Giving Better Feedback

If you regularly speak in public, you will instantly recognize the experience I am about to share. You spend hours preparing for a 15- to 20-minute presentation or sermon. You tighten the content, think about an attention-grabbing intro, a content-rich middle, an inspiring end and then, slightly nervous, take the podium. You finish, wondering how it’s all landed, when a person comes up to you and says, “So here’s what you didn’t say…”

If much of your public speaking is in the Jewish community, there might be a group of people waiting with variations on the same line. It results in the same feeling I have when a person every week emails me with that week’s blog typos. Try as I might to catch them all, even with an outside reader, I always seem to miss a few. It would be nice if one week, a compliment — just one — were sandwiched in-between the fault-finding.

How do people do this week in and week out? I asked a stable of rabbinic friends to share thoughts on how our blessed people give feedback. Not surprisingly, they had a lot to say. One senior female rabbi from Los Angeles thanked me, calling it a mitzvah to take on this topic. Another rabbi of a large New York synagogue remembers a congregant approaching him with this compliment: “Rabbi: Great joke! It gets better every time you tell it!” Another from New England loves when people say a sermon is “wonderful, better than all of your others.” Ouch.

One observed that he gets the most positive feedback when three conditions are in place, paraphrased here: 1) People praise sermons they agree with more than ones that challenge them, and they praise sermons that make them emotional; 2) People praise based on their relationship with the speaker and the speaker’s reputation. A speaker they like or a speaker reputed to be great will get more praise for the same sermon than someone they don’t know or like; 3) People remember sermons with jokes or stories. He isn’t sure if they are getting or caring about its main message. Jokes help the message but shouldn’t replace the message. He’s a rabbi, he says, and not a stand-up comedian, and worries that a drive for popularity may lead, at times, to pandering.

What seemed to hurt more than a criticism, in many instances, was a sermon or class followed by total silence. No one says anything at all. Most professionals want to know how they’re doing. Small affirmations are truly meaningful. Or, in the words of a leading Conservative rabbi, “I would rather hear stinging criticism than the ‘that was interesting’ comment.” He believes that “Yasher koah” — the formulaic Hebrew expression used for praise — carries the same pareve quality as “that was interesting.”

Another rabbi wonders if congregants sometimes say nothing because they don’t want to be perceived as judging the rabbi or worry that if they praise one week but not another, it will be regarded as a criticism. And then there’s the practical problem: who is going to speak with the rabbi after services, when kiddush awaits?

To sum up, say something. It’s important. Good feedback opens with praise/thanks, demonstrates you were paying attention and engages the subject matter. No one’s afraid of negative comments, just troubled by the imbalance of feedback. The rabbis I heard from most appreciate when a congregant marinates an idea and shares how it challenged her or moved him or actually transformed a personal or family practice or ritual. “Then I remember why I became a rabbi.”

Rabbi Leo Jung is reputed to have told Rabbi Norman Lamm that two words you should never expect to hear in the rabbinate are “thank you.” This may set realistic expectations for the profession, but what a condemnation of our people that two famous rabbis whose work was transformative shared this observation.

A few weeks ago, I asked a class of adult students to write their rabbi a thank-you letter, sharing specifics. Most had not done the assignment “yet.” One person actually shared his correspondence with the class the next time we met. In a few paragraphs, he expressed his appreciation and how his family had grown from the rabbi’s teachings. That week the rabbi was celebrating 20 years in the rabbinate and said that he became a rabbi for letters like this. It was getting archived, he wrote. It was a keeper. Maybe he’ll take it out and smile on a harder professional morning.

This thoughtful student, who took a few minutes out of his day to acknowledge years of public spiritual service, had the wisdom to make this confession: “I never thought of doing this. I’m so glad I did.”

Your rabbi was glad, too .

Erica Brown directs the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at George Washington University. Her column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership and an associate professor of curriculum and pedagogy at The George Washington University. Erica was a Jerusalem Fellow, is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation, an Avi Chai Fellow, and the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award for her work in education. She is the author of 12 books on leadership, the Hebrew Bible and spirituality. Her newest book is The Book of Esther: Power, Fate and Fragility in Exile (Koren). She has been published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Tablet, First Things, and The Jewish Review of Books and wrote a monthly column for the New York Jewish Week. She has blogged for Psychology Today, Newsweek/Washington Post’s “On Faith” and JTA, and tweeted on one page of Talmud study a day at DrEricaBrown.