The other night I went out to a local bar with some friends. It’s a small place here in town that offers country swing, two-step, and line dancing just about every weekend. The parking lot is full of 4×4 trucks and the clientele largely wear cowboy hats, boots, and flannel. Imagine a music video for a Brad Paisley song. That’s pretty much what this place is like.
I’ve been to this bar a few times with friends. It’s the spot where six months ago I had to take what little I knew about East Coast swing and Lindy Hop and try to make it work in a country setting. On top of this, I don’t have cowboy boots, so I wear some leather dress boots I picked up last year in California (Delta airlines actually ended up paying for them, but that’s a story for another day). And I drive a Volkswagen. No 4×4 here. I’m a total poser.
For those of you that don’t know, I’m not an incredibly gifted dancer. I’ve managed to get by throughout the years, but I still feel awkward and somewhat embarrassed on the dance floor. I really only know four or five different swings and dips, but I manage to string them together in a halfway coordinated attempt that almost looks good to the untrained eye.
At one point in the night, I found myself dancing with a friend of a friend of a friend. I’m pretty sure she knew less about country swing dancing than I did, but once you start with a partner you’re committed for the rest of the song. So I tried to make do and use my small repertoire of dance moves to survive the next five minutes.
About 45 seconds into the song, she looks at me questioningly and says, “Do you know how to dance?”
Now just to be clear, we had been dancing for all 45 seconds up to this point. I’d spun her around a few times and showed her that my skills were perfectly average. Now I’m no Fred Astaire, but I’m not that bad.
I stuttered some response about how I had “been dancing a few times, but I’m a little rusty.” Needless to say at this point I got even more nervous and the next four minutes were some of the longest of my life. No matter what I did, it didn’t seem to work. It was just awkward.
At the end of the song, I thanked her for the dance and proceeded to retreat to the table that our group had staked out for the evening. I tried not to think too much of it, and proceeded to dance with a few more people throughout the night. But I was slightly insulted and just a little hurt.
What she did to me on the dance floor is what I do to people on a daily basis. I have a PhD in criticism. If you’ve known me more than a few weeks, you’ve undoubtedly seen my ability to leverage criticism at everyone and everything. If you give me a situation and ten minutes, I can tell you everything that is wrong and what you need to fix it. I could level a building with my criticism, and I’m not proud of that.
I often hide behind the fact that what I say is accurate or “the truth” (now this may or may not be accurate, but I’d at least like to think I’m right some of the time). I took solace in the fact that I never (or rarely) actually “insulted” people, but instead tried to help them become better. It was (as we are so fond of calling it) “constructive criticism”. Somehow this made everything OK.
Studying business has a way to show you the gaps in everything. I immediately see inefficiencies and want to fix them. Before I got into business, I spent a good deal of time working in live production. Talk about perfection! In live production you only have one chance to make it right, so you do everything in your power to find and solve every problem from the start. You need to see everything that can go wrong and fix it.
This way of thinking is helpful when solving problems, but it’s poison when dealing with people. I’m just beginning to understand this. Knowing how to solve a problem is a powerful skill. But people aren’t problems to be solved. I mistakenly think that if I just tell people what is wrong with them, they’ll just go and fix it. Makes sense, right?
The truth is people are way more complicated, way more emotional, and way more powerful than problems. You can’t fix people the way you fix an automobile or solve a math problem. It just doesn’t work. No matter how much I want it to, it doesn’t. And I really want it to.
The main way people change is through relationship. It’s through mutual trust and friendship. And most importantly, it’s through encouragement. It’s through letting someone know that they are valued and important. People who know they matter, want to work to be better. People who don’t think they matter to you, don’t care what you have to say.
In college, all of my professors were interested in criticising my work. I’d get papers back with comments, suggestions, and criticisms of the work that I’d done. To be totally honest, I didn’t care. If it was a good grade, I’d just file it away and move onto the next thing on my to-do list. If the grade wasn’t so good, I’d go try and argue with the prof to get it changed. If that didn’t work, I would consider changing the way I did my work on the next project just to get the grade. Did I learn anything? Not really. In fact, I’d do just enough to get by and then get on to what I wanted to do.
But there were a handful of professors who actually cared. Everything I did, they saw value in it. Now to be clear, this doesn’t mean that I got an “A” on all those projects. In fact, some of those professors were tough, and I got some low grades on papers in those classes. But what they saw was the value of my work. They saw the kernel of brilliance buried in the bottom of a messy, disjointed term paper. They saw the makings of a fantastic essay in a piece of work that I’d just slapped together.
And they focused on that kernel. They pushed and pulled. They provide suggestions. But more than that, they encouraged. They knew what I was capable of doing, even when I didn’t see it. They knew instinctively that I would rise to the challenge they set forth, but that I’d need a little encouragement to get there.
Those were my favorite classes, and I still have good relationships with many of those professors. The work I submitted for those classes was some of my best work. I still think fondly of the topics I wrote about, the discussions we had, and the work I created.
Fast forward back to the bar. As I was about to leave, a friend asked me to dance one more time. So we headed out to the dance floor, and I again did my perfectly average dancing. At the end of the song she said, “Thanks for the dance. I like dancing with you.”
What!?! You actually like dancing with me? Perfectly average, perfectly normal me? To be honest, she might not even remember saying that line, but it stuck with me. In fact, I felt like a million bucks. That compliment makes me want to learn to dance better. I like when others like dancing with me.
That’s the difference in our lives. So often with my friends, at work, with my family, and even at my church, it’s easy for me to ask with judgement, “Do you know what you’re doing?” I doubt others. I criticize them. But virtually nothing good ever comes of it. Instead, I need to encourage. Encouragement (and not flattery – there’s a big difference) brings out the best in people.
I think part of my critical spirit comes from growing up in the church. The American church loves to look at others and criticize the way they act or don’t conform to our standard. But Jesus didn’t. He almost never offered criticism, and when he did, it was mostly at religious people anyway. He’s more interested in relationships than rules. He knows we’re broken, but chooses to see what we can be, not what we are.
Somehow when God looks at us, I don’t think he asks, “Do you know how to dance?” He knows that we don’t. But he knows that we’re trying.
Instead I think he gently whispers, “I like dancing with you.”