The Value of an Incomplete Answer

The meeting was tracking well. One particular individual was contributing helpful information and insightful remarks to those in the meeting. But then… they couldn’t stop. They kept talking. Before long, their extra contributions caused us to forget what their meaningful content had been.

One more point, one more remark, one more anecdote. It soon becomes white noise for all those listening.

You’ve heard it. And if you’re like me, you’ve done it.

In a recent episode of the 5 Leadership Questions podcast, Barnabas Piper and Todd Adkins had Simon Sinek as their guest (you can listen here). Sinek recounted participating in a meeting early on in his career and really being the person in the meeting who could speak with the most authority about a particular project the group had been working on. And he did. And most of what he said really mattered. But as they were leaving the meeting, a mentor of his put their arm around him and said:

“Three quarters of an answer is better than an answer and a half.”

I’ve written about this topic in a previous post titled, Being Prepared, But Saying the Least (in meetings). But Sinek’s mentor’s remark provided me a clear word picture for this practice of knowing when to stop contributing, and reminded me that  a few comments too many can be the difference between meaningful content and dragging on.

Take freedom in knowing:

  • You don’t have to know everything.
  • Everything you do know you don’t have to share with others.
  • And (as Sinek says in this podcast) even when you don’t know, you don’t need to pretend you do.

Giving an answer and half isn’t all about ego. Not everyone who gives more than three-fourths of an answer is trying to make sure everyone knows they’re a subject-matter expert. Sometimes, the topic is so important, they believe putting everything out there is critical.

But it’s rarely critical. And if it’s important for everyone to hear a comprehensive answer, a well selected three-quarters will prompt others to ask for more explanation, whether inside the meeting or outside it.

A filter: less is more.

Or a second filter: does this last three-fourths I want to say really advance the conversation? Advance the meeting? Advance the cause? Or is my next contribution really about me?

The second filter got me yesterday. I found myself in a situation where I wanted to say more. I wanted to make a strong point. And yet, I was thinking about this blog’s content. It’s not easy (and I’m not revealing how well or not well I did yesterday) but either way, I believe and will try to practice… three-fourths of an answer is better than an answer a half. I hope you’ll do the same.

P.S. Also, don’t forget: sometimes we shouldn’t even speak the first three-fourths.

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5 Responses to Critiques

I like to read leadership books. What I don’t like is reading about myself in a book and it not being a compliment.

I guess I had delusions of grandeur that if I were to be mentioned in a top shelf leadership book, it would be for some sort of example where I’d been part of something good. But that’s not how it unfolded.

While reading the latest book of an author whose ideas and teachings I respect, I came across an anecdote about a meeting the author had with an executive pastor. As I read further, it became clear to me that he was sharing about an actual exchange he and I had on a previous occasion. The details he recalled (which were a pretty close rendering of the actual conversation) didn’t show me or my leadership in the best light.

What do you do when you read or hear feedback about yourself that’s negative?

If you’re like me, you react. On your best day, you hear it, evaluate its truth, and act accordingly. On your worst day, no matter if its truth, it elicits an emotion that’s likely tied to sin.

Can you think of the last time you heard someone say a critical comment toward you? How’d you feel? And more importantly, what did you do with the critique?

The answer to that last question is what separates average leaders from great leaders.

I don’t know if I’m alone in this, but negative feedback about my work and decisions comes fairly often. I work with and for quite a few people, and they all have opinions.

Sometimes those critical opinions of my work and leadership are expressed well. The “critic” isn’t disparaging me as a person, but is simply giving their opinion on how I did something wrong or made a poor decision. The author I mentioned earlier didn’t go after me as a person, but he captured a trait of mine that admittedly leaves me with a leadership deficit.

I could spend time writing about how I reacted in that situation, but I’ve spent enough time being a book-example-martyr, so let’s talk about how you and I as leaders can respond well to the critical comments that come our way

Respond to critiques by…

Separating from it

Some people need seconds of separation. Some people need days. I don’t know how you’re wired, but you need to know what your separation time needs to be, and then commit to not respond to the critique sooner than you should.

Setting aside the person

I think a lot of critical feedback gets missed because we only look at the person delivering it, and not the content. Some people are jerks. Some people have no concept of what you do. Some people are negative about all things. But that doesn’t mean their critique can’t be valuable in improving how you lead. In your mind, pretend the same critique instead came from someone you trust and who understands what you do. It’s mental gymnastics, but it can be helpful. And when you can play this game in your head, it’ll be easier to see content that’s valuable.

Seeking truth

What if you started with the presupposition that all critique has some level of truth? If you need biblical help to get you there, think, “I’m depraved. Therefore, my leadership is depraved.” What 2, 5, or 50 percent of the critique is true? Pray — seek what the Spirit affirms.

Many times critiques are uninformed or out of context. But even then, there’s almost always some truth in it. Don’t dismiss the little bit of truth just because the critic doesn’t have all the facts.

Substantiating

If you can’t determine if the critique is accurate, take it to someone you respect, and ask a question like, “Someone mentioned to me the other day that in meetings I come across as ‘My way or the highway.’… Have you seen that in me at times?”

If your substantiation process clears you, get the critical comment out of your head and move on. However, if it’s substantiated, move to the next step.

Setting a corrective course

(S)engage it (That’s a silent ‘S’ so I could keep up my alliteration)

First, re-engage the person you “set aside”. Depending on your relationship with them and what you think they can offer, say to them something like: “Your feedback caused me to think, and I’ll keep considering what I need to learn from it.” or something like, “Your feedback was hard for me to hear, but I think you’ve identified something in me that needs to get better. Do you have any thoughts?”

Second, engage the portion of the critique you can control and identify the ways you can make changes. It may be a helpful self-development exercise for you.

If you lead, critique will happen. Some of it will be more justified than others. But the discipline of responding well to critique and engaging with it in a healthy way separates average leaders from great leaders. Average was okay with me in school, but you and I know there’s too much at stake in our churches and in leading others to be average as a leader.

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Parade-Waving in Church Ministry–Effective Use of Time?

You know the parade wave? The beauty queen or grand marshal waves to the cheering crowd, and then the crowd waves back. It’s the bystanders’ way to say “I’m here. I support you!”

I’m not a good parade waver. It probably has something to do with me waving at our homecoming queen in high school and her giving me a dirty look. But, I digress. It’s okay that I’m not the best parade-waver though, because I was told I don’t have to be…at least not all the time.

When I was in the interview process at the church I now serve, the Executive Pastor said to me, “In this role, you don’t have to wave at every parade.” I’d never heard that expression, and asked in confusion, “I know the church is big, but it has its own parades?”

Most church ministers are pretty good at waving at the (church) parades. It’s the signal to ministry groups and constituencies in your church that says, “I’m here. I notice you. I support you.” So for the purpose of this post, let’s use “parade” to mean programs, events, and experiences not related to you or in your charge, that people might want you present at to add your parade-wave.

Unlike me, many of you are quite adept at parade waving, and many times it’s a necessary skill to survive in church ministry. Why do we feel the need to show up and wave at these parades? At times, you do it simply out of responsibility. Maybe it’s political in nature — you expect something in return for your support of their parade. And sometimes, you show up and wave because someone reminds you that you’ve “never been to their parade.”

While parade waving may sometimes only be an obligatory or an insincere effort on your part, it can also be meaningful to both you and those you show up to support.

2 Drawbacks of waving at every parade

  1. The encore problem. Showing up once can give the sense you’ll repeat this or do it for every group’s parade. This leads to a tired minister who’s giving valuable time for a fly-by wave, when their time could be used for things more meaningful to their ministry work.
  2. Communicating everything of value needs a staff presence. Not everything of importance needs staff support. In fact, we probably mess things up. But if you consistently show up and wave, you may unintentionally communicate that a ministry’s parade is only valuable when a staff person shows.

2 Wins for waving at some parades

  1. You get to experience ministry you’re not directing. If you don’t have to be there, then that means when you do show up you can experience ministry without responsibility. You have the freedom to talk, encourage, and ask questions of those involved.
  2. Your presence can be fresh air. Especially when you choose to wave at parades a lot of people don’t know exist, such as those doing the thankless work of church ministry. The ones that get little to no “ad space” in the bulletin. A well-timed parade wave can provide encouragement for people to keep serving well.

Choosing when to wave and waving well when you do:

Manage expectations (truthfully)

Not showing up at someone’s parade is one thing. But not showing up after you’ve led them to believe you would… well, that’s no good. Yet it happens a lot among church leaders. It’s the insincere “Yes, I’ll probably be there.” If you’re not going to be there, tell them. If you need to consider the invitation, consider it, and then follow-up with them. If they’re expecting you to be there and you don’t show up, you’ve just rained on their parade. (See what I did there?)

Understand your purpose at the parade

When you’re not sure whether the parade is a worthy investment, ask what they expect. Many times these questions will give you clarity about attendance, and sometimes it’ll make the parade organizer realize it really isn’t important you be there.

Recently, I was asked to wave at a parade taking place on my scheduled day off from the office. I asked the parade-inviter a few questions: “Do you need me to do anything while I’m there?” “What would you hope I’d experience and understand because of my attendance?” This person had thoughtful answers, and as a result, I showed up.

But asking these questions often will help you and them realize your presence sometimes doesn’t matter. Other times, it shows that there may be a better-suited waver, and you can help arrange that.

Wave at their parade (from a distance)

There are times you can provide a similar parade presence encouragement without being there. A well-timed email prior to their parade encouraging them and letting them know you’ve prayed for their work, or that you’ve heard a buzz about their parade, can go a long way. Or post-parade, follow-up to see how it went –  or even better, provide a third party encouragement about what you heard took place (third party encouragement is the best and I’ve blogged on it previously).

Show up and wave well

Maybe it’s obligatory, or something you get paid to do. Or maybe you actually want to encourage and support. Regardless, when you choose to show up, show up fully. Take interest in the parade. Engage with other participants. Make sure your body language communicates you’re happy to support. If you’re going to give your time and presence, take advantage of the opportunity, and wave well.

Waving at every parade is too much for you (and them). Never waving at a parade is ministry-malpractice. But well-timed and sincere parade waving is meaningful ministry.

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