Gentle or Firm

I work in a business–education–which regularly requires me to intuit exactly what a person needs. Often that need is either one of two distinct responses from me:

  1. Sometimes people need me to cut them some slack. Their emotional state or life circumstances have made them vulnerable enough that anything but empathy and understanding could cripple them, only further adding to their problems. These people are in desperate need of second chances (or even third, fourth, fifth, ad infinitum chances). Compassion will relieve the stress they feel thus enabling them to overcome the adversity they face. I call this the “gentle” response.
  2. Other times people need me to confront them with their errors. In these cases, they’ve usually been taking advantage of others’ (often mine) kindness, and a second chance (or third, fourth, etc) only reinforces their ability to manipulate situations (and alleviate their stress) while giving less than their best. People in these situations need frank, honest appraisals of their behavior and attitude, even if–and particularly when–it’s going to surprise, upset, or even anger them. I call this the “firm” response.

Again, in my line of work, I usually have to determine exactly which response is necessary in a very brief amount of time and with only a limited amount of information. When I get it right, both I and the other party walk away from our conversation feeling better than when they entered it.

But wow, when I get it wrong, when I give them the opposite response they needed? Again, wow. In case one, if I’m firm when you need gentle, I may cause irreparable harm to our relationship, or even worse, diminish your capacity to confront adversity. In case two, if I’m gentle when you need firm, I’m only strengthening the lies you’re telling  yourself, or even worse, giving you false messages about how the world works.

I’ve learned a lot about how to correctly intuit the decision to be gentle or firm as I’ve gotten older. And the most important lesson I’ve learned about the decision is that there is no substitute for experience. Still, I’m going to make mistakes, and I can only depend on others’ forgiveness and God’s grace when that happens. But when I get it right, when I’m gentle when I need to be and firm when I need to be, I feel so good to be a small part of encouraging or equipping someone in their journey.

Another thing I’ve learned about this decision is that I’m irresistibly drawn to men who have the ability to make it correctly themselves 100% of the time. In fact, I’m usually in awe of such men: I love to watch them interact with people, delivering compassion or correction as the situation depends. Michael and I have come to agree that this ability is a common denominator among Real Men.

What’s really interesting is that, in my and Michael’s experience, these men seem to be in abundance in the coaching profession. Anyone who’s watched a football practice or basketball game can see why this abundance makes sense. A successful coach seems to have the secret knowledge of when to put his arm around a player and gently offer advice or when to get in an athlete’s grill and challenge him to quit being so lazy.

As valuable as this skill is in coaching and education, I really see its value in parenting. Last night I talked with a buddy of mine with two young boys, and as I found myself pontificating to him about how hard it is to decide when to be gentle or firm, I realized this father knows a whole lot more about this difficulty than I do. He has decide on gentle or firm literally thousands of times every day. At stake? The character of his boys.

It is for this reason–my own potential as a father–as well  as the possibilities for giving others exactly the help they need that I desperately want to achieve Real Man status in this ability. I want to observe someone, interact with him, consider who he is and where his head is at, and deliver the message he needs in the way he needs it delivered. And not for my good, but because I’ve been blessed by Real Men who could tell when I needed encouraging and when I needed scolding, and I want to do the same for others.


3 thoughts on “Gentle or Firm

  1. Great post. Applicable across the board. Just had a very difficult conversation/circumstance where I felt the need to switch from gentle to firm. It’s so easy to second guess yourself, but having had the privileged of being around many wise people helps, like you mention. And in the case of getting it wrong, thank God for grace and the humility to learn from mistakes.

  2. You are well on your way my son. A gentle reminder…it’s not always what you say. They will observe your silence, and learn.


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