on this in David Kinnaman & Gabe Lyons, Good Faith).

When you read the Bible, you find a totally different perspective. “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you” (Mt. 18:15). In other words, if you see that someone has an issue with you, go talk to that person.

Yet we don’t do that. We talk around the issue and to everybody else about the issue, but we don’t talk to the person with whom we have an issue.

Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler in their book Crucial Conversations see the same problem. In fact, they suggest, “At the heart of almost all chronic problems in our organizations, our teams, and our relationships lie crucial conversations–ones that we’re not holding or not holding well” ().

In Crucial Conversations, Patterson et al. suggest practical skills that can empower us to have these conversations and talk to anyone, any time, anywhere, about anything. Their conclusions arose from years of researching people who were able to have these crucial conversations and have them well.

So, what do they suggest? The metaphor they use for a conversation is a pool. Imagine the people who are having a conversation sitting around a pool. As long as people are able to put into the pool any of their thoughts, facts, or feelings, the conversation will keep going well.

Think about an issue of what a couple wants to do on the weekend. As long as they can share their feelings and allow the other person to share their thoughts and ideas, the conversation will progress well. It’s a relatively simple issue. If one spouse wants rest and the other wants activity, they can simply divide the weekend between the two.

But what often happens? When the person who wants to rest hears about the big, bold plans of their partner, they fear that they won’t get rest. This makes them tense. Instead of sharing their own feelings, they lash out with a strong “no” or suggest that the person doesn’t care about them. The proposer of the idea then feels rejected and disrespected. They either retreat and sulk in anger or lash out. Either way, the odds of a good conversation are low.

This shows that there are two aspects of the conversation. There are the words themselves and there is the context. The context is how people feel about communicating with that particular person.

What Patterson, et al. suggest is that the proper context for good conversations is a context of safety and respect. In my view, this is what the Bible calls “gentleness and respect” (cf. 1 Pet. 3:15).

The authors suggest that once safety or respect is broken down, it is futile to continue the conversation until we repair the context of safety and respect. As long as people do not feel safe or respected, they will not be able to put their thoughts into the pool of meaning.

So, how do we establish safety and respect? Hearing that we should respect certain people can make us cringe. For the Christian, however, the Bible is clear. We are in humility to regard others as better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). We are called to communicate with patience, gentleness, and respect (1 Thess. 5:14, Titus 3:2).

If the Bible is not an authority of you, consider the advice of Patterson, et al., who suggest that our common humanity should be enough to merit our respect.

Sometimes we do have respect. We just don’t know how to communicate it. Let me suggest a few tools based on the book:

  1. Mutual purpose. We can create safety by seeing our mutual purpose. At first, mutual purpose may seem hard to find. For example, a pastor and a church member may disagree on the music. I remember this happening to me. As I listened to this person, I realized we had more common purpose than I realized. We both agreed that we wanted content-rich music that was singable and relatively familiar to the congregation. Once we agreed on that, we could safely discuss whether particular songs fit into that category or not. We didn’t come to agreement on all the songs that day, but we walked away from the conversation with much more respect.
  2. Be tentative. To understand this, recognize that most of our disagreements generally don’t come from the facts but from the conclusion that we draw from them. For example, an employee doesn’t do a certain task that they were supposed to do. You can tell yourself a lot of stories about this: “They’re lazy.” “They’re evil.” “They don’t respect me.” But why not hold off on these? Instead, have a conversation.
    An employer might begin a conversation, “Hey, I just want to be clear on this. Is that task part of your duties?” If the employee responds, “yes,” then you can further ask if they did the task. That may be enough. They will give a quick explanation. If they don’t, then you can follow up in asking them without sounding judgmental what they think about doing the task. What you will find is that generally there is a good reason for not doing it, the employee just made a mistake, or that they’re actually not sure how to do it. All three are helpful things to know before we tell ourselves a story about the facts.
  3. Use contrasting. This means that you tell people what you mean and what you don’t mean. A lot of conversations break down because we assume what is meant. We can help other people avoid this by saying what we mean and what we don’t mean.

    For example, I can ask my daughter when she is planning on getting her haircut. She could take this to mean that I don’t like her hair or that I’m demanding she get her hair cut. What you can say is this, “Honey, I’m not saying this because I think you need a haircut. I just remember that you said you were going to get a haircut. I’d like to make sure you have the car available, if you need it. So, was I right in that, and do you have a sense of what time you might do that?” You’ve cut off several wrong conclusions that could break down the conversation. That’s contrasting.

There are two particular cases that require extra care. One is where people feel particularly unsafe about putting their thoughts into the pool of meaning. The other is when a person does things that make other people afraid to put their thoughts in the pool.

In the case of those who feel unsafe, we have to be particularly cautious. We might want to ask them directly what they think. We can assure them that we value their opinion. The important thing is to give special effort to listen and not respond too quickly. They are going to interpret any strong response as rejection, and so we have to use the tools listed above more carefully and extensively than we otherwise might do. “Comfort the fainthearted, strengthen the weak” (1 Thessalonians 5:14).

Another difficult case is those who make others feel unsafe to talk. First, we need to show such people respect and not assume the worst about them. Many people who behave this way are not really aware of the effect that their manner and words have on people. When someone responds in a strong way, we can say this: “I don’t think this is what you are intending to do. However, when you do or say x, I don’t feel like you want to hear my viewpoint. I don’t think this is true, and so I would just suggest that it would be helpful to me, if we could do x.” The point is that we will not have a real conversation while we feel attacked, threatened, or disrespected, and we have to talk about what is going on inside us in order to get to good conversation.

The challenge to all this is that it takes a willingness to swallow some of our feelings of disrespect and lack of safety in order to move forward and engage. The rewards are significant. But how can we do it?

I believe that the central problem is that we are often looking to receive love and respect from humans that only God can give. We have to recognize that ultimately our self-worth is founded on God’s love for us and on how God values us. Once we can take this in deeply, we won’t be nearly as worried when we feel disrespected or unloved by other human beings. It won’t be nothing, but it will give us greater stability.

That’s the one major point I would add to Patterson et al.’s book. We need a better foundation for self-worth than what we can offer ourselves or to one another. The Gospel of the good news of God’s love for offers us a perfect foundation for this approach.

I believe that the author’s insights are available in the Scripture. However, I don’t think I would have seen clearly what was in Scripture without their insights. I also do not at all believe that I would have been able to come up with the practical wisdom on how to apply it without their observations of human behavior. So, I’m extremely thankful for the work of these folks.

I’ve just touched the surface of the insights in this book. I would highly recommend that you read the full book and see how they applied it and make use of the other tools they suggest in the book.

Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19). We should be, but we aren’t.

We’d rather be heard than listen. And why not? Why make the effort to be a listener?

Good reasons. First, if you believe the Bible, God commands us to be listeners. Yep. That’s one of God’s commands.

Now, you may say, well, it’s one of his commands, but is it really that important? Here’s something else the Bible says: “Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless” (James 1:26). Ouch!

Second, we have limited knowledge and understanding. If we are going to grow in our knowledge and understanding, we have to listen. If we speak, we only have the resources inside us, but if we listen, we have all the resources of those around us.

Third, listening is the best way to be heard. Everyone wants to be heard and understood. Showing people that we care about their perspective is the best way to ensure that they will also want to hear us. Try it.

On the other side, if we all focus on being heard, then no one will ever be heard. Someone has to get the ball rolling by listening.

Finally, it’s efficient. If we seek to understand people clearly in the beginning, we won’t have to correct all the problems that arise from misunderstanding. Better to take the time to listen in the first place and avoid the problems of misunderstanding altogether.*

The question is, how do we overcome our strong desire to be heard and simply seek to listen to others?

Let me suggest two things that I have found helpful. The first is to write down your thoughts. Writing is similar to discussion. It helps us gain clarity. For me, writing in a journal has made me feel less of a need to talk things out with other people. This frees me up to listen.

This can be especially helpful when you have a strong disagreement with someone. I have heard that Abraham Lincoln recommended the following when you are in a conflict with someone: write a letter and tell them exactly how you feel . . . and then throw that letter in the fire.

The second thing is to share your thoughts with God. People are generally not that interested in your thoughts, but God, amazingly, is! He wants to hear from us more than we want to speak to Him. Why not try sharing your thoughts with God? Besides being a gracious and compassionate God who wants to hear from His children, He has more resources than anybody else to help with our struggles.

Let everyone be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath. A wonderful aspiration. If we can do it, we will not only bless others, we will be much more likely to be heard.

*Note: This insight and the title of this article “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” is the 5th habit in Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

How to Study the Bible

From time to time, people ask me: How do I study the Bible?

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Get a familiarity with the whole Bible. I recommend reading through it or listening to it in its entirety. However, I would also try to get a bird’s eye view of what the books of the Bible are. Another way to approach is, what is the historical flow of the Bible? How did it all come together? The books of the Bible are not always in historical order in our Bibles.
  2. Move to an individual book and familiarize yourself with the overall structure of that book. It would be good to try and read the whole book before studying its parts so you know where each section is heading.
  3. Discover the individual sections of the book. These sections are not necessarily the chapters, though it’s no problem to study it chapter by chapter as we are going to do. Other ways to divide it include different speeches as in the prophets, distinct psalms, categories of proverbs, a story or account as in the narratives, or a part of an argument or answer to a question as in the letters of Paul. Don’t get too bogged down in this. Sometimes this is an arbitrary division. For example, the Sermon on the Mount can be seen as one section, but you can clearly focus on the individual parts such as the parable of the wise and foolish builders.
  4. Once you have a section, then you have something to work with for teaching or study. You can then proceed in one of two ways. You can look at what are the parts of it are. For example, in a story, who are the characters, what is the scene, and how does the action proceed? If it is an argument, like in Romans, how does the Apostle support his argument? If it is a poem, what are the major sections of the poem? Again, don’t get stuck looking for the absolute right answer here. Get something so that you can move forward to the meaning.
  5. Ask: what are the parts of the section I don’t understand? Do I know what a denarius is or where Jericho is, for example? Why did James recommend not eating the flesh of strangled animals in Acts 15? Use a Bible dictionary, Google, or a commentary to look these things up, if you have questions. If you don’t, just keep going. For finding the answers, I would recommend Bible Gateway or Study Light. At Study Light, there is a huge list of online commentaries. I’ve found this compilation very helpful.
  6. Once you have a clear sense of what is going on, then ask, what is the purpose of this text? Why is it here? Why did the author speak this to a particular audience? This keeps you from just inserting your own ideas onto the text. So, in the case of the wise and foolish builders, why would Matthew want this recorded for the early church? In the case of John’s Gospel, you have the overarching theme in the text itself (John 20:31).
  7. Next, ask yourself, how is this purpose of this text relevant to human beings in our day? Let’s take the example of the wise and foolish builders. The purpose was to teach people that they should listen to the Word of God and put it into practice so that they would have a firm foundation on which to build their lives. Once you realize that this was the original purpose, then you have an obvious modern purpose: modern people, too, should build their lives on the Word of God.
  8. For teaching and your own application, I would ask another question. How does the answer or purpose of this text answer a question that modern people ask. For example, in the case of wise and foolish builders, aren’t people looking for guidance and purpose? Don’t they wonder why they are here? Don’t people ask, what is really the best way to live? Don’t they wonder, how do we know things are going to turn out well? The answer that the story of the wise and foolish builders gives us is that the Word of God gives us the guidance, purpose, and the right way to live that we are all looking for.
  9. In teaching, I would then do #7 & #8 in reverse order. Start by helping people see the question using examples from daily life, current events, or your own life. Be creative and have fun with this.
  10. Finally, it is good to envision what it would look like if people actually believed that the Bible’s answer was correct or put it into practice. Don’t assume that people can do this. Help them do it. If people really believed that the appropriate foundation of their lives was listening to and putting into practice the words of Jesus, what would that look like?