This reflection is based on Matthew 18:15-20.
In one unforgettable undergrad psychology class many years ago, we were taught how to give “constructive feedback.” The idea was to choose your words carefully so that you can help people receiving the feedback to be open and to improve themselves. I still remember the formula: “Focus on a specific behavior of the person–and not on the person, and talk about how the behavior affected you and your feelings without judging the other person.”
For example, never say, “I’m shocked by your lack of breeding!” Instead say, “When you started eating from my plate a while ago, I was surprised and offended.”
We practiced exchanging constructive feedback with our seat mates, and I remember how artificial it felt and how difficult! After all, it feels so much more natural simply to blurt out our thoughts and feelings, judgment and all! But as we also learned quite clearly that day, anything other than constructive feedback isn’t going to be very helpful: Relationships will remain strained and the people who get the feedback will not learn anything that will help them modify their behavior or improve themselves.
I remembered that class because in today’s Gospel, our Lord also talks about giving similarly helpful feedback to our neighbor. I have always found this teaching of our Lord surprisingly down-to-earth and pragmatic, but also just as surprisingly difficult to follow. It sounds deceptively simple and easy, especially compared to our Lord’s other sayings, like turning the other cheek, and especially the ones about denying ourselves and dying to ourselves. But once we find ourselves in a situation where we have to put it into practice, we realize that what Jesus is asking us to do is pretty challenging and difficult.
The Lord is quite specific: We have to tell the person ourselves, and we should keep it just between us. Those of us who have been hurt–and I suspect that’s almost everyone–know that this is not our first instinctive response. Those who have trouble being assertive prefer to keep our hurts to ourselves, in the process, leaving our wounds to fester–sometimes for years. And you’ve heard the saying: Resentment is like drinking poison yourself, but hoping the other person dies.
Many resort to narrating our woes not to the person concerned, but to everyone else. Venting makes us feel better–but the problem is, we’re not at all addressing the issue, and worse, we end up damaging the other person’s reputation.
Those of us who have no problem speaking our mind may confront the person, but usually end up worsening the situation because the feedback is given with too much anger and too little thought, and every rule laid down in that undergrad psychology class is virtually broken. As Robert Fulgum once wrote, revising that old saying, “Stick and stones may hurt my bones, but words can break my heart.”
We can give constructive feedback, and we can do what the Lord asks us only in love. If we have anger–or worse, hate in our hearts, there’s no way our feedback is going to work. But neither will our feedback come out right if we like the person too much. We would be too hesitant to tell the person the truth, afraid to hurt him or further alienate him. It really requires nothing less than love of neighbor, a love whose primary concern is neither getting back at other people nor remaining in their good graces, but only with making them better people, who are more self-aware, honest with themselves, and willing to learn from their mistakes.
Maybe a good question to ask ourselves is: How open are we ourselves about receiving constructive feedback? How did we feel and react the last time someone tried to give us feedback? After all, we can’t expect to offer others feedback if we ourselves are not open to receiving it.