Encourage one another

Instead of the expected student PowerPoint presentation on EKGs as a tool in measuring human heart function, my students and I were presented with a theoretical treatment of the mathematics of signal traces. The student and I had mapped one project, but he had done another. I appreciated the gifted intellect seeking an outlet. However, I also recognized that most of his classmates were not following his talk. I terminated the presentation. 

I invited the speaker to privately discuss his presentation. It was my job to discuss with him where he had gone astray. I knew I had to walk a fine line. Of equal importance to academic excellence was the responsibility to fulfil the trust placed in one. In life, one must complete a job to the required specifications. The situation called for positive and negative feedback. He was a gifted kid, yet still very much a child. He accepted my offer to privately view his entire presentation. However, he rejected everything else. 

Each of us is called to our own unique ministry of encouragement. “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thes 5:11). As any parent, coach, mentor, or boss knows situations involving sharing positive feedback are easier for the one giving and the one receiving the feedback. Inside each of us is someone who wants to be seen, appreciated, and loved. When someone invites us to continue to grow in something, though the direct words may remain unspoken, we realize they have seen and appreciated the potential within us. 

At its best, feedback is a ministry of encouragement which suggests and supports change and growth. Harvey Firestone said, “The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.” Quite often such change must begin with the recognition that one is not walking a road that will bring about the desired result. It is often easier for a detached observer to be analytical in such situations. Yet, as we each know, those very situations where one has to suggest an alternative path can so easily go awry. 

If one is giving the review, it helps to remember one is speaking from a position of power. One has a responsibility of choosing a path to guide from the current state to the final goal. Buddha said, “Whatever words we utter should be chosen with care for people will hear them and be influenced for good or ill.” In addition, the feedback can be presented in the context of a challenge or game to be won. As Carol Dweck says, “In a growth mindset, challenges are exciting rather than threatening.” 

Getting back to my student, he switched his focus from learning from me to attacking me. One day he entered class loudly announcing college professors proved me wrong. He disrespectfully threw sheets on my desk. The room fell silent. I suddenly faced a polarized classroom. Some students were ready to fight to defend me while others were ready to attack. I opened my mouth to angrily respond. God had other plans. I heard myself say, “That conduct is inappropriate. This is not how academics discuss a difference of opinion. They are always involved in the search for truth. Academics do not fight things out. They listen, then talk things through. In this classroom, we are scientists. Scientists work in situations where they have to give and receive feedback criticizing an idea not the person. That is an important distinction. An academic is who each of us will be in all of our interactions.”

St. Paul’s words on encouragement begin and end with God: “Mend your ways, encourage one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Cor 13:11). I believe St. Paul recognized that the true miracle of what encouragement can draw forth can only be accomplished by each person first remaining open to guidance from the Holy Spirit and then doing his/her best in that moment. God can and will bring forth amazing growth from initial efforts. 

Brene Brown said, “Until we receive with an open heart we are never really giving with an open heart.” I realized that receiving feedback was as much a skill as giving it. I chose to model academic behavior for receiving feedback. I asked that student for his advice on complicated problems. Immediately, other students redoubled their efforts. Each wanted to be able to explain the solution. As I watched my students, I realized that the challenging class situation had provided them a deep appreciation that each of us is one special and unique person in a world filled with special and unique persons. My students reminded me that that perspective is what allows constructive feedback to be given and received as encouragement which supports lifelong development of the gifts God instilled within each of us. 

Anchor columnist Helen Flavin is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer and a member of St. Bernadette’s Parish in Fall River.

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