How can I implement the counsel about rebuking without offending?

“How can I implement the counsel about rebuking without offending?” Ensign, Mar. 1977, 60–61

How, as a leader, can I implement the counsel about rebuking without offending? I seem to have a hard time.

Jon I. Young, president of the Augusta Maine Stake and associate professor of education at the University of Maine at Orono Your question is an important one. Any time you’re in a leadership position you will occasionally need to call someone’s attention to an error. The Savior certainly did this, and he provides an excellent example for us to follow. His disciples were learning, and in the process they made many mistakes. Christ made it plain to them—before he ever rebuked them—that he loved them. Not in a general, abstract sense: He loved each one of them as an individual. And his love was unconditional—no matter what they did, he would love them still.

With a firm foundation of love between him and his disciples, he could rebuke them for their mistakes and still leave them with confidence in their own ability.

Many of us, in a situation where a follower has failed, are prone to say such things as, “I should have known I couldn’t count on anyone else,” “How could you fail? It’s so easy,” “If I want anything done around here I guess I have to do it myself,” or “That’s all right, we never really expected that you’d be able to do it.” The Lord loved Peter more than that. When Peter was unable to continue walking on the water, the Lord quickly identified for him the reason for his failure—“little faith”—and let him know that except for that one flaw he would have succeeded. “Wherefore didst thou doubt?” the Savior asked. And Peter, instead of losing faith in himself, only learned that he could have and should have had more faith in the Lord. (See Matt. 14:25–31.)

I try to follow a few simple rules in order to achieve the Savior’s pattern of loving the person while rebuking the error. I’d like to pass them on to you.

First, I try to be personally involved with the people I work with. If I maintain distance from them, then when I need to rebuke someone he resents it—he feels like I’m asserting my authority over him or that I don’t respect him. But when I am working alongside someone, aware of what is going on, not only does he accept criticism better, but also I am less likely to criticize at all, since I understand the difficulty of his work.

Another rule is to focus on the person’s behavior. Whenever someone is being rebuked he will naturally be defensive. The leader has to separate the “sin” from the “sinner” right from the start, if he hopes to accomplish anything.

Instead of lecturing someone, I usually ask questions that bring out the behavior, questions like “How many families did you visit this month?” or “Did you attend the last stake leadership meeting?” This way the individual is thinking about his behavior rather than about his embarrassment at being rebuked. Even more important, it has him talking, not me.

But I try to avoid questions that start with why—like, “Why didn’t you do your home teaching this month?” All I’ll get then is an excuse, and I may even teach people that irresponsibility is acceptable if their excuses are good enough.

It is also important to help the person see the value of his responsibility. Many people who fail in a calling don’t realize that it matters as much as it does. Questions like “What would it do to help other Saints if you did your job?” and “How does it hurt other Saints if you don’t do it?” often help make a person aware of the importance of his work. It is not enough to simply say, “Your work is so important.” Chances are that they’ll believe you’re just trying to make them feel good about an unimportant job.

It isn’t enough, of course, to get a person to promise to “do better next time.” Usually one of the reasons they fail is that they don’t have any clear idea of how to go about succeeding. The leader should help the person plan how to succeed. If there’s a plan it’s much easier to follow up and encourage him later.

But none of these things does any good unless the person himself has a real commitment. We can encourage a person to have that, but we can’t force a commitment on anyone. However, it’s a good idea to ask for one. Once a person has promised you to follow a certain plan, it is actually easier for him to do it. He does not feel that he is alone. He knows that there is someone else who cares very much if he does a good job or not. And he doesn’t want to let you down.

By using such a positive approach, it is often possible to help a person change without his feeling that he has been rebuked at all. “Rebukes” like this are usually seen the way they are meant: a hand of love extended to help a brother or sister who is faltering. Love will increase, not diminish, when such kindness is used in correcting people. It may take patience, and the process may need to be repeated many times, but if we rebuke a fellow Saint and then show forth “afterwards an increase of love,” he will know that our “faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.” (D&C 121:43–44.)