The Power of an Affirming Word
About the Guest
Words of encouragement linger sweetly in your ear. Sometimes they can even change your life. Illustrating the power of an affirming word, Pastor Sam Crabtree tells the story of a father who decided to affirm his son after years of criticism, making the first move towards reconciliation. Sam reminds us that we are called by God to edify one another, and in doing so, will find ourselves refreshed.
Words of encouragement linger sweetly in your ear.
The Power of an Affirming Word
Bob: You may have heard people say, “You need to say ten kind things for every hard thing you’re going to tell somebody else.” Sam Crabtree says there’s more to it than just doing the math.
Sam: Here’s the way I think about the proportionality between affirmation, which is upbuilding and edifying, and criticism or correction, which is so draining to a relationship. What is the right number? Well, I don’t think about a number. I think about what is my reputation in the eyes of the person I’m talking to. So if come at someone and they think, “Oh, here comes bad news,” I’ve got work to do in terms of being more affirming.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today® for Wednesday, August 24th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. What would people say about you? Are you a gracious and affirming person, or a harsh and critical person? We’re going to explore that today.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. You know, I would guess if we had all our listeners sitting around the table with us and we said to them, “Can you think of a time in your life when somebody said something to you positive, affirming, something that encouraged you?”
I would bet that everybody listening could come up with something almost instantly that is, if you’re old enough, it’s ten or twenty or thirty or forty years old, but you’ve never forgotten it. You can’t forget it; it’s like it happened yesterday. There’s such power in it. In fact, I don’t know if our listeners know this, but this is something that routinely I’ve observed you doing, where you’ll walk up to somebody and --
I remember you talking about seeing a young man at a gas station one time, somebody from your son’s school I think. And you just went up and put your hand on his shoulder and said, “You know, I think God has a great future for you.” The power of something like that – I’m guessing that if we could dial that guy up ten years later, he’d remember that moment in the gas station.
Dennis: Yes, it is interesting how positive words and negative words stick in our soul. We’ve been reminded of that all this week by Sam Crabtree, about the importance of affirmation. Sam, welcome back, and thanks for your fine book, Practicing Affirmation. I really have enjoyed this conversation.
Sam: Me too. Let me just underscore what you’re saying about not just the importance of affirmation, but the power of affirmation. A few years ago I was talking about this very subject to some Campus Crusade for Christ staff gathered from five states or something, and I talked about this subject and then we took a break.
We came back for the next section and I noticed a guy who was right down in the front here was missing. His chair was empty. Later in the day, lunch break or something, he approached me. He said, “I want to tell you why I skipped your second session. No offense; please be merciful to me. I wasn’t offended at anything you were saying.“
“But I found myself indicted in what you were saying about affirmation, in the way I treated my 14-year-old son. I have a 14-year-old boy, and for about the last two years we haven’t said a word to each other. It started with some fights, and it just kind of resolved into an uneasy truce where we just kind of avoid each other around the house. There’s a few grunts, but that’s it. We just don’t talk; we haven’t talked for two years.”
Sam: “I knew it’s because I’m on his case all the time, all the time. Criticize, correct. I’m finding fault, I wish he could do better, I know he can do better. And so I went to the phone during the break, resolved ‘I’m not going to criticize him, I’m going to tell him the stuff I just said to you. He can do good. My son has potential. I’ve seen it in him, and I’m just going to tell him that.’“
“So I called him. I said that, and he started talking to me, and he talked for 45 minutes.” And he said, “I wasn’t going to hang up and come back to your session when my son was talking to me.” That’s one phone call with one resolve, “I’m not going to criticize on this phone call. I’m just going to commend,” and it opened a floodgate of communication between a dad and his 14-year-old. It’s powerful.
Dennis: Sam, you’re a pastor of a church. You have to see this in action. You serve as the Executive Pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in the Twin Cities area, and have done that since 1997, so you’ve seen an enormous number of parishioners come and go in the church. There’s a word that we use that’s kind of a biblical word, but it really encapsulates what we’re talking about here.
The word is edify. We were called by God to edify, which means to build up another. And that’s really what God is calling us to here, in affirming one another isn’t it?
Sam: Oh, man. Good word. Edify – a good word, calling is a good word. If a Christian out there who is listening says “I don’t know if there’s a calling on my life.” There is, and it’s in 1 Peter 3:9. It says, “Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary bless, for to this you were called that you may obtain a blessing.” So you get a blessing if you do blessing, and you’re called to this kind of edification.
You’re right. As a pastor I see it all the time. I keep in my upper right desk drawer stacks of cards and envelopes, and I send notes regularly. This last weekend there was a boy singing in the choir and he was so enthusiastic and attentive and reverential, so I just wrote him a note with some of those adjectives in there, sent him that note.
I hear back years later from kids like that who have gotten a note from the Executive Pastor, and it’s still on the mirror in their bedroom, it’s still on the corkboard on their closet door. It matters a lot to them. And the same with staff. You know the statistics, which I can’t recite. Staff leave positions because they don’t feel appreciated --
Sam: -- more than because of pay or benefits or other things.
Dennis: Proverbs 11:25 says, “He who refreshes others—“
Sam: “Will himself –
Dennis: “-- will himself be refreshed.” It’s interesting – Bob’s right. I do like to affirm other people. I don’t know if it’s a spiritual gift of mine, but I don’t find that I have to force myself to do it, except when I was raising teenagers. That was a challenging time, but we all love a good word.
Sam: And it is so encouraging and uplifting and hope-giving to “You know, I think I can go at this for another day,” and that’s what a positive word can do.
Sam: Especially if it’s God-centered. I’m not talking about a cheerleading pep talk like, “Go, go, go, Dennis! You can do another day. You can do another day!” But, “God used you today to teach me something from the Bible.”
Dennis: Yes, and I want to talk about two relationships in life that I think are pretty unnatural for us to give affirmation to. The first one is, I believe, to our children. And to have you address this issue, I’m going to take you back to when you were a boy. Do you remember a word that was like what Bob talked about, you’ve never forgotten it, that your dad said to you as a young man growing up that affirmed you?
Sam: He wasn’t as specific as I’d like him to be, but he did say, “Good job, son. Good job, son,” so if we . . .
Dennis: For what?
Sam: If we shoveled the snow, if we hauled the groceries in from the car, something like that. “Good job, son.”
Dennis: So as you became a parent, this was a bit against the replays in your mind of what you had seen as a boy growing up.
Sam: Yes, and what deepened the emotional intensity for me is that in my late teen years I started to disagree with my dad – not verbally, not outwardly, but inside. There were some things that my dad did that bugged me, disappointed me, and I wish he would have been more verbal then, than he was when I was eight years old or nine years old, ten years old, somewhere in there.
When I was a teenager, and really struggling with all kinds of identity issues – what am I going to be? Is my parents’ Christian faith my Christian faith? What am I going to pursue for a life’s work?
Sam: How should I interact with women? All those kinds of things. My dad was mainly back in there – and I need to say this here: I thank God for my dad. My dad was a profound blessing in my life. Many things I attribute to him that I learned that I would be eager for my grandchildren to learn, and so on. But there was a phase in there where he was more on my case than he was affirming me, and it really put a wedge between us there for quite some time.
Dennis: And you know it’s easy to do, because teenage boys – let’s just pick on them for a moment – they’re filled with self. There’s new hard-wiring that’s coming into play where they’re lust-driven. There are lots of emotions flowing, and at points they can be unlikeable.
Sam: Oh, boy.
Dennis: And yet they are filled with self-doubt, and it doesn’t come across with a neon sign saying, “Would someone please affirm me as having purpose, as being a person of value, as there being a plan for my life?” They don’t tell us that. In fact, most of the behavior communicates to us, “I don’t need you, I don’t like you, I want you out of my life.”
Sam: Yes. “You’re a mistake.” I think a lot of young men, and I struggled with this for a while, thinking . . . You know, I’d look in the mirror and there was a great big “R” branded on my forehead. It means “REJECT.”
Sam: None of the . . . “I’m not going to ask any girl to go out with me because she might REJECT me, because there’s better guys around. I look around and I can see them. And maybe God’s not happy with me because of all my sin, all my failures. I’ve made these good resolutions; I started to read the Bible again this year, and I’m already behind, and God’s probably not happy with me, and I’ve let my parents down, and . . .”
Yes, I think you’re exactly right. A lot of men become insecure, passive, because “I’ve just blown it so bad. I’m just a big reject.” And they need some encouragement.
Bob: One thing I haven’t heard you address in this context is the question of whether mixing affirmation with correction is a good way to go or not. I mean, I’m imagining, I’m thinking of my son, and thinking, I could go home today and say, “You know, son, there’s a lot that I could commend you for. There’s this, and there’s this, and there’s this. You really are an outstanding young man. You know there are some things, though that we’ve talked about, but really you are, you’re a fine young man.” So I’ve affirmed, and I’ve tried to do it on both ends, and I snuck in a little teaching in the middle. Is that a good thing to do or not?
Sam: Ah-h-h, well, it would . . .
Dennis: Sam calls this an “encouragement sandwich,” where the criticism is sandwiched in between the compliments.
Sam: Yes, and though I would say it’s better than no encouragement, no affirmation, no commendation, it’s better than none . . .
Sam: . . . it tends to fail, because the meat in the middle of the sandwich, the crème in the middle of the cookie, there, wipes out what you just said. Because once you lower the boom, the person, your son, starts inside – internally, he’s working on that. He’s thinking, “Well, wait a minute now, Dad. That wasn’t quite fair. You didn’t understand everything, or I was running behind, or everybody else does this.” He’s got his reasons, and then when you give your follow-up commendation he’s not listening. He’s tuned you out.
So there was a manager who used this method with his employees, and the only time he commended them was when he was going to lower the boom about something. He congratulated himself on the sandwich method, and his employees began to call it the bologna sandwich.
Sam: Because the only time – “Okay, here it comes. He’s spreading it on.”
Dennis: With jalapenos on it.
Sam: Yeah, it’s going to be a hot one.
Bob: So I hear you saying there better be plenty of times when all we do is affirm.
Sam: I think it’s better when it stands alone and it’s just the steady drumbeat of how we talk to each other.
Bob: If we do need to correct or if we do need to point something out, do we put it in the sandwich or do we just sit down and say, “Son, I need to talk to you about something.”
Sam: Yes, I’m not inclined to mix it with much affirmation. I mean, there could be some affirmation that’s appropriate in the moment – “Thank you for giving me your attention right now as we talk about this important thing.” That would be an appropriate affirmation to give right then. But I wouldn’t back up and say, “You know, I appreciated the way you cleaned up your room a few weeks ago, and oh, by the way.”
Bob: You left the garage door open – right.
Sam: Yes, it just gets cancelled out. It’s a very pragmatic response on my part, here, but it just doesn’t work. It empties the value out of it.
Bob: If I say to him, “You know, son, your mom and I both appreciate the fact that in general we don’t have a whole lot of problem with you. I mean, you’re a good son, you’re obedient. We do appreciate that about you. There’s something I need to talk to you about.”
I’m just imagining that maybe sometimes if you come to your son and you say, “Look, I need to talk to you about something,” he can feel like, “Well, don’t you even know – I mean, I’m trying as hard as I can and all you seem to pick is the one spot on my shirt that gets wrinkled from time to time.”
Sam: Sure, sure. I think it’s important to set a whole context. But what I am saying, also, is that all that context can’t be set in that moment. You should have been setting that context all along.
Bob: That’s good.
Sam: It should just be part of the life pattern. It’s part of our relationship.
Sam: My son knows I’m pleased with him because I’ve told him on other occasions repeatedly, not just two times in the last year.
Sam: Here’s the way I think about the proportionality between affirmation, which is upbuilding and edifying, to use your word, and criticism or correction, which is so draining to a relationship. What’s the right number? Well, I don’t think about a number. I think about what is my reputation in the eyes of the person I’m talking to? So if I come at someone and they think, “Oh, here comes bad news,” I’ve got work to do in terms of being more affirming in my relationship with that person.
Dennis: Yes, you wrote about this in your book, and you talked about it’s not a matter of counting the number of affirmations compared to corrections or admonishment or whatever the negative might be. It’s that the tenor and the flavor of the relationship is known by affirmation.
You know, when things are going pretty well that’s easier to do than in those teenage years where a good bit of the behavior stinks, you know, I mean truthfully, alright?
Sam: Oh, yes, and love has to be truthful.
Dennis: Yes. But that’s what we’re calling people to do. Let me move to the other relationship that I want you to comment on here. And to do that, I want to go all the way back to the Ten Commandments. The fifth commandment says, “Honor your father and your mother that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.”
As I was reading your book and thinking about it, I was thinking if there is a place we have withheld affirmation, it’s with our parents. The word “honor” here means “to be heavy or lay a weight of honor” upon your parents. Words of honor and value and esteem can lay it on your parents.
God in His infinite wisdom, the first human relationship he addresses in the Ten Commandments goes to our relationship backwards to our parents. Comment on the need that parents have, because now you are one. You’re done; you’ve raised the kids. They’re out the door, right?
Sam: Yes. And if anyone ever questions himself about anything in his life, it’s how he raised his children –
Sam: -- because they inherit our character flaws, our sin nature. I mean, I’ve told my kids, “You’re messed up royally because you’re my kids. I just pray for grace all the time that God would overcome the flaws that are in your dad.” But let me go back to what I was saying about my dad earlier, when I said he and I had this thing in my late teenage years.
I’m dead serious when I say I thank God for my dad. For example, one of the things that he taught us that was a little painful back then was “no” means “no,” which is what Jesus taught. “Let your yes be yes, let your no be no.” “No” doesn’t mean “well, let’s renegotiate this,” or “let’s whine,” or “let’s sulk.” “No” means “no.” What’s the next topic?
I am so glad he taught that, and I just think there’s a plague on American parenting from parents who say “no,” and it doesn’t mean “no.” It means “Whine a little longer and maybe I’ll cave in,” or something. But I bless God that he gave me a dad who made “no” mean “no.” If he said “no,” that’s it.
Another thing that he taught us I’ve called the Principle of Pre-emption. That is, the way you show that something is important is by what it will interrupt. And so he would come in. We’d maybe be watching some who-done-it on TV, some detective show, and they’re just coming up to the point where they’re going to solve the mystery and you’ll find out who killed them, and Dad would walk in and click – turn it off and say, “It’s time for Bible,” and --
Sam: I was very irritated, and I don’t recommend, I don’t recommend that. But he was self-consciously doing was saying “The more important thing interrupts the lesser important thing, and to show you what’s important around here, we use that thing to interrupt other things.” Now again, I don’t recommend . . . .
That was one of the things that really irritated me about my Dad at the time, as you can imagine. But what he was trying to do was teach me that important things interrupt other things. That is so useful in life. I thank God for a dad who self-consciously tried to teach us that.
Dennis: Sam, is your father still alive?
Sam: He’s been deceased 31 years.
Dennis: Well, my dad’s been gone 30, almost 35 years. So I’m with you on that. I so appreciate what you have implored and exhorted and modeled for us to do. I’ve got one last assignment for you before the broadcast is over. What I’m going to ask you to do -- so you can be thinking about this while Bob tells folks how they can get a copy of your book – I’m going to ask you to come back at the end of the broadcast and give your dad a verbal tribute.
I think perhaps the forgotten commandment out of the Ten Commandments is this one, “Honor your father and your mother that it may go well with you.” You’ve been talking all this week about how “He who refreshes another will be refreshed.” I know your dad is not here, but I’ll bet, I’ll bet he’s listening. So would you be willing to do that here at the end of the broadcast?
Sam: What an opportunity. Thank you.
Bob: Before you do that, while you think about what you want to say, let me let our listeners know that they can get a copy of your book Practicing Affirmation when they go online at FamilyLifeToday.com. We’ve got it in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center, and it’s a great book to read on your own, to read together as a couple, maybe to go through in a study with other couples or a men’s group or a women’s group.
The book is called Practicing Affirmation, and you can find out more online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Speaking of small group studies, our HomeBuilders® series of studies – these are Bible studies for couples on a variety of subjects in marriage – they are all available this month at a 25 percent discount. There’s one of them called Building Up Your Spouse that’s all about this subject of affirmation. So if you’re interested in going through that study with other couples, now is a good time to order the study guides.
Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com, or call toll-free at 1-800- “F” as in Family, “L” as in Life, and then the word “Today.”
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Dennis: Just pretend Bob and I are no longer in the studio, and it’s you seated at the table, and across the table is your dad. I’m going to give you a chance here to practically affirm him. What would you say to him?
Sam: I thank God for you, Dad. You’re one of the most profound influences in my life, so shaping of me, and He’s used you for way more good than the sin I inherited from you or whatever. I want to thank God that you were humble enough to acknowledge your own sin. You never pretended that you were perfect.
I remember you telling us the struggle you had as a young soldier in World War II to quit smoking, how difficult it was for you, and how it gave you grace for others who were struggling in some area of their own sanctification. It gave you a lot of patience with other people in that regard.
I thank you that you always loved our mother. There was no mistake about that, and I’m so glad you loved Mom deeply and enjoyed her, and she enjoyed you.
I’m grateful that you taught us faithfully to go to the House of the Lord. You took us seven children to church faithfully. We were there usually early, and usually we were among the last to leave, and if there was a service we were there, and if there were special meetings we were there, and if we’re going to be singing a song, we’re not going to mumble. We’re going to sing the song, and I’m grateful that you were all of those things.
Thank you for honoring your dad that I never met. Thank you for honoring his dad, that of course I never met. I’m glad that you were a family man, a hard-working man. Thanks for affirming your boys by playing catch with us. You gave us time when I know you came home from work weary, and yet we’re going to throw the football around until the sun goes down and Mom calls us in for supper.
So thanks for being that kind of a dad. Dad, I really thank God for you.
Bob: FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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