Belonging and Appreciation

Yesterday evening I attended the revised Belonging module of the Life Model program. It was taught by Dr. Jim Wilder and I found it very insightful.
Two points stood out for me:

1. It is important to create belonging, not search for it, expect it from others.

Creating belong is something babies are very good at (maybe because of their unconditional acceptance?). On the other end of the spectrum “Elders” (meaning persons with a high level of maturity, Life Model terminology) are especially good at it, because they want to include everybody into the belonging. This does not depend on their age, nor whether they are Christian or not but on their level of maturity. We naturally feel drawn to these people and enjoy being with them. The challenge now is not to look for people who can do this for us, but to become people who can do this for others.

  • How do we create belonging? This overlaps with the rules for group interaction in this class:

○ Showing appreciation
○ No cross-talk
○ No advice giving
○ Supportive listening
○ Confidentiality
○ Creating space for imperfect attempts of doing new things (these are my own words, I don’t remember how he phrased it).

  • Creating belonging is work: I need to work to have other people close to me and for us to appreciate each other. I definitely want to learn to do that more.

2. Showing appreciation: When we put the “flashlight” (focus) on positive things, we create belonging. Focusing on negative things does not create belonging.

Or as Phil 4:8 puts it:

Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. (NLT)

  • Telling stories creates Shalom, (Hebr. lit. peace and rest) a condition where everything feels just right and nothing needs to be changed, everything is in the right relationship, right place, right strength, right amount, for God and people.

  • Story telling builds appreciation. So we practiced telling appreciation stories. Yesterday we focused on telling a story where we appreciated an “Elder”. Until the next evening our homework is to collect other appreciation stories and practice telling them.

Both, a) the importance of creating belonging and b) the fact that focusing on negative things does not create belonging, were light bulb moments for me.

a) I realized that I often wait for others to reach out to me, especially in unfamiliar surroundings or new groups. I can create belonging and usually do when I feel responsible for (e.g.) an event, a meeting, a new person in the group. In most other situations I usually don’t do it but would need to make a conscious effort to do it. It does not come natural. I still have a lot to learn in this area. I think yesterdays insight will help me be more conscious about it, and not wait for others to do it for me.

Recently I experienced a practical application of this. I went to a women’s retreat of my new church where I hardly new anyone. When I arrived at the retreat place in the mountains, I hang around in the lounge, not quite sure what to do as everybody seemed to know somebody else and I did not want to intrude in their conversations. After a little while one lady approached me and invited me to join their group which I gladly did. Most of the weekend I hang out with this same little group of three-four ladies; we often sat on the same table or reserved seats in the auditorium for each other. It was only at a later point that I realized that this little group had not existed before the weekend, but was the result of one person “creating belonging” with people she did not know before arriving there. She hardly knew anybody but she reached out to others, made them feel welcomed and included; she created belonging. Already at that time, I thought that her situation was not so different form my own, and I could have done the same thing. This not only made me feel welcomed, helped me to relax among people I didn’t know, but also it made me want to learn from her and do the same thing for others.

b) Where I grew up the general attitude was that if something is right, you don’t need to mention it. You only mention what is not right, so it can be corrected. So, the affirmative teaching style I often observed among Americans, feels very strange to me. In one interpersonal skills workshop I even said to my American colleagues: “If you only focus in your feedback on what I did right, and think that I will understand that the things you did not mention are the ones I should improve on, most likely I won’t get it. I need to be told directly what is not ok, what needs to be changed.”  Now after having visited the USA several times, I got more used to the encouraging feedback and I quite like it. Sometimes to the point that I grow irritated when correction comes in the direct (and often harsh) way of pointing out the negative things, with which I grew up. Still, sometimes when I hear teaching about positive feedback, affirmations, etc, I wonder how much of this is cultural and if this might only apply to Americans.

But when Jim Wilder said yesterday evening that focusing on negative things does not create belonging, I had my Aha-moment. Deep down I realized that this is true, no matter which culture, even if it is expressed in very different ways. Every human being needs acceptance and belonging, and pointing out faults usually does the opposite – it builds walls. I even got my practical lesson right afterward: after I had told my little story, my neighbor criticized that I had missed one point of a good appreciation story. I felt put down and grew defensive. When I thought about it later, I realized that she could have pointed out the same thing through an encouraging question, but the way she had said it built a wall between us. Wow! So, this is definitely something I want to learn to avoid myself.

At the same time I realize that this is a difficult balance. For example, as a consultant or teacher, I can encourage somebody, showing appreciation, for example,  for the good start in a writing project. But this will not tell him/her enough about which parts still need improvement. Having grown up in a context where this balance was rare, I do not have a lot of role models for this.

Can you share examples from your own experience where somebody showed appreciation, and still managed to indicate the points that need improvement? How do you do it yourself?

7 thoughts on “Belonging and Appreciation

  1. @Ellie Thanks for commenting. Hope your dinner did not get burned because you were thinking of my post. 😉 If you have any questions, let me know. I would recommend reading the basic book about Life Model “Living from the heart Jesus gave you.”

  2. Wow! This is an interesting topic. I’m going to have to think about it when I don’t have to go cook dinner. But skimming over it, my initial thought is, “yes! This makes sense!”

  3. Hm… good food for thought here, Jutta.

    In the life of Jesus I see him telling many stories to the general public and then correcting in a very blunt way those who were learned.

    In his book “The Seven Laws of the Learner: How to Teach Almost Anything to Practically Anyone” ( ) Bruce Wilkinson touches on many of these same points. Have you read it. I found it extremely helpful as a biblical teacher.

    In the book he tells a story to illustrate the power of expectations. In a public school the students thought to be gifted were taught in a separate class room. As an experiment one year they decided to disperse the so called gifted students evenly between two class rooms and mix them with average learners. They then informed one teacher that she had the gifted students and the other teacher that she had the average students. You can imagine what happened throughout the year. The students in the “gifted” room had scored that soared over the students in the “average” room. What was the difference? The expectations of the teacher as well as the public knowledge amongst the students of their capabilities.

    In my own life I am drawn to people the recognize what I do well but not to a flattering degree. I appreciate it greatly when those some people that admire the goodness in me will have the courage enough to value our relationship and kindly point out a flaw with the offer to help me grow through it. That shows me that they are interested in my well being on a whole. To me, it is a superficial relationship that only is ever fun and sweets.

    I can see that this is only part of the whole class you are learning. I imagine that they address healthy correction and positive change at another point.

    Thanks for giving us a peek at your thought process.

  4. This really interested me when I read the second point because it just made so much sense. It is simple. I also grew up in a home where there was not much positive said. I was not an easy child to handle, and I was constantly corrected and criticised. I grew up sure that if my parents could give me away, they would.

    But what first caught my attention was your paraphrase of one point. “Creating space for imperfect attempts of doing new things”. I live in a marriage now where that is difficult for me. I had not even been married long when I was told, “you haven’t learned yet, so there is no hope.” Now, even when I am really trying, I often face rejection of my attempt to change or please him because it is not perfect yet. I hear “don’t tell me you are sorry until you can promise you’ll never do it again.” I read that, and thought, “yes! That is what I need. Let me try and fail, but at least I am trying. Tell me I am trying the right thing and encourage me and tell me how to improve that trying.” This demand for perfection is discouraging, and honestly, it doesn’t make me feel like I belong.

    There are people in my life who have stepped in and made a huge difference. They have done these things. When there was little to praise, they did anyway. When there is much to criticise, they do gently if at all. Often, I already know where I am wrong. They ask questions instead of telling me what is wrong. They let me discover it. When they do that, I do not feel accused and belittled, but I feel like I am learning and I know that they are not criticising me, but encouraging me. They believe in me more than I do myself. When I tell them how I am feeling and doing, they start off with thanking me for being honest. In their interaction with me, they manage to value who I am and still help me discover what I need to change. You’re right, it is the focusing on what is good that keeps me from being defensive… well, at least too defensive…. there are times I have gotten pretty upset at them…. and they have leaned back and smiled and waited. I know I am loved. I have no questions about that.

    Belonging equals a degree of safety. Knowing that no matter how I act, I am ok here.

    I can’t give you an example of how I do that. I wish I could. I am trying to learn it. What I am good at, even though I am by nature more shy, is at starting groups of belonging. Part of my training in nursing has got me to the point I can be more comfortable just starting talking to anyone, connecting, and pulling people in. I enjoy that.

    I appreciate Angie’s comment that she is drawn to people who recognize what she does well, but not to a flattering degree. Flattery is so fake that is stinks. One word of honest, “well done” is better than fake or over-abundant praise. Throw in an occasional, “I’m proud of how you’re doing”, and that is enough. When people admire me too much, I worry what they will think if they really knew me or I feel an intense pressure to live up to their expectations which are too high to start off with.

  5. @Angie – thank for taking the time to reflect and write. the book looks very interesting, maybe I will buy it.
    @Ellie – I think this paraphrase was a revelation to me too. I believe “Creating space for imperfect attempts of doing new things” is just a way of describing what grace is about.
    I am so glad to hear that you do have a few people who believe in you, give you room to learn, encourage you. I am reading your blog on and off and know that your situation is very difficult. I often pray for you. Now I pray that the Lord will give you more people who extend grace and through it help you to heal and grow.

  6. This is a wonderful post, Jutta, and my first visit to your excellent blog. Thank you!

    A book that inspires me to extend belonging and appreciation is Duane Elmer’s book Cross-cultural Servanthood. A list of some chapter titles speak for themselves:

    Openness: welcoming others into your presence
    Acceptance: communicating respect for others
    Trust: building confidence in relationships
    Learning: seeking information that changes you
    Understanding: seeing through the other’s eyes
    Serving: becoming like Christ to others

    Elmer sees servanthood as enabling others to encounter Christ through you in a way that affirms their dignity. He admits that this can and will at times also include confrontation, but when it does, it does so in a way that upholds dignity and produces an encounter with Christ.

    I always admired the unconditional love and acceptance I watched my father extend to others.

    I would love to keep Jonathan Edwards’ resolution: “Never to say anything at all against anybody except when it is perfectly agreeable to the highest degree of Christian honor and love to mankind and also agreeable to the lowest humility and sense of my own faults and failings and agreeable to the Golden Rule.”

  7. @Philip – Thank you for visiting and commenting. I am glad you like my blog. I know Elmer but have not read this particular book. Sounds very helpful. I think I will check it out soon.
    Thank you for reminding me of your father – he is a great example of unconditional acceptance. I have always appreciated his kindness.

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