Belonging and Appreciation

Belonging and Appreciation

Yesterday evening I attended the revised Belonging module of the Life Model program. It was taught by Dr. Jim Wilder and I found it very insightful.
Two points stood out for me:

1. It is important to create belonging, not search for it, expect it from others.

Creating belong is something babies are very good at (maybe because of their unconditional acceptance?). On the other end of the spectrum “Elders” (meaning persons with a high level of maturity, Life Model terminology) are especially good at it, because they want to include everybody into the belonging. This does not depend on their age, nor whether they are Christian or not but on their level of maturity. We naturally feel drawn to these people and enjoy being with them. The challenge now is not to look for people who can do this for us, but to become people who can do this for others.

  • How do we create belonging? This overlaps with the rules for group interaction in this class:

○ Showing appreciation
○ No cross-talk
○ No advice giving
○ Supportive listening
○ Confidentiality
○ Creating space for imperfect attempts of doing new things (these are my own words, I don’t remember how he phrased it).

  • Creating belonging is work: I need to work to have other people close to me and for us to appreciate each other. I definitely want to learn to do that more.

2. Showing appreciation: When we put the “flashlight” (focus) on positive things, we create belonging. Focusing on negative things does not create belonging.

Or as Phil 4:8 puts it:

Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. (NLT)

  • Telling stories creates Shalom, (Hebr. lit. peace and rest) a condition where everything feels just right and nothing needs to be changed, everything is in the right relationship, right place, right strength, right amount, for God and people.

  • Story telling builds appreciation. So we practiced telling appreciation stories. Yesterday we focused on telling a story where we appreciated an “Elder”. Until the next evening our homework is to collect other appreciation stories and practice telling them.

Both, a) the importance of creating belonging and b) the fact that focusing on negative things does not create belonging, were light bulb moments for me.

a) I realized that I often wait for others to reach out to me, especially in unfamiliar surroundings or new groups. I can create belonging and usually do when I feel responsible for (e.g.) an event, a meeting, a new person in the group. In most other situations I usually don’t do it but would need to make a conscious effort to do it. It does not come natural. I still have a lot to learn in this area. I think yesterdays insight will help me be more conscious about it, and not wait for others to do it for me.

Recently I experienced a practical application of this. I went to a women’s retreat of my new church where I hardly new anyone. When I arrived at the retreat place in the mountains, I hang around in the lounge, not quite sure what to do as everybody seemed to know somebody else and I did not want to intrude in their conversations. After a little while one lady approached me and invited me to join their group which I gladly did. Most of the weekend I hang out with this same little group of three-four ladies; we often sat on the same table or reserved seats in the auditorium for each other. It was only at a later point that I realized that this little group had not existed before the weekend, but was the result of one person “creating belonging” with people she did not know before arriving there. She hardly knew anybody but she reached out to others, made them feel welcomed and included; she created belonging. Already at that time, I thought that her situation was not so different form my own, and I could have done the same thing. This not only made me feel welcomed, helped me to relax among people I didn’t know, but also it made me want to learn from her and do the same thing for others.

b) Where I grew up the general attitude was that if something is right, you don’t need to mention it. You only mention what is not right, so it can be corrected. So, the affirmative teaching style I often observed among Americans, feels very strange to me. In one interpersonal skills workshop I even said to my American colleagues: “If you only focus in your feedback on what I did right, and think that I will understand that the things you did not mention are the ones I should improve on, most likely I won’t get it. I need to be told directly what is not ok, what needs to be changed.”  Now after having visited the USA several times, I got more used to the encouraging feedback and I quite like it. Sometimes to the point that I grow irritated when correction comes in the direct (and often harsh) way of pointing out the negative things, with which I grew up. Still, sometimes when I hear teaching about positive feedback, affirmations, etc, I wonder how much of this is cultural and if this might only apply to Americans.

But when Jim Wilder said yesterday evening that focusing on negative things does not create belonging, I had my Aha-moment. Deep down I realized that this is true, no matter which culture, even if it is expressed in very different ways. Every human being needs acceptance and belonging, and pointing out faults usually does the opposite – it builds walls. I even got my practical lesson right afterward: after I had told my little story, my neighbor criticized that I had missed one point of a good appreciation story. I felt put down and grew defensive. When I thought about it later, I realized that she could have pointed out the same thing through an encouraging question, but the way she had said it built a wall between us. Wow! So, this is definitely something I want to learn to avoid myself.

At the same time I realize that this is a difficult balance. For example, as a consultant or teacher, I can encourage somebody, showing appreciation, for example,  for the good start in a writing project. But this will not tell him/her enough about which parts still need improvement. Having grown up in a context where this balance was rare, I do not have a lot of role models for this.

Can you share examples from your own experience where somebody showed appreciation, and still managed to indicate the points that need improvement? How do you do it yourself?