Affirmation and Correction Are Like a Bank Account
There’s an economy to affirmation, a ratio. Just as there is an affirmation ratio in the political science of elections (differentiating between an election outcome that’s a mandate and one that’s a squeaker) there are ratios in the affairs of the heart. Proportionality matters.
The ratio is like a checking account. Affirmations are deposits. Corrections are checks you write against the balance in the account. If you write too many checks in relation to the deposits, your checks bounce — they’re no good. It will take additional deposits to restore your credit. And if the pattern of writing bad checks continues, you’ll not only face overdrafts and fees and penalties and bounced checks that don’t buy anything, but your account may be frozen until you get serious about putting things in the black. Your checks may be refused at certain businesses, regardless of your restored balance with the bank. These establishments may no longer wish to do business with you; your record with them is too problematic. And if your pattern of writing bad checks continues, you may be arrested and removed from circulation altogether.
What I have just described coincides with the three outcomes of too much correction compared with affirmation. First, not accepting specific input; then, not accepting your input at all; and third, opposition to any position you take on nearly any subject.
Withdrawals from the checking account include legitimate corrections and all criticism, including name-calling, sarcasm, and blaming. Even more inert and benign things like silence and withdrawal can deplete the checking account, like service fees that fail to get entered in the check register.
The good news is that even if your relationship has reached the third stage (oppositional), you can dig out of the hole you are in and reach a place where the other party will actually invite your opinion. Instead of frozen out, you’re invited in! You become “safe” as a sounding board when people know the first thing out of your mouth will not be criticism when you hear their ideas. Legitimate criticism is important, even crucial, but your counterparts eventually won’t be interested in your wisdom if they have tuned you out from the diet of criticism you serve up.
When you first begin to restore a pattern of affirmation to a relationship, the other person may not believe you, or receive affirmation well from you. That’s because of the deficit. Your checking account is in the hole. But steady affirmation can unlock the gridlock in the long run. How long? It depends in part on how big the deficit is.
To reverse the trend of an overly corrective relationship, try the following:
1. If she has stopped listening to you, quit preaching.
2. Stop moralizing about listening: “You should be listening to me!” Instead, ask the Holy Spirit to do his job.
3. Affirm. Stay up nights if you have to, thinking of ways to say what is so commendable in him.
4. Keep up a steady, tender flow of words and gestures that confirm and commend them.
5. Model. We don’t affirm any particular quality we don’t personally embrace and exemplify in some appreciable measure. If we try to commend punctuality while always running late ourselves, our hypocritical compliments become off-putting.
6. Love the unchanged person as is. Be a blessing to that person before he listens to you.
I repeat: things are moving in the right direction when affirmation, not correction, is the pattern. Relationships are healthy when so much affirmation is being spread around that no one is keeping track of either affirmation or correction, because the relationship doesn’t feel predominately demanding, but refreshing. This is not a matter of a raw mathematical ratio, but a perception from the other person’s point of view. This requires us to see things through others’ eyes. Do they see us as affirming?
A shortage of affirmation explains many things, from teenage rebellion to failed marriages. Affirmation withers up, and with it, the relationship. Meanwhile, ongoing corrections make the relationship more and more painful. Consider gang behavior. The young person may find he gets no commendation from the adults in his life, but when he spray paints the bridge, the gang howls with delight. Guess who has influence on him? Or the wife generally seems critical, but that secretary at work is understanding and affirming. Who is gaining influence with the husband?
Persons who are drained by depression may find a key here. One of the things a depressed person needs is mercy, and when the depressed person by faith opens his mouth and affirms others, mercy from the Lord is on the way.
The Principle Is Simple
The affirmation ratio is about earning a hearing. There are going to be times when, in love, you are going to want people to hear you, to understand, to listen, to get it. Here then is the simple principle: people are influenced by those who praise them. Giving praise does wonders for the other person’s sense of hearing. Some readers’ antennae are perking up, and they are thinking, “Wait a minute. This is sounding a lot like humanistic, man-centered, self-esteem psycho-idolatry.” Don’t misunderstand me. Persons more holy and wise than I have talked about the importance of praising people. Puritan writer Richard Baxter said, “They love those who best esteem them highest. The faults of these admirers can be extenuated and easily forgiven. [my insertion: Isn’t that what you want? To be easily forgiven?] . . . If you would have his favor, let him hear that you have magnified him behind his back and that you honor him. . . .”
When John Calvin says, “We readily believe those whom we know to be desirous of our welfare,” he connects hearing with manifest goodwill.
Informal idioms speak of the affirmation ratio this way: “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Or: “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
Excerpt from Practicing Affirmation, by Sam Crabtree.
Copyright © 2011 by Sam Crabtree, published by Crossway, used with permission.