Exploring the Intersections of Faith and Life


Nuts and Bolts of Positive Reinforcement for Church Leaders

Can you take the techniques of positive reinforcement training with dogs and apply them to our daily relationships? Sure you can! Just don’t tell your friends you’re treating them like dogs – unless, of course, you treat your dogs better than your friends!

The title of the dog training seminar I attended in Iowa was “Get SMART about Training,” and it was led by Kathy Sdao, a top animal trainer in Tacoma, Washington (www.kathysdao.com). SMART stands for “See, Mark And Reinforce Training.” See the behavior you want to strengthen or reinforce, mark it so the one doing the behavior knows what they did right or well, and reinforce it positively by giving the dog something it really wants – play, food, petting, etc.

To some this may seem manipulative when applied to human relationships, but the reality is we do this all the time. Money, for some, is a positive reinforcer. Receiving that encourages us to increase or intensify some behaviors in the hopes of receiving more. Praise from a significant person in our lives can also be a positive reinforcer. Sometimes something as simple as someone noticing we did something well or made progress is enough.

At our last council meeting we had a wonderful conversation about this, and about how we can be more proactive in encouraging and helping people have healthier relationships within the church and how that can help us work better together and find more joy in our work together.

The first challenge we saw was to simply SEE those things that are positive that we can affirm. Which means we have to be looking for it. It is often easy when we are with someone we like, someone who is already doing thing well, but much harder when we are talking about someone we don’t like, or who acts as a bully or a controller. If we want to encourage people who are generally unpleasant to strive to be better, then we have to begin to notice even the smallest things that could grow into something positive. This is one of my challenges. For example, when I am preaching, if you are scowling at me because you don’t like what I’m saying, you are wasting your energy, because I literally don’t see you. I naturally focus on those people who are focused and giving me good energy when I’m preaching. It takes a lot of effort for me to break away from those people and really notice others. It is typical for us to focus most on those who give us positive energy and feedback. So the first challenge – see the behavior, or even the beginnings of a behavior, that is positive and helpful for the systems we are in.

Second challenge –MARK the behavior. Somehow, let the person know that we noticed, and be specific about it. We use a clicker with the dogs. As soon as she hears the click, she knows that whatever it was she just did was right on. It could be as simple as “I really liked it when you …” or “thank you for …” Be specific, give good feedback, so the other knows exactly what it is we noticed that was good. Even if we never do anything more, I suspect we all know how reinforcing and uplifting it is to have someone say specifically what they noticed about us that they liked.

Third – REINFORCE. What is a positive reinforcer to the other? Here we have to be careful. What may be reinforcing to us, may not be to another. One of our council members shared that touch is very reinforcing to her, words, not so much. Just a hand on the shoulder is enough to say “well done! Thank you!” For others, that would create great anxiety. So it is important that we get to know our people and find out what is important and valuable to them, and not assume we know what that is based on what we like.

Is this manipulation? I don’t believe so. We all have free choice about what we will do and how we will respond to what is around us. But is this a valuable thing to remember if we want to help people grow, develop healthy ways of interacting, and have healthy churches and groups? You bet! And yes, I will be giving clickers to the council members at our next meeting….

Happy clicking!

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