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The Gifts Conversation: It’s Not (Always) About Money

The Gifts Conversation: It’s Not (Always) About Money

Battling the 'deficiency perspective.'

"I’m glad I caught you. I wanted to tell you a story about your kids," began the principal of my third-grade twins’ Solomon Schechter school. And despite her casual tone, I suddenly stood erect, sucked in my stomach (as if that would help), and readied myself to hear an account that would require "a little chat" at home.

"So, Jacob and Sophie were playing basketball at recess together," she began.

(Recess? Ok, not usually a problem. Together? Hmmm…isn’t that why we chose a school with three third grade classes? For less "togetherness"? Togetherness for our kids is not next to Godliness – in fact, it’s in a coffee klatch with Madness, Boisterous and Riotous).

"And at some point, Jacob decided to sit it out. As he told me, ‘I have a SPLIT-ting headache’. He said it just like that."

(Dramatic. That’s my boy.)

She continued, "Every few layups, Sophie would come over to Jacob, who was sitting on the side."

(She probably wanted to show off how many points she was scoring. So competitive!)

"And at a certain point, Sophie stopped playing and sat down next to him."

(As in "All the better to hear you, my dear" I thought, channeling the wolf from Little Red Riding Hood.)

"That’s when Sophie put Jacob’s head in her lap, and starting gently rubbing his head."


"And she stayed with him, doing that, until the end of recess."

(Who was she talking about? Can this be true?)

It can be true. It was true. And what struck me the most is how all of these facets of my children can be true at the same time – loyalty and competitiveness, compassion and derision, family commitment and fierce independence. While I often fall into the habit of seeing my kids’ deficiencies (so I can fix them, of course), my children’s principal viewed them through a lens that focused on their gifts.

This isn’t just a parent trap. Chances are, you’ve found yourself at the office desperately trying to avoid having to work on a project with Dogmatic Dave. You might have walked counter-clockwise around the Kiddush table to circumvent Sensitive Sarah. Perhaps you’ve been ignoring Bombastic Ben’s repeated attempts to join your organization’s board (especially if you couldn’t readily assess his financial gifts). And if you’re like most people, you’ll find abundant support for your perspective.

But what does upholding the deficiency perspective cost us?

– It costs us time — long-held, ingrained flaws are not likely to disappear quickly.

– It costs us energy — focusing on failings is draining for all parties involved.

– It costs us trust – when was the last time you felt closer to someone who kept pointing out what they thought was wrong with you? Even if – especially if – they told you for "your own good"?

– It costs us progress. According to noted lecturer and organizational consultant Peter Block, author of "The Answer to How is Yes," the most effective way to gain leverage in our personal and workplace relationships is to focus on the gifts that each person brings and capitalize on those. Instead of "problematizing" people and work, we need to hold the most important and infrequent dialogue, the "Gifts Conversation", that yields the highest achievement and success in work and life.

Medieval Rabbi Yonah tells the story of an elderly sage who was walking along a path with his student when they passed a dog’s rotting corpse. The repulsed student yelled, "this corpse is so disgusting!" His Rabbi answered, "but what lovely white teeth it has!" This Rabbi knew how to have the Gifts Conversation — and how to teach it.

Whether you need a boost of self-assurance, want to bring more shalom to your home, motivate your team at work, or help your communal organization make the case for what’s flourishing rather than what’s flopping, use these 10 Gifts questions to bring to life what Peter Block, the Rabbi, and, in a blessing to my family, my kids’ principal already knew how to do:

1. What’s working for you right now?

2. What are your gifts and assets?

3. What comes most easily to you?

4. What’s the unique value that you bring to this relationship/organization/others?

5. What could I/we learn from you?

6. What do I/we misinterpret or misunderstand about you? How could I/we better understand you?

7. How can I/we best tap into your gifts?

8. What feeds and energizes you?

9. What gifts do you hold in exile that you’d like to welcome in?

10. How can you/we be doing more of what you were meant to do?

"The holy one created light out of darkness." (Leviticus Rabbah 31:8). And you can, too.

Deborah Grayson Riegel is a certified coach, speaker and trainer who helps individuals, teams and organizations achieve personal and professional success through her high-energy workshops, presentations and one-on-one coaching. Visit her online at or

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