“Can I just give you some constructive criticism?”
You’ve heard that, you’ve probably said it. But the truth is, constructive criticism doesn’t exist!
Giving hard feedback is hard. When it falls on us to be the ones to tell someone they’ve not met the mark in some way, it’s not a pleasant feeling. We anticipate the disappointment or even defensiveness of the receiver and we reach for language that in some way might soften the blow.
These words are opposites of one another. To be constructive is to seek to build up, but criticism is the act of review for the purpose of finding fault (read : to tear down). Critique is a more neutral or positive word but it is different to criticism.
In fact, science tells us that the use of this phrase confuses the brain of the receiver. When you say “I have some constructive criticism for you”, the brain of the listener is conflicted – constructive or critical? Friend of foe? Safety or threat? So, the body’s systems elevate to process the confusion of what is happening in their brains. As you can imagine, this does not create the most receptive environment for whatever challenging conversation might follow.
Ultimately, the phrase “constructive criticism” is used to make ourselves, the giver of the feedback, feel better. Like somehow in framing our thoughts as constructive criticism we might more adequately prepare the receiver for a difficult conversation. Perhaps in that phrase is an attempt to communicate to the receiver that we are sensitive to the potential wounding or disappointment our words might carry.
It might seem semantic to make a big deal of such a nuance. But a healthy feedback culture is built on relational trust and emotional safety. For feedback to be beneficial and edifying it must happen in the best possible context – where anything that might impede the productivity of such a conversation is sought to be removed. (Don’t do it when they/you are tired or rushed. Don’t do it publicly. Don’t do it when emotions are elevated. Etc) This simple nuance of language might achieve two outcomes. Firstly, not adding psychological confusion to the other thought processes required in a feedback interaction. And secondly, forcing us as givers of feedback to be more considered in our approach, not excusing ourselves from doing the work to find better language and deliver feedback in the most helpful way.
Feeling the need to break a stereotype more often leads to underperformance. This is just one of the impacts of the phenomenon researchers have named “stereotype threat”.
Stereotype threat describes the collection of thoughts, behaviours, reactions and modifications people engage in to avoid falling into stereotypes. The fear surrounding stereotyping or being stereotyped is credited for reducing executive function, working memory and emotional regulation. People can be so distracted by the fear of perpetuating a stereotype that they so disrupt their own performance as to confirm it.
If a man or woman in a particular field of work or study observes the stereotyping of their respective gender as not being competent to task, this is likely to cause an increased mental load that will negatively impact their performance – which may consequently prove the stereotype accurate.
This is felt in different ways by many demographics that are often stereotyped such as race, gender, age, IQ, field of employment, socio-economic status, and level of education. In any situation where stereotyping is possible, stereotype threat can exist. It can impede best performance and optimum engagement by both the stereotyper AND the stereotyped.
I see this phenomenon play out in a number of my personal and working contexts. Firstly, as a woman in ministry. Because I am aware that some deem it inappropriate for a woman to lead, in some contexts I am quite distracted by this attitude. I can become overly concerned about leading in a way that would refute such an opinion or impress sceptics – even subconsciously. Research indicates that this constant background processing reduces the amount of cognitive energy and focus I can apply to the actual task of leading – potentially reducing my capacity rather than allowing me to put my best foot forward.
Women preachers often report this as a regular part of their experience. Because of opposing views and the hurtful and dysregulated expression of same, women are often left feeling that they carry a greater burden of responsibility to preach well. If a woman preaches a bad sermon it could reinforce the notion that women shouldn’t be preaching (whereas a sub-par sermon from a man has not yet been known to call the preaching suitability of all males into question). Academic findings show us that this threat can be intensely undermining and often results in “over-efforting” to compensate and attempt to disprove the stereotype.
I also see this happen generationally. Younger leaders with a desire to develop or advance are cognizant of the stereotype that they are immature or unskilled, and the perception that they are wanting opportunities that are not yet theirs to have. The threat of this stereotype could cause a young person to act inappropriately, perhaps overenthusiastically and reinforce rather than refute the theory. Conversely, stereotype threat could cause a senior leader to act outside of their general process or gut-instinct for fear that their hesitancy is based on stereotyping and consequently misapply responsibility or opportunity to a young leader who does not yet meet required standards.
If we are aware of a stereotype we are affected by the threat of it.
Ultimately, the literature reveals that if we are aware of a stereotype we are affected by the threat of it. Leading thinker in the field, Claude Steele, references the scenario of auditioning a celloist for an orchestra. If, by seeing the candidates, the selectors might be aware of the perception of bias towards a particular gender, age demographic, or race, the only way to neutralise the threat is to hold a blind audition. Otherwise, the innate desire to not stereotype might lead to impaired assessment of the candidate’s cello playing abilities.
I find this area of research fascinating and think it has great application for all of us in some way. Here are a few thoughts for consideration.
Stereotype threat exists!
Acknowledging this will make us more aware of the instances this presents itself in our personal and professional lives. As stated above, if you are aware of a potential stereotype you are being affected by it. As Dr Phil says, you can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge. It’s a starting point to do a self-assessment and consider the areas you are most threatened by stereotyping and the perception or avoidance of stereotyping. This positions us to address it in a way that might free us from the threat and release the brain space that is being occupied with handling that threat.
Dis-identify with the stereotype
The impact of stereotype threat on the person who feels they are being stereotyped can be mitigated by distancing the stereotype from the person. While we might fear others are judging our work based on our gender, we can separate our gender from our role and focus solely on accomplishing it to the best of our ability – for example not being a “good female” or a “good male” in that context – just being good, full stop. If we are able to separate the aspect potentially being stereotyped from our core identity we can release the full attention and resources of our hearts and minds to performing the task or showing up as our best selves.
Relationship removes stereotypes
The way to remove the impact of stereotype threat is to see people as the individuals they are rather than the stereotypes they may represent. Being well-known (personality, temperament, skills, passions, personal life etc) and creating safe interpersonal environments will lead to high trust relationships that ultimately blind us to stereotypes. We no longer see our work colleagues as the “Asian guy on our team” or the “woman in our department”. As the bank of information we have about a person builds, the potential stereotype becomes a smaller part of the way we perceive or experience them.
As leaders, that could encourage us to being more intentional about creating teams or environments where relationship is valued and nurtured. Where there are opportunities for people to engage, in planned or more casual contexts, and discover more about one another. As individuals, offering more information about ourselves, presenting our whole person, will also reduce the size of the stereotype in the perception of others and go a long way to reducing its threat or impact.
Recently, I was having dinner with a group of friends when the conversation led to stories about Zoom. One person recounted a hilarious tale of a woman changing into her pyjamas in full view of the online prayer meeting! And we were away! Each of us was firing off other funny stories we’d seen or experienced. One after the other, not stopping from the laughter of the previous one before the next one began. It was loud and entertaining and our sides hurt from laughing.
This is story stacking and it’s so fun! Whether it’s stories about poo or vomit (everyone has a poo or vomit story!) or sharing favourite ice cream flavours or recalling funny incidents that happened on public transport … the energy is high as stories ping around the group. Each one prompting the recall of another, sometimes with a competitive edge as the tales get taller and more dramatic!
On another occasion, in a group of people, we were talking more seriously about the difference between those people who are expert and highly knowledgeable in their field and those who have the capacity to convey that intelligence to others in helpful ways. I reflected on a really difficult experience I’d had with an ultrasound technician. He had to inform me that I had miscarried early in a pregnancy and he did it in such a cold and callous way. It made an already terrible situation just that little bit harder. Straight away another person jumped to a story of when they needed an X-ray and started to recount their experience.
This is I-jacking. This is when, in response to one person’s sharing, we leap straight away to something that is about us. Or when, no matter the subject of conversation, we manoeuvre the focus back to ourselves or what we want to talk about. Sometimes it’s harmless. It could be an acceptable story stacking situation. But lots of times it’s really unproductive to healthy communication. It can shut someone down. It can dishonor a person’s sharing. It can diminish a person’s experience. It can communicate disinterest in others. It can make you a bad conversationalist! Or, as in my example above, it can actually be quite hurtful. To raise something personal or vulnerable and not have it acknowledged before the conversation moves on to someone or something else.
Story stacking or I-Jacking. One can draw all present into a dynamic social interaction. And the other? Well, that makes you a less appealing conversation partner and is probably not you putting your best foot forward relationally.
So, the trick is knowing how to spot a story stacking moment and how to avoid I-jacking (intentionally or otherwise). It’s a nuanced business but, generally, a story stacking moment is about light hearted or objective things. Like funny Zoom stories or tales of wardrobe malfunctions. If the topics are more personal, deep or reflective, or are initiated by the serious questioning of someone in the group – that’s not the time for story stacking. We must hold space for an individual to share fully and be responded to appropriately.
Story stacking is possibly the one sport I could medal in at an Olympic level! I love it! I love hearing other people’s fun stories. I have so many great stories (that I often forget about until someone else shares and prompts a memory) and I love me a good story tell! And then I love – perhaps the most – how my storytelling might prompt someone else to contribute and get to participate in the “collective effervescence” of a group deep in storytelling mode. But I recognise (first in others which made me question it in myself) that story stacking can so easily come across as I-Jacking if the initial story teller was hoping for the chance to say more or go deeper. It looks like attention stealing. It looks like disrespect. It can communicate a lack of welcome or inclusion.
ASK ONE QUESTION!
This is my social trigger, the mantra I’m repeating (or at least trying to remember to repeat) in my head while you’re speaking. Don’t jump straight in with an anecdote or a solution or a story of my own. Hold the space for the speaker just a little longer. “When did that happen?” “Why is that?”“How do you feel about that?” “What happened next?” “Does anyone have this on video?”
So often, when we are listening to others speak we’re looking for points of intersection. We are naturally wired to desire inclusion and connection so we’re trying to find our place in the topic that’s being discussed. Someone says “I really loved my holiday in Italy!” And our first thought might be to say “oh, I went there in 2019!” or, alternatively, to immediately highlight the disconnect “yeah, I’ve never been to Europe” or perhaps even more tempting “oh, I’ve been there twice now!”. In any of those responses, we’ve just made the conversation about us.
Ask one question. It’s a form of social discipline to train ourselves to stay with the speaker just that little bit longer – to value them, to learn about them, to be equipped to understand them better. Often, in the speaker’s response to that second opportunity you can gauge how desiring they are of a further chance to engage or how willing (or hopeful) they are for the conversation to bounce on around the group.
Story stacking or I-jacking. Watch for it around you, watch for it in you. Becoming more alert to the more appropriate conversation genre will increase your social intelligence and make sure you’re the one people want to be seated next to at the dinner parties!
What if 2023 was the year you took a significant step forward in your leadership? Maybe that’s already part of your personal goal setting or strategic planning for your ministry. If it’s not, maybe it should be!
The concept of developing as a leader is so broad and potentially intangible – it can be hard to know where to start.
So, here’s a basic 3 step plan that might be a useful stepping off point. And it centers around just one idea – one area of focus.
I listen to lots of productivity and personal development experts, leading thinkers and researchers in the fields of time management, habits and goals – as well as tracking leaders whose insights I value because they exemplify ongoing growth in their own leadership and ministry. So these three steps are a hybrid of what I am understanding to be best practice.
1. Choose an area of focus
Just one! Think of an aspect of your personal life or leadership engagement that, were you to improve in that area, it could make a significant overall difference.
It could be in relation to your physical health – poor sleep, eating or exercise patterns can have dramatic impact on how you show up. It could be in public speaking or team leadership, in spiritual disciplines like rhythms of prayer or retreat, or managing conflict or in relation to feedback or being better at responding to failure or criticism. It could be many things but what’s the one thing in your personal or professional life that if you made some advancements in that area if could have the greatest impact on your broader life and leadership?
Choose just one thing.
2. Choose one action
What’s one action step you could take toward the goal of improvement in your chosen area?
Again, just one thing. Be specific.
“Get healthy” is not going to cut it. It’s not measurable or practical enough to get you mobilised. But maybe go to bed 30 minutes earlier or ride to work one day a week would be more accessible, achievable and subsequently more likely to happen.
It could be to read or listen to books or podcasts on emotional intelligence, or dealing with conflict. It could be to approach someone to invite into a regular practice of intentional feedback.
Again, just one thing. We’re putting the cookies on the bottom shelf so we are most able and likely to access them (unless your goal is around disciplined eating – put something else on the bottom shelf!).
In your one are of desired growth and improvement what is one practical step you could take to head you in your preferred direction?
3. Put it in your calendar!
How can you manage your time this year, the rhythm of work and life flow, and the challenge of competing demands for your focus and energy to make space for your intentional growth step?
If it can’t be calendarised it probably won’t happen. So now, at the start of a new year is the perfect time to carve out intentional space in your weeks or months to make room for this investment in your own development.
If you’re digital, you could set a recurring alarm to remind you to do what you need to. You could put appointment times in your calendar as space you’ll guard to give attention to your commitment. You might need to contact someone and sync some calendar times to meet with them.
Our best intentions often fall victim to the encroaching of … well … life! into our discretionary spaces. So they must be given planning priority if they are going to be engaged in with the regularity, consistency and energy needed for them to have the desired impact on our growth.
Choose one thing – how are you needing or hoping to grow as a leader?
Choose one action – what’s one achievable, measurable step you could take towards growth in that area?
Calendarise it! Plan it into the scope of your year. Prioritise it so that it doesn’t get relegated by all the things that would compete for the resource of your time, attention and energy.
And a bonus tip – tell someone about it! Say it out loud – put it in print and give someone permission to hold you accountable to what you want to do because of who you want to be.
It may seem like you don’t have time to invest in your own development and growth but the reality is that you don’t have time not to. Your ministry and teams will benefit from any strengthening of your ability and capacity to lead in ways that will multiply the effectiveness of your time and efforts.
Don’t keep putting it off. Don’t de-list it as a priority. This could just be your year!
It’s been said, mostly by me, that I put the ‘extra’ in extrovert.
Extroversion and introversion are descriptors of energy source and direction. A simple analogy is that extroverts are solar powered and introverts are battery powered. That is, extroverts source their energy externally – from the social and relational stimulation of others. Introverts source and direct their energy more internally. They are recharged by being in more quiet, low-stimulus environments – most preferably alone.
The categorisations of extroversion vs introversion were a helpful discovery for me as I moved into my young adult years. They were informative as I sought a greater depth of self-awareness and understanding, and have proved extremely useful in life and leadership as I’ve worked alongside others. Knowing which you are is essential for your self-management and well being. Consistently operating outside of your natural disposition will see you depleted and ultimately dysfunctional – emotionally, physically and relationally.
It’s a function of adulting and maturing and participating in the world that we learn to manage our natural disposition with the demands and realities of life. Emotionally intelligent introverts realise that they need to be with at least some people for some of the time – family, colleagues, strangers at the supermarket. That we are built for relationship and cooperation. That the company of others and what they bring to our lives is essential for growth and flourishing. That part of exercising our humanity finds its expression in serving and contributing to the lives of others. Emotionally intelligent extroverts realise that being comfortable in one’s own company is an essential part of growth and self-acceptance. That the practices of solitude and silence are useful for reflection and mindfulness. That social stimulation is no replacement for physical rest which is necessary for revitalisation and renewal.
However, any amount of adaptation and intentionality will not override the fundamental truth of where a person’s energy is sourced. We don’t “grow out” of extroversion or introversion. We just find ways to manage our needs in less preferred environments.
Case study – me.
I am a raging extrovert! I am energised by human interaction. The more energised the interaction the more energised I am! While I don’t mind larger, anonymous groups, I’m more fuelled by social interactions that are personal, robustly engaging, stimulating and soul nourishing.
A friend once compared me to her peace lily. The peace lily is a plant and you know when to water one because its leaves start to droop and curl. Give her a drink and her stems will straighten up and leaves unfurl – almost before your eyes. That’s what I’m like with human interaction. People who know me well can tell from 20 paces when I’ve been on my own – my leaves are droopy! Instead of exuding energy and effervescence I radiate ‘flatness’ – like I’ve pulled a few all-nighters in a row! Friends also know that with even the smallest spritzes of the life-giving water of positive human interaction I will come to life before your eyes. You will feel like a magician for the radical turnaround you were able to conjure with just your words and presence!
As someone who has lived much of my adult life alone, sourcing the requisite people interactions to fuel me has always been challenging. Extroversion energy (like introversion energy) doesn’t store well. It requires constant replenishing – which requires constant social exchanges. A large pool of people resource is required in order to account for the number of introverts who will be needing less people time and also the reality that other people have their own lives and calendars to manage.
As a younger person, this drive for externally sourced energy masked as some sort of social animal who couldn’t sit still, stay home or miss out. Over the years, as I learned and understood more, I recognised that physically my body needed rest, stillness, sleep and down time. I’ve grown to appreciate the slow and relaxed – and even the quiet. But these things do not energise me. The reality of energy sourcing is that while my body and mind might benefit from alone time, I am emotionally deenergised by it. It’s a truth that can’t be outgrown or outmanaged.
Navigating this extended season of lockdowns and isolation, working from home, travel restrictions and all manner of limitations has been hard for everyone for a range of reasons. As an extrovert, the reduction of opportunities for live social interactions has been life-draining! While the utilisation of online communication platforms has been a life-saver, there are times when I still can go multiple days without speaking to an in real life adult person.
As I’ve repeatedly bumped into the worst parts of myself – impatience, intolerance, lack of motivation and discipline, reduced creativity and productivity, loneliness, aimlessness and even depression – I found myself increasingly unable to straighten up; to self-correct. “I can do better than this, what am I not doing better than this?” And while myself and others made passing reference to the fact that my current lifestyle and experience wasn’t conducive to extroversion, this was my reality, these were the tools I had, there has to be a way!
So, here’s my revelation and ever deepening conviction – there is no ‘cure’ for extroversion. There’s no sustainable work around. There’s not enough duct tape and stick-to-itiveness to hold it all together before some sort of external assistance is required. This is energy-source facts. It is what it is.
In some ways, this news was deeply disappointing. I guess I was hopeful to discover an alternate energy source that could be self-generated and subsequently self-replenishing. It would be simpler for me if connection to other humans was more optional than essential. The depth of my reliance on other people makes me intensely vulnerable. I need others, most likely disproportionately to how much they need me. (Read more here your single friends need you (probably more than you need them))
Conversely, the discovery was strangely freeing. It gives me permission to feel the lack and grieve it. This is not a deficiency but a reality. It reminds me to tread lightly in my own life in terms of expectations and demands when I’m operating out of a depleted tank. It may helps others around me recognise the valuable offering they can make to my well-being. It doesn’t excuse the times I show up in disappointing ways but it possibly explains some of it. It turns certain behaviours or feelings into the trigger to more intentionally seek out the company and energising of others.
EXTROVERTS – what do YOU think? How does your extroversion play out in your life?
INTROVERTS – does this ring true on the other end of the spectrum? Does identifying the source of your energy help diagnose and manage your own life experience?
In my previous blog, THE RIVER HAS MOVED, we saw the profound image of the Choluteca Bridge in Honduras. When Hurricane Mitch came through the area in 1998, the resultant flooding washed away the roads to the bridge and, when the waters receded, the Choluteca river had changed its course. It no longer flowed under the bridge rather had charted a new path alongside it. The bridge was left structurally sound but with no function. It didn’t bridge anything anymore.
As we find ourselves in the emerging stages of life after (and with) Covid, the Choluteca Bridge can serve as a metaphor for what many of us might be facing. The river has moved. Things have changed. Not everything is where we left it back at the start of 2020 when we found ourselves rapidly responding to the impacts on our work, family, communities, ministries and organisations as the pandemic swept the globe.
My writing ended with two questions
How has the ‘river moved’ in your life, family, organisation, work, or ministry?
What might you need to do differently as a result?
In this blog I want to offer two further metaphors or imagery as we consider our response to these questions.
In Mark 2:22, Jesus says shares this metaphor “No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.”
Historically, wineskins were made from the hide of an animal, such as a goat. Partially fermented wine was stored in them. As the fermentation process continued it would produce gas that expanded the wineskin and stretched it. After the wine was consumed, to try and repeat this process using the same wineskin would be impossible as the hide was not elastic enough to stretch a second time. Instead, the fermentation process would likely split or pop the wineskin.
There are many ways this metaphor can apply to our lives – Biblical scholars often speak of the need to create new structures and new institutions, to not be rigid in holding to patterns and processes of the past but to be flexible, adaptable and stretch-able like new wineskins. But we must also acknowledge the challenge that Jesus was bringing not just to structures and systems but to us! To people’s hearts and minds. That we would submit ourselves to be new vessels for God’s mission and work. That we would be positioned ready to sustain future growth and change, elastic enough to allow for His Spirit to stretch and shape and mould us.
UNDERSTANDING THE TIMES
The Biblical story of David and Goliath is well-known. The Israelites, under King Saul, were in a battle with the neighbouring Philistine army which has been going for about 40 days and was at a bit of a standstill. The Philistines had a giant on their side (like, a literal giant who was over 9 feet tall!) and he was big, loud, strong and scary! He could lift more in a single battle weapon than most of the Israelite army guys weighed! He had been taunting and intimidating the Israelites to come and fight him. The prize was that the winner would have the entire losing nation as their servants. The Israelites were so scared they were going to lose and the people of God would go into servitude that they didn’t even send anyone to try and fight him.
David is a young boy who comes to the battle line to bring food for his older brothers. He’s not a soldier. He hears Goliath mocking and ridiculing the Israelites and he’s wondering why the people of God are so afraid. “I can do this! God has rescued and protected me in the past – he can surely equip me to beat this guy!” (You’ve gotta believe the Israelites were feeling slightly mocked and taunted from within at this point! The teenage boy, David, had more faith than all of them put together!)
King Saul approves David going to fight Goliath and the Biblical account tells us that “Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armour on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them. “I cannot go in these,” he said to Saul, “because I am not used to them.” So, he took them off.” (1 Sam 17:38-39
The picture here is of a still-developing young boy with an ill-fitting armour. Perhaps the helmet wobbled on his head and fell in his eyes and the breastplate reached to below his knees. They would have been weighty and cumbersome. Not what he was used to wearing out in the field as a shepherd, and not something he felt comfortable to wear to battle.
Physically and metaphorically, Saul’s armour was the old while David is a picture of the new. David was a new kind of warrior preparing for a different kind of battle. We know that in the end David took Goliath out with a well-executed swing of his sling shot – hitting Goliath between the eyes – the only unprotected part of his body. Felling him and allowing David to come close enough to execute him with his own sword (with the fairly gruesome detail of chopping his head off that is usually rushed over in the kids books and definitely not included in the illustrations!).
If God is doing a new thing, if we are looking to new frontiers, to different parameters of war, to a whole different battle ground – the old armour might not do the job.
As we look ahead to 2022 and beyond, we need to consider a whole new way of facing what lies before us. What has changed? How have dynamics altered? What new strategies and ways of thinking does it require of us? Might the old armour not only not serve purpose (after all, David didn’t need to protect himself from anything, did he?) but might it actually impede future progress? I can’t imagine David’s rock slinging might have been so on target if his helmet was slipping from his head and the heavy tunic was restricting the movement of his arms.
In 1 Chronicles 12, we see an older David who is king-in-waiting while the wheels are starting to fall off Saul’s Kingship. A band of men begin to assemble around David. All sorts of groups offering various battle equipment and fighting skills. Then, in verse 32, there were 200 chiefs from Issachar. The description of their contribution is that “they understood the times and they knew what Israel should do”.
As important as any tactical or practical offering is the ability to see what’s happening and respond accordingly. To know the lay of the land. Who is the opposition, what are our assets, what’s the goal, what’s the best strategy, what’s changed, what’s required, who is best, how is best, when is best?
And so we add to our previous question as we consider what we might need to do differently as a result of the changes that have taken place around us.
What are we doing to allow God to renew and refresh us to be receptacles of the new wine, the new thing that He might want to do in and through us?
Do you understand the times? Have you taken inventory to really know the new lay of the land so as to know what to do in response?
In 1996, the “New Choluteca Bridge” (also known as the Bridge of the Rising Sun as a nod to the Japanese company that designed and constructed it) was built and in 1998 it opened for use in Choluteca, Honduras.
In October of 1998, Hurricane Mitch hit the region causing widespread flooding and devastation. The rising waters took out the access roads either side of the bridge but the bridge remained intact. However, when the flooding subsided it became evident that the river had carved a new path.
They were left with a bridge in near perfect condition that no longer had a function. The roads had disappeared and the river had moved!
I wonder if this isn’t a powerful metaphor for the era we have been (and are still) navigating. A season of incredible change and disruption to the usual flow of work, ministry, and life in unpredicted and varied ways. Although we would be right in hesitating to say that the hurricane has passed and the flood waters have completely receded, we are finding ourselves somewhat on the other side and facing a very changed landscape.
The river has moved!
WHERE IS YOUR RIVER?
It behoves us all, as individuals, families, leaderships and organisations to step back and do some assessing. Where is your river? Has it moved? Where was it? Where is it going now? What of the impact on the surrounding landscape? (I’m told the old river bed would likely now be considered more of a wetland rather than dry land or the usual terrain of river banks.) Where is the high land, the dry land, the firm land? What got washed away in the flood? What is now at the bottom of the newly directed river?
What has changed?
Working with a colleague recently he remarked “2022 won’t just be the 2020 we planned to have”. As we open up and return to some sort of new normal, in our rush to “go back” we can be deceived into thinking that we’ve just been on pause these past months and everything is waiting where it was when we left it. It’s not true. Many things have changed. You have changed, the community has changed (eg, we know differently about what matters to people in society), our engagement with technology has altered, our habits and routines have radically changed, our elderly may have aged inordinately during this time, the socialisation and development of our young people has been disrupted, social confidence has shifted, new patterns of behaviour have emerged (hello church in your jarmies!!!), your staff team might have shifted working hours and onsite routines, and I could go on indefinitely. No doubt you could add to this list from your own experience. Things have changed. It’s important we identify and appropriately acknowledge that reality. We’ll need to grieve some losses and face some truths. Pretending or hoping the river is still the same will get us nowhere.
WHAT’S THE STATE OF THE BRIDGE?
In the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, the bridge was determined to be almost completely unaffected. Were there still roads accessing it, engineers would have had no problem declaring it fit for traffic. There’s nothing wrong with the bridge, other than the glaring reality that it’s not “bridging” anything anymore! It serves no purpose. Great bridge. Excellent feat of construction. And now obsolete.
In recognising the changes that have taken place in your world it’s inevitable that some of your systems and processes are no longer fit for purpose. Before we jump to defending them, remember, there was nothing wrong with the bridge – it just didn’t have a river under it anymore. We don’t have to disagree with previous practices, we don’t have to ‘backflip’ or contradict ourselves, we don’t need to undermine our credibility or integrity, we don’t have to criticise or pick apart past methods – we purely need to acknowledge that the landscape is different and ask what it requires of us.
What does a new river path require of us?
Could we relocate the bridge? Do our previous systems still work they just need to shift over a bit? Or do we need a new kind of bridge for new conditions?
Can we apply the same principles of design that were used for the old bridge? Or do we need to explore new engineering, new types of footings, new construction methods, different materials?
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ME?
If things have shifted, as we know they have for everyone to some degree, and the old structures, old ways, old thinking aren’t going to cut it for moving forward into the future. What do we need to do?
Business leadership author, Marshall Goldsmith, puts it this way in the title of his book “What got you here won’t get you there.” New horizons, new frontiers, new experiences require new methodology, thinking and practice. What has served you in the past may not serve you so well in the future. If the ways you – or WE if we’re thinking more corporately or collectively – have been thinking, acting, believing, preparing and functioning were attached to the ‘old way’ of life then those behaviours and attitudes might need adjusting.
How has the ‘river moved’ in your life, family, organisation, work, or ministry? What might you need to do differently as a result?
As our perpetual state of lockdown, locked out and varying levels of restrictions drag on – the constant refrain we are hearing is how people are “so sick of Zoom“!
I put it to you that people aren’t sick of Zoom, they’re sick of bad Zoom.
I recently attended an online, 80’s themed, Murder Mystery party for a friend’s birthday! It was such a clever night and a great way to celebrate our friend while still in lockdown! We all had a character and most of us dressed up (costumes are easier online because they don’t need to be transportable and they only need to be from the waist up! No pants or shoes to match your costume? No worries!! PJ pants and ugg boots it is then!!). Each household had readied snacks and drinks. No one was complaining about being on Zoom! Saturday night at 8pm for a couple of hours and Zoom was our best friend.
People aren’t sick of Zoom, they’re sick of bad Zoom!
So what makes Zoom good or bad? Bearable or intolerable? Fulfilling and productive or life-sucking and downright depressing? Here are a few of my observations and thoughts.
A MEETING THAT SHOULD BE AN EMAIL IN PERSON SHOULD STILL BE AN EMAIL IN ZOOM-LAND
Don’t assume that a team’s desire to be together will override the frustration we all feel at being in a meeting that should have been an email. Endless recitation of facts, details, calendar items and reading through text heavy PowerPoint slides is not what meetings are designed for and are not a good spend of your Zoom-credits. Meetings exist for relationship building, collaboration, learning, vision casting and role assigning. Send the details ahead of time or circulate them for reading afterwards. Too much information sharing translates to a monologue that is hard to sustain in a physical room let alone a virtual one.
ZOOM TIME IS DIFFERENT THAN REAL TIME
There have been multiple studies and papers released about the realities of Zoom-fatigue. It takes greater effort to remain focused due to audio differences and the reality that our computer’s other open tabs and notifications beckon. We are more self-conscious and aware because we are more visible to ourselves and others than we would be in a physical meeting space – we consequently expend energy managing our appearance, body language, facial expressions etc more than is necessary in real life. There’s less “collective effervescence” – the experience of laughing together, rapidly exchanging ideas and energising creative interactions – because of the clinical need to take turns to speak and the inevitable annoyance that comes when audio intersects and gates. We are more sedentary – less likely to adjust our sitting posture. And a multiplicity of other factors that mean an hour on zoom costs us more than an hour in real life.
If you would normally meet for an hour, meet for 45mins. Normally present for 30 mins? Try 20.
Clearly communicating (and adhering to) the proposed timeline of a meeting will also help participants pace themselves and increase their capacity to remain engaged for the entirety of your time together.
ZOOM MEETINGS REQUIRE STRONG LEADERSHIP
Even more than in real life, whoever is hosting the meeting must work actively to maintain control of the meeting. Establishing and communicating expectations about how this meeting will function is important. Having a clear sense of flow – minimising down time between segments or presenters, reducing talk aboutthe mechanics of the meeting, and making definitive statements about transitions between topics or modes – will help a meeting feel more in control and purposeful. In real life, we can use body language, non-verbal clues, physical actions, facial expressions and other means to demonstrate we are wanting to move on. This doesn’t translate so easily to Zoom and so it takes more effort to keep tight reign of oversharing or meandering contributions. But it is essential for maintaining the engagement of the entire group.
The size of your group will determine what degree of “free-flow” is manageable and helpful – whether microphones should be muted or open (for example). Leaders should feel the liberty to request participants to make changes for visual or sound quality purposes (Turn the radio off. Tilt your screen up a little. Close the curtain behind you.). Who is in your group will determine how much ‘power’ you give participants and how much you restrict to host privileges. The more interruptions that come because of mismanagement of the meeting dynamic the more frustrated and fatigued participants will become.
ZOOM SKILLS & ZOOM BUDDIES
Zoom has customised their platform to have multiple functions that can make meetings more dynamic and a more accurate replica of in-person gatherings. Whiteboard, breakout rooms, chat function, screen sharing, split screen viewing, emoji responses and other options are great for changing up the presentation mode and inviting interaction. However, they can be hard to navigate while maintaining a helpful dialogue.
“And the o….therrrrrr … thiinnnnn …ggggg … I’ll just share my scre … oh, nope, …not that .. and yes, the other thing is … ”
You’ve all done or heard a version of this. The more practiced you are in the engagement of these tools and the more advanced preparation you do, the smoother these things will flow. But if it is at all possible, I recommend traveling in pairs! A co-host who can mute the person whose dog has started barking in the background, or rearrange breakout rooms to accommodate people who’ve joined the meeting late, or interject with appropriate questions or comments participants have made in the chat allows the presenter to keep full focus on what they are communicating or on listening fully to the contributions of a participant.
VIDEO ON OR OFF?
Research indicates that having the video muted increases the energy and longevity of participation for group members, but it reduces the feeling of engagement for the presenter or leader of the meeting. It can also impact the feeling of shared experience if not all members are visible on the call. What are they doing? Are they fully engaged? Have they gone to the bathroom? Are they doing other work?
This can be detrimental to the accountability and commitment of team or group environments. If there is disparity between perceived engagement in a group it will be hard to reach consensus or for participants to conclude a meeting feeling it was effective or productive. This can quickly diminish engagement from participants – why should I have my camera on when others don’t?
A quick statement of expectation from the meeting leader is helpful to establish expectations. “It’s fine for your cameras to be off for this next segment …” or “Can I have all cameras on just while we sort out our decision on this?”
Likewise, narration from participants can bring understanding and build (rather than erode) trust. “I need to have my camera off right now because my child is doing something in the space I’m in” or “my internet is lagging so I’m switching off my camera to hopefully see yours better”.
Some notes for you, the presenter, it’s important that participants see your face well lit and well positioned (not up your nose!) in camera. And research also indicates that seeing your hands is helpful for trust and engagement from participants. If nothing else, the movement you generate on your screen will help re-engage and keep engaged those watching you. Be sure to toggle quickly between shared screen and your video screen to maximise involvement.
EMBRACE THE ZOOM!
As much as it is a distant second place to real life gatherings, Zoom has afforded us a level of relational connection and ministry/work functionality that we would not otherwise have been able to experience during these last 18 months. I would go so far as to say I LOVE Zoom because it allows me to replicate my work contexts and output in a way that means I’m still employable (!) and I am still actively engaging my gifts, skills and passions.
It is what it is and where it is for the foreseeable future. We would do well to embrace that reality and work to maximise its offerings rather than perpetuating the frustration of both attitude and experience.
In my world, Zoom has opened up opportunities that would not have existed for me in real life. Participation in multiple overseas conferences, workshops and forums. Learning from ministry leaders and key thought leaders of a status and location that would be otherwise inaccessible. Maintaining relational connection with family and friends through shared meals, celebrations and online experiences. I love Zoom!
**THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT**
Make sure you laugh! Do what you need to in order to elicit laughter from the group. Even if you can’t hear it or they can’t hear each other – psychologically we know that our brains associate laughter with comfort. We are more likely to recall a meeting positively if we have laughed at some point – even if the meeting itself was weighty or long. Laughter releases happy hormones that increase wellbeing and shift attitude. Do what you gotta do!!! It can take an inordinate amount of effort. It can seem frivolous or time wasting. It might be uncomfortable to deal with the silence (or the sound of your solitary chuckling!). But it is well worth it. Make laughter a goal of every gathering you are part of.
How about you? What steps might you take to Make Zoom Great Again and maximise it as a resource to us while we navigate these strange and challenging times?
Over the weekend I watched the series “First Ladies” on SBS. As the title suggests, it’s a documentary that highlights six wives of American Presidents; the different ways they filled their roles and the impact that resulted.
Amongst all the amazing humanitarian, peace keeping and world changing causes the various women gave their powerful voice and influence to – there was one incident in the story of Eleanor Roosevelt that struck me profoundly.
Eleanor Roosevelt was the longest serving First Lady as her husband, President Franklin D Roosevelt, was in office for four terms (1933-1945). Out of office her list of accomplishments continued to grow – she appears to have been a remarkable woman – aware of her influence and privilege and determined to use it on behalf of those with less.
One action she took when she first became First Lady was to hold her own daily press conferences. Due to her husband’s illness and her seemingly infatigable capacity and passion, she was an incredibly active part of the Roosevelt presidential reign. The American and global press were keen to know her daily movements and the causes she was involved in. So, she agreed to daily access for the press. However, she only allowed female reporters into the room.
At the time, women were excluded from the President’s press room and so she decided to make the opposite mandate for her own. As a result, news outlets were forced to hire female reporters if they didn’t want to fall behind on the news coming from the First Lady’s office.
What a glass ceiling shattering move! Whatever efforts were being made at the ground level to open doors for females in journalism at the time were instantaneously catapulted to a whole other level of opportunity and experience. Undoubtedly, it changed the landscape for women in journalism from that time forward. It was only 10 years earlier that the American Constitution was amended to give women equal rights to men. This was an incredibly progressive act that had immeasurable immediate and ongoing ramifications.
This right here is how to use your platform. This is what it means to be aware of your privilege and influence. This is what it looks like to recognise that when you get an opportunity it doesn’t stop with you. This is what happens when you use your power on behalf of others.
I wanted to stand up and applaud her (and I might have were I not so comfortably ensconced on my couch!)!! It’s women like her that have made a way for women like me … and it made me conscious again of the way we make for those coming after us.
Not only did Eleanor Roosevelt make it to the Whitehouse. She made sure her making it enabled others to make it also. This is true leadership. Another First Lady, Michelle Obama, elsewhere in the series says, “When you walk through the door of opportunity you don’t slam it shut behind you, you hold it open!”
I reflected again on the many who have held doors open for me in my lifetime. And those that did it for them to make that possible. It’s easy to become frustrated by the slow pace of change or the entrenched ideologies and practices that close doors or fortify them to be almost impossible to open. It can be disheartening. But I can do something. I can chock open a door. I can invite more people in. I can sponsor opportunity. I can use my voice – however singular it might be. I can create space. I can pull up a chair. I can be like Eleanor!