My church says they need the members to help with various responsibilities, so I volunteer often. But when I do, I’m told to focus on my family. Or people tell me they’re worried I’ll get burned out. They’ve also suggested my excitement is “a little over the top.” Other times, when I offer ideas for how I can help, they put me off. So I back off. But they continue to ask the congregation for help, so then I try to jump back in and help only to get the same comments. I am starting to think it’s me. Perhaps I am too much. Maybe there is a better way for me to handle things. I try to be polite, even when I’m put off. I want to see my church flourish, so I want to improve this relationship. Any ideas?
Dear Frustrated Volunteer,
Let me start by saying I commend your intent. Anyone who is willing to take their personal time to volunteer to help a community organization is awesome. I also commend your desire to be more self-aware and to identify ways to improve yourself. Most of us know we need feedback, few of us actively seek it.
Your experience sheds some light on a topic we don’t address enough when it comes to crucial conversations—receiving (and even soliciting) potentially tough messages from others. Most of us can think of a tough message we’d like to deliver, but we are often reluctant to invite feedback that might be tough to hear.
I want to talk about what you can learn from what’s already happened, and then I’ll share some tips for next steps.
Get to The Facts Behind It All
When people share tough feedback, they commonly share opinions, conclusions, and feelings. Their feedback doesn’t come out as facts. This happens because they’re often emotional about the topic. So, try to get to the facts of what others are saying. When they say that you’re “a little over the top,” what could they mean by that? What are some things you might have said or done that led them to this conclusion? If you can get to the facts behind their conclusions, you’ll get closer to identifying the behaviors in yourself that you can analyze and consider.
Confront the Truth About Your Contribution
Once you get to the facts, try to see the truth behind them. This is where self-awareness questions come into play. Ask yourself, “What role might I have played in this situation?” Or, “What have I done that may have helped others form these conclusions about me?”
I don’t share these tips so that you’ll blame yourself for what has happened up to this point. But the best way to begin improving any relationship is to consider your contribution to it. Bring your best self to the situation, and others are more likely to do the same. Here are some ideas for next steps.
State Your Path—Be Clear and Candid
Prepare to hold a conversation with the right person at the church by using this outline: Facts, Story, Ask.
Facts: Share what you have seen, heard, or noticed that’s causing you concern. Example: “I’ve noticed the last two or three times I’ve volunteered, I’ve been encouraged not to. One time someone said that I should spend more time with my family, on another occasion I was told that my style was ‘over the top.’”
Story: Explain why the facts matter to you. Example: “I really want to be helpful, but I’m starting to wonder if there is something about my approach or style that makes others prefer I didn’t help. I’m not sure what it is, but the pattern makes me concerned I am doing something that I don’t see.”
Ask: Invite the other person’s view. Example: “Can you help me understand how you see me and my contribution? I would like to know your honest opinion of why this might be happening.”
Listen Well and Don’t be Afraid to Prime
After you have opened with the facts, your story, and an inviting question, your job is to listen. Try to understand the other person’s view. Don’t be surprised if they are still hesitant to be honest. Many people are when they have something tough to share, because they worry their honesty will trigger defensiveness. If they seem reluctant, you might need to use the “prime” approach.
When trying to get someone to open up and they seem hesitant, you can prime the pump, so to speak, by bringing the concern into the open. You put a little “water” in to get more “water” out. You share what you think the concern is to convey your willingness to talk about it. But, use this skill WITH CARE. If you guess wrong, you could send the message you were never listening at all.
I remember a time when I was trying to get my wife to open up about a concern. She was shutting down and not talking much and I knew she was bugged—but I had no clue why. So, I took a shot in the dark without much evidence and said, “Um, Christina, are you frustrated that I didn’t take out the trash? Is that why you are not opening up to me?” Her silence then didn’t turn to open dialogue, it turned to further frustration. Not only did I fail to address her concern, I gave her another one to stew on. I used prime as a tactic to shortcut real listening with pure intent, and it backfired.
That said, if you’re thoughtful about it and you’re trying to truly understand, priming the pump can surface topics that have been hidden for a long time.
Your intention for trying to help the church is the most important element here, in my opinion. Because your heart is in the right place, I think you’ll deliver the conversation really well. My friend Emily often says this: Crucial conversations really come down to two elements: 1) having positive intentions and 2) making those positive intentions clear.
Good luck my friend,
Want to master these crucial skills? Attend one of our public training workshops in a city near you. Learn more at www.vitalsmarts.com/events.