The Games We Play

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We all spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to get people to do what we want them to do.  How can I make my boyfriend commit?  How do I get my kids to clean their rooms?  How do I stop that guy at work from coming in late every day?  There are so many different tactics that we attempt to use in order to get what we want.  We try to give someone “a taste of their own medicine” with the hopes that they’ll figure out how we feel.  We try to buy someone off, or punish them by giving them the cold shoulder.  There’s a million games that we play in relationships – and often they backfire.

For example, huge issues quickly arose when a dear friend of mine and I moved in together, but had never discussed what it meant to each of us to be roommates.  Her picture was that we would do everything together, and she was very upset to find that I carried on my life much as I had before we moved in together.  The angrier she got that I was leaving her out, the more frustrated I became that she was trying to control me.  Looking back, I realize that the whole situation could easily have been avoided if we’d actually had a conversation about our picture of what living together would look like, instead of us each lashing out and getting angry with each other.

One of the things that can really help prevent problems from arising in relationships of any kind is to have a clear understanding of the social contract which establishes the “rules” for the relationship.  When we actually make these rules explicit, it ensures that everyone is on the same page.  Often, the problems that arise are simply because there is a difference in expectations. 

I heard a story about the staff a daycare centre that was frustrated with parents who were picking up their children late.  They decided to implement a late fee – a certain amount for each minute the parent was late in picking up their child.  To their surprise, instead of solving their problem, it actually made it worse.  Instead of parents feeling like they needed to be there on time, parents felt that as long as they paid the fee, it was ok to be late now.  Daycare staff and parents had very different pictures of how the relationship was going to work.  How different might this have turned out if instead of implementing the fee, the daycare staff had simply talked to the parents about how important it was to have the children picked up on time so that staff were not working overtime and being forced to miss out on their own family obligations? 

How often do conflicts happen in life because we just haven’t really talked?  Instead of playing games, trying to understand and be understood? 

This IS My Job

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I used to get frustrated about how much time got wasted in my workplace.  People would interrupt me when I was working to chat about the weekend, or things going on in their lives.  I welcomed the odd storm day that forced me to work from home, as I could get so much accomplished when I was able to work without all those distractions.

But if you really want to talk about efficiency, email has been an amazing time saver.  I’m part of a diminishing group of people who used to work before there was such a thing as email.  Looking back, it’s mind boggling to think of how much longer it took us to do business when you actually had to catch someone on the phone to talk.  I can fire off a dozen emails in the time it used to take me to make one phone call.  And when things had to be done by phone, you couldn’t just get straight down to business either – that would seem rude.  So you had to do the small talk, chit-chat thing before moving on to your real reason for the call.  What a massive waste of time!

Except that it wasn’t.

I’ve seen good ideas wither on the vine because people could not work together to make them happen.  I’ve seen how simple tasks can become incredibly complex because people are playing games, or don’t want to put in any effort for someone they feel doesn’t respect them.   

I appreciate now that everything about work is really about people.  Without relationships, very little happens efficiently.  Differences of opinion do not turn into battles or become personal attacks when opposing sides know and respect each other.  Good ideas can turn into great ones when people go the extra mile with their contributions to a project. 

So I’ve changed my tune.  Spending time building relationships does not interfere with my work.  It is my work.  Although I still appreciate the time saving that things like email have brought, I’m also aware that I need to attend to the people I work with – not just our tasks.  After all, belonging is a basic human need, and without it, things go off kilter. 

I heard a great line recently that I think sums this idea up very well:  We need to loiter with intent.  We need to hang out with people, get to know them, build relationships.  Sure – it can be a break from work, but remember – it’s not a waste of time. 

How To Truly Help

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I’ve been working my way through a really cool course… it’s all about how those of us who work with Indigenous people can cultural safety in our practice.  I have to admit, I was skeptical about how painful it might be to do an online course – but it’s really well done, and I’ve quite enjoyed it  If you are interested, you can learn more about it here.

However, it’s not to plug this course that has led me to this post today.  I had a bit of an “aha” moment when I was working my way through a section today that I really wanted to share.

They were talking specifically about the experience of Indigenous people with the health care system, and how so many times, people’s different experiences, perspectives and beliefs are not valued.  The comment was made that we should not approach Aboriginal people as if we know what’s best for them.  The importance of listening, and working to understand where a person is coming from and what is important to them is key in truly helping a person.  For example, it’s easy to tell a person that they should be eating a healthier diet, but without listening, you might not find out the challenges of doing so in a remote community where fresh fruit and vegetables are not readily available or financially reasonable to purchase.

What struck me is that this is really true for every person in a helping relationship.  It’s so easy to think that we have all the answers and know what’s best for a person.  But each person is truly unique – with a different balance of basic needs, and different preferences about how to achieve these needs.  What works for me to fill my need for connection with others may totally backfire for someone else.  The things that make me feel powerful and like I can make a difference in the world are not the same as they are for others.  My idea of fun and freedom is not skydiving out of an airplane – but it is for many other people.

Yet, it’s so easy when we are working with people to make judgments and think we know the answers to people’s struggles.  I know I catch myself all the time thinking “If only this person would….”, without really honoring the fact that whatever they are doing they are doing for a reason.  If only I was able to slow down and explore the reasons, perhaps I could be a better helper….

Perhaps those of us in the helping professions need to ask ourselves – are we simply telling people what to do, or are we seeking to truly understand and help people find what’s right for them?

 

 

Our Amazing Brains

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I LOVE this time of year. There is nothing I find more inspiring than an early morning bike ride. The world is still asleep, everything is calm, the air is fresh, and the view amazing as the sun creeps over the horizon in a million shades of colour. I feel strong and healthy with the physical exertion.

And then suddenly – WHAM! My front bike tire kicked up a huge stone, which hit me directly in the eye! I didn’t even see it coming! End to that peaceful, picture-perfect scene.

After the initial shock and realizing I was fine, I started thinking about what an amazing thing the human brain is. Because even though I had no conscious awareness of this thing flying towards my face, somehow my body knew enough to blink. Imagine how ugly this could have been if that stone had hit me in the eyeball!

It’s so cool that our brains have developed this ability to protect ourselves. We don’t have to stop to process and think about what to do. Our reflexes just kick in and defend us from harm.

The thing is, sometimes this wonderfully adaptive feature backfires on us. I think about the many students I’ve worked with over the years who lived in situations of constant fear. Their brains were always on high alert. And their reflexes were firing like crazy to try to shield them from danger.

These kids were in constant “fight or flight” mode. They would either shut down completely or strike out. And often they were labelled with such terms as uncooperative, non-compliant, bully, or violent. The adult response to these labels? Frustration, anger, punishment.

While I am a huge believer that the one thing that we truly control is how we choose to behave in any given situation, I do believe that there are some behaviours that are not chosen. I didn’t choose to blink – my brain kicked into auto-pilot to protect me.

And sometimes I believe that students’ behaviours are no more chosen than my blinking. They are the body’s response to danger.

And instead of creating safety for that child so that they can begin to relax and get in conscious control of themselves again, the labels we attach to them often serve to make them feel even more threatened.

What can you do today to help create the safety that your most at-risk students so desperately need?

Comparing Pain

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It was a really long day at work. There was a million people all demanding my attention at once. There were deadlines looming that I couldn’t envision possibly reaching. The computer wasn’t cooperating, and I couldn’t figure out why nothing would load properly. Couldn’t anything just go right?

And to top it off, I had an hour long commute after this crummy work day was complete. By the time I got home, I had a pounding headache and I still had to deal with a disaster of a kitchen before I could even start thinking about preparing some kind of sustenance for supper. By the time the family was fed and watered, I was thoroughly exhausted. What a day! My poor husband got an earful that night about all the stress that I was feeling!

Ever have one of those days?

Don’t we all?

Now, I know that I have a lot to be grateful for. I live in an amazing country, with amazing freedoms, and amazing opportunities. I am blessed with a fantastic family and a group of incredible friends. I love my job. I have a beautiful home. I have a wonderful life.

I am not fighting cancer. I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is coming from. I don’t have to live in fear for my life because of political unrest in my country. There are a million things that I take for granted every day.

But that doesn’t mean that sometimes I don’t just feel overwhelmed and tired.

This week, our Prime Minister’s wife expressed that she is overwhelmed and feels that she needs some additional help. And a whole firestorm of public outrage ensued about how someone who leads such a privileged life has no right to complain.

And then I thought about my day. Did I not have a right to feel the way I did?

I often have students come into my office that share the burdens they are living with, who feel they have no right to their pain because there are people much worse off in the world. I always tell them – it’s not fair to compare pain. Pain is pain. It hurts. If you break your arm, does it mean that you have no right to feel that pain because there are people in the world who have no arms?

Of course, it’s good to keep things in perspective. It does help keep me grounded to remember that I have much to give thanks for. I don’t want to turn into a person who chooses to be unhappy and wastes their life with constant complaining.

But at the end of the day, when it’s been a challenging one, it does ease my load to share my thoughts with someone who cares, and have them wrap their arms around me and tell me they understand, and that it will be ok.

When someone shares their load with you, do you validate their feelings, or tell them they have no right to feel that way?

Why Are We So Cruel?

A couple of events that hit the news recently left me incredibly sad at the cruelty that we humans can heap upon one another.  One was the tragic death of a young toddler in Austin, Manitoba who wandered off from his home and was found in a nearby stream.  And this week, the same thing happened when Fort McMurray, Alberta went up in flames.  In the midst of the most horrific experiences of their lives, other people pointed the finger and blamed the people involved for bringing these events upon themselves.

That mother should have been supervising her child more closely.

Its karma that the environment took down a city built upon the oil industry.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be in your darkest hour, and to see such hurtful comments being thrown around social media.  Does any mother want to do anything to cause the death of her child?  Does any person really want to endanger the survival of our planet?

Anyone who knows me well can attest to the fact that my hands are covered with scars from a never-ending series of kitchen knife mishaps.  Now, I know that knives are sharp.  I am more than aware of the consequences of not being careful while handling them.  But it still happens.  Why?  Because I believe that I can save the time of pulling out a cutting board and instead slice up an apple in my hand to calm a screaming toddler.  I think I can be safe and get things done quickly at the same time, and sometimes I make a mistake in judgement.  And I’m sure thankful when I need stitches that I’ve never had a doctor tell me that I deserve to be in pain.

People do the best that they can, and sometimes things just don’t go as planned.

But in both these recent tragedies, I don’t think this is even the issue.  It’s not that anyone made a mistake in judgement.  Bad things simply happen sometimes, no matter what you do.  Kids get away from their parents, no matter how watchful your eye.  Forest fires do not target anyone; they just burn.

So then why must people point fingers and blame instead of having compassion?  When I’m getting my fingers sewn up, the medical staff  are gentle with me and freeze my hand so I won’t feel anything as they make it all better.

I wonder if it has something to do with power.  We all need to feel a sense of control in our lives, and when we see these terrible things happen to others, it makes us afraid that perhaps we could be vulnerable too.  But if we can find some fault with the victims of tragedy and convince ourselves that they did something to deserve their pain, then it follows that as long as we make better choices, then we can make sure nothing like that ever happens to us.

Of course, it’s smart to be careful.  Don’t drive while drinking, be careful with electricity, ensure you have supplies in your home to manage a power outage.

But don’t for a second think that any of us our capable of controlling everything so perfectly that nothing bad can ever befall us.  Sometimes we misjudge.  And sometimes things happen to us that were beyond anyone’s control.

And when they do, wouldn’t the world be a better place if we could lift each other up when disaster strikes?

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Lessons from a Great Supervisor

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It’s always stressful when a supervisor that you have worked well with resigns.  Will the next person “get” you the way this one did?  Will you have the same synergy?  Will they understand and support you?

It’s high stakes.  Because having a supervisor that doesn’t support, understand and “get” you can turn an awesome job into a terrible one.

I’ve faced this situation numerous times in my career.  And on those occasions when things turn out well, it’s such a relief.  But regardless of whether the experience is positive or negative, I’ve learned a lot from watching these folks step into a new leadership role.  There’s the standard stuff about taking your time to learn about the system before making any radical changes or about the importance of getting to know everyone as a person and what their role is all about.  But one supervisor I had really stands out to me.

He was great.  Immediately, we connected.  He was always interested in my opinion on things, and seemed to really value what I said.  He made me feel smart.   He often told me that he had learned a lot from me.  He really built my confidence, and inspired me.  I would do anything for him.  He made me feel special… kind of like the teacher’s pet.

I had a teacher back in elementary school that made me feel this way too.  She used to give me secret gifts and cards with motivational messages.  I never told any of the other kids, because I didn’t want to make anyone feel bad that she liked me best.

It was years before I figured her out.  She did this for every one of her students.

And after a while, I noticed the same about this supervisor.  He made everyone feel important and valued.

Our team became highly motivated and effective because under his leadership, all our basic needs were met.  Obviously we felt belonging, because he made it clear that we were important to him.  Our power need was met because he constantly gave us messages that the work we were doing was important and valued.  He trusted us to make decisions and didn’t micromanage, fulfilling our freedom need.  And because we all liked him and had a good relationship, we had fun.  We did a lot of teasing and laughing together.

So often when someone enters a position of authority, it seems that their main concern is to demonstrate that they have the skills and talent to be the boss.  They feel the need to prove themselves.

How ironic that it’s actually when you shift the focus off of yourself and instead appreciate others that you become an awesome leader.

No matter what our job, all of us at some point find ourselves in a higher position in the hierarchy.  Think about how you interact with parents, the support staff, or the custodial staff.  And no matter what your position, we are always in a position of power with our students.

In these situations, do find that you more concerned with people recognizing your talents, or do you make a point of recognizing theirs?