Last week, I wrote about the importance of being hospitable in our presence. This week, I'll share my slightly (very) cheesy follow-up. Being present isn't enough. We also need to be initiators.
So here's the acronym I give to my students as they seek to be present like Jesus in their neighborhoods: SMILES. The goal here is not to be the most gregarious, charismatic person in the room. The goal is to be a warm presence. You can be a warm introvert, or a warm extrovert: either way, warmth is something kindled in a heart close to Jesus. By mastering some basic skills, we can all become warm people. So here is how we express Jesus' warmth toward others:
S.mile. Here's a little experiment. Look below at the following faces. Which one is "neutral?"
If you think you've found it, you're wrong.
There are no neutral expressions.
If you chose the expression on top, second from the right - as most students do - imagine somebody greeting you with this face. How "neutral" does it feel? I would describe this expression as "cold".
So, to be a warm presence, we need to be careful what we wear...on our face. Are we communicating the warmth of Jesus? Is our expression saying, "I want to talk to you, and you're welcome to approach me! Clear for landing." I'm not saying we need to wear a grin or silly smile to every Bible study or social interaction. But in the context of being a warm presence among strangers, it's how we communicate hospitality. I've met quite a few students just by standing or walking around campus and giving them a big, Godward grin.
(I know this is a particularly American application, by the way - a silly grin in some cultures would be seen as insincerity or stupidity).
M.ake eye contact.
In the context of a first impression, eye contact is essential. This doesn't mean that we stare at people, it just means that we generally give people our focus. Picture how you feel, when meeting someone, if their eyes are darting around the room. How do you perceive them? Most likely as disinterested or un-trusworthy. Think about this: in the context of a culture glued to their phones, you might be the only person in someone's day who gives them the gift of eye contact. It says, "I'm paying attention to you. You have dignity. I want to be with you."
Just doing these two things could be all you need to meet people in your current context! But there's a bit more.
God is an initiator. He initiated the world we live in. He initiated communication with us. He initiated the incarnation. "While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." In our alienated relationship, God moved first.
Just as there are no neutral expressions, there are also no neutral relationships. When we don't initiate a relationship with someone, we are saying: "If you want to befriend me, you can take all the risk." By initiating, we are serving others: "I'll be the risk-taker. I'll take responsibility for our relationships. Since we're disconnected, I'll connect us."
So, what would it look like to be an initiator in everyday life? In your physical neighborhood? In your neighborhoods of interest? At work? In class? At the barber? I read an article a few years ago by a non-Christian Quora user that convicted me. Here's what he said:
"I turned 24 last year and listed out all of the golden rules I operate by. But the one I’ve been having the most fun with lately is: Go first.
-When you’re walking along the footpath and lock eyes with someone, smile first.
-Entering a coffee shop in the morning, say good morning to the staff. If you know their names, use them. Names are always better than a standard hello.
-Retail store clerk notices you walking around the store. How’s your day going? Instead of awkwardly avoiding them.
- Ate a nice meal? Personally go up to the chefs/restaurant staff and thank them for their services instead of being ushered out with a smile.
-Getting in an Uber? The driver has probably started the conversation with the last 20 passengers. Change their day.
-Want to hang out with someone you like but worried about sending the first text? Send it anyway.
-No one on the dance floor? Start it. -Everyone else shy to offer an answer in class? Do your best.
-Holding in a laugh because no one else is laughing? You better start LOL’ing."
That's just basic Christ-likeness!
"Listen" doesn't mean "be quiet." It means "be interested."
There's really no better relational skill to learn, is there? Want to solve a conflict? Be interested. Want to persuade someone of your opinion? Be interested. Want to raise funds for your campus ministry? Be interested! (We RUF fundraisers are consistently told that the most effective fundraisers spend 90% of their time listening, not talking!)
So if you want to befriend, listen. Be interested. Leaders are listeners.
Think about how this feels to somebody: we live in a society obsessed with getting attention. What if you were the one person freely giving it out? You'd be flocked!
And the best news about listening is that it's really, really fun. People are interesting. People's hobbies and pet-peeves and stories are interesting. The more I listen to people, the more this seems to be true: everyone has something to teach me. Everyone has a story worth listening to. Everyone has a life worth living.
We've already covered the first two steps to listening: smile and make eye-contact. Body language communicates listening. How else can we show people that we're interested in them?
-When I’m first getting to know people, there are four basic categories I know everyone cares about: their people, their place, their passions, and their purpose. Ask about where people are from, ask about their interests, ask about their families and friends, and ask about their goals and dreams. Next week I'll share a list of questions I keep in my back-pocket for one-on-ones, under each of these categories, and talk a bit more about active listening.
In a March 2013 issue of the Harvard Business Review, researchers examined three teams in different situations, and rated them based on their performance. The “low performance” teams had a 1:1 ratio of criticism and encouragement. The “medium performance” teams had a 4:1 ratio of encouragement to criticism. The “high performance” teams had a 6:1 encouragement to criticism ratio!
Why do you think teams with the highest ratio of encouragement to criticism performed the best? There are two reasons. Number one: there are one thousand ways to screw things up, and few ways to do things correctly. This is why professional animal trainers focus ONLY on encouraging animals when they obey a command. If I tell my dog to “sit”, and punish him for doing every single thing that’s “not sitting”, he will only become confused. If I merely REWARD him for sitting, he’ll understand EXACTLY what I expect. So focusing on RIGHT actions, instead of WRONG actions, is being a better teacher.
Second: think about the word “encouragement”. It means “give courage to”. Encouragement is an ENERGIZER. Criticism DRAINS us. I think of it like the game “Mario Cart”. In the game, to win a race, you have to keep your finger on the “gas pedal” almost the entire time, except on the RAREST of occasions, when you have to let go to make a sharp turn, or an even RARER occasion when you need to hit the brakes. Think of “Encouragement” as the gas pedal for your relationships: you have to keep pressing on that button so that you’ll have enough momentum to take a sharp turn (a criticism) every once in a while.
When we encourage people, we are recognizing their dignity as human beings. Folks will never be ready to hear the "bad news" about sin and idolatry unless we communicate the "original news" of human dignity: they are a beautiful human being, made in God's image. Let's be all over that in our communication toward the people we meet. This is how we build bridges toward the gospel.
To encourage, by the way, does not mean "to flatter". Flattery is insincere and gratuitous. Encouragement means affirming the image of God we see in another person. It is genuine.
S.ay their name.
When you remember somebody’s name, you instantly build trust. It’s a way of saying, “When we were talking, I wasn’t just talking to SOMEBODY, I was talking to YOU. I care about you. If you tell me something, I’ll remember it." So learn people’s names, and then repeat it (so you can remember it), Then when you see them, say their name. Again, it’s a way of saying, “I’m not just talking to anyone - I want to talk to YOU."
To do this, I need to say someone’s name 5-6 times in a single day, the same day I meet them. I do this even with people I don't think I'll ever see again. I can't tell you how handy it's been when - to my surprise - I stumble into a coffee shop to greet a student I met a week ago, and their name pops into my head: "Hi, Kate!" It's usually shocking to the student, in a good way. It instantly communicates my care for them.
So, in sum, to be an initiator in the places we're present means that we:
M.ake eye contact
S.ay their name.