I’ve always loved playing devil’s advocate. Perhaps I’m just contrary (or maybe just the devil). I was delighted to discover that my differing nature was a genetic gift. Hey, it’s not my fault!
My great uncle (I think that’s what he would be called) hated conformity. All the tombstones in his cemetery faced the road. To revel in a life of difference, he willed that his tombstone face perpendicular to every other stone in the cemetery. Even in death he celebrated his difference.
Apparently, the town council was furious at this desecration, so they outlawed the practice going forward. The irony, of course, is that the new law meant his differences would live forever. Every tombstone in the cemetery—before and after—faces the road. Except his.
Which is exactly what he wanted in the first place.
But perhaps my father was the oddest man I ever knew
Oh, my dad was normal in many ways. He married a wonderful woman, pastored five great churches, and raised five terrific kids. (Five out of six isn’t bad.)
My father was different in a different way. He didn’t mind criticism. In fact, he invited it.
Every Sunday after church, at our midday meal, my father asked us what we thought of his sermon. And he wasn’t happy with a “Nice job.” He didn’t want to know what he did right. He wanted to know what he did wrong. He delighted—really delighted—when we said things like:
- “I think your illustration of the boy on a bike didn’t explain Predestination well;”
- “I wonder if your second point should have been first, and your first point second;”
- “I think the best part was your final, ‘Amen;’”
- And even, “It was too long” (though he was less fond of that common complaint).
The discussions were partly intended to make sure we listened to his sermons. But they were more. He genuinely wanted to hear our opinions. Especially when we disagreed.
How many people do you know who invite genuine criticism? I have known very few.
Because there’s a tension
A simple “pat on the back” often feels false. Something in us wants to know the truth so we can improve. But we also fear the truth. We reject it when we hear it. Samuel Goldwyn (of MGM studios) expressed this tension best when he said,
I don’t want to be surrounded by “Yes men.” I want people who’ll disagree with me. Even if it costs them their jobs.
And there you have it. We don’t want plastic companions; but honest evaluation has killed many friendships. We prefer false comfort to real relationships. But it’s lukewarm soda pop.
The military method
A friend of mine once told me what the military taught him. When an important topic was discussed, the most junior person gave the first opinion, and then on up the ranks, and the most senior person spoke last.
That way minions didn’t contradict masters and Lieutenants didn’t humiliate Lieutenant Colonels. It assumed scared subordinates and domineering leaders. But it’s not a bad practice. It’s a reasonable way to get real opinions from smart subordinates instead of mindless, “Yes Sirs.”
But it doesn’t eliminate the brown-nosing that occurs when our environment discourages realness. It’s a jury-rigged solution.
The sandwich solution
This solution hides the “meat” between two pieces of Wonder Bread. We say, “I really like the strength of your convictions, but I think your leadership style is occasionally overbearing, and I hope you can teach me to articulate my opinions so clearly.”
The idea is to soften our assessment with positive reinforcement, to bookend the critique with compliments. This is probably the most gracious way to offer constructive criticism. It means negativity is not our goal; we are mostly after something good.
But my father wanted unvarnished truth. His insistence on realness had a quality that most of us desperately need in our lives: compliments that mean something.
When we said a sermon was great—any many of them were—he knew we meant it. It wasn’t a verbal bribe to take us to Baskin Robbins. It too was unvarnished truth. Truth without haggling.
What was my old man’s core strangeness?
My father possessed a humble confidence. His genuine humility created an atmosphere in which we could offer real criticism. But he had an unshakeable confidence (well, almost unshakeable); he wasn’t afraid of hurt feelings—and believe me, we did hurt his feelings.
His confidence didn’t protect him from hurt feelings, but neither did it bludgeon others into silence. His confidence overwhelmed insults, but it didn’t insulate him from them. And his humility attracted people to him, but it wasn’t a humility that made us croon, “Poor baby.”
He was the quickest of men to point out his own foibles—and there were plenty!—and the slowest of men to be insulted by criticism. How could he do that?
My dad’s confidence came from the death of pride. He really didn’t mind being wrong. It was his humility (quick to admit his errors, or be told of them) that gave him confidence; unlike the world where pride—“never admit your mistakes”—is the source of confidence.
My old man let his old man die—along with its insults and hurt feelings. He really was humbly confident and therefore confidently humble.
In short, my dad planted his tombstone perpendicular to the rest of the world.
[reminder]I’d love to hear your stories, ideas, and experiences of learning to be real. [/reminder]